Partial Victory! Students & Community Say No to Sweatshops

By Mary Lister

Under long-term pressure from students and community   members, Binghamton University Dining Services has finally agreed to stop purchasing supplies from the sweatshop company Reynolds! Students pledge to continue organizing until the boycott is campus-wide, extending to all university sub-contractors.

In 2011, workers at a Reynolds factory in New Jersey called a national boycott of the company due to its awful labor practices. Forced to work up to 84 hours a week in the hot factory, and punished for taking bathroom breaks, the workers experienced sweatshop conditions that are typical of Reynolds factories all over the country.

Since then, members of SOAR (Students Organizing Against Reynolds) have pushed the Binghamton University to stop purchasing from Reynolds until the company meets the demands of its workers. By allowing the school’s money to go to Reynolds, BU President Harvey Stenger has helped the company defy basic workers’ rights.

Long working hours are becoming the standard in more and more industries, even while unemployment is high. Why should some people be forced to work 84 hours a week, while so many others are out looking for a full-time job? Big bosses, the 1%, and Wall Street are the only winners when sweatshop conditions persist. The rest of us are stuck working long hours compromising our health and personal lives, or trying to survive without full-time   wages.

How did SOAR and the Binghamton community pressure BU?

As the president of BU, Stenger has a responsibility to stand with BU students when they say no to an economy of overwork and unemployment. But despite years of requests and petitions from SOAR and others, Stenger kept silent. In 2016, SOAR members increased pressure using new tactics.

The students began a weekly picket along the campus’ main walkway, “the spine,” to reach out to students and community members fact-to-face, hand out flyers, and gather signatures demanding a statement from Stenger. Week by week, news of the picket spread. More and more campus clubs signed on. Then the picket received the official support of local organizations, such as the Workers’ Center of the Southern Tier, Citizen Action of the Southern Tier, the Occupational Health Clinical Center of the Southern Tier, and the local chapter of the Working Families Party. The Broome-Tioga Green Party went a step beyond endorsement by deploying several members to the picket and petition. They also  sent a letter of support for the boycott directly to President Stenger. He replied immediately (something unheard to campus-based social justice advocates). Clearly, the growing community involvement on what he considered a campus issue concerned him.

After weeks of picketing on campus and an outpouring of community support for this effort to improve workers’ conditions, BU Dining Services (finally) agreed to stop purchasing Reynolds products.

Consistency plus community involvement means victory

This is a dramatic win for students and community members alike. Rick Sprout, a member of The Workers’ Center of the Southern Tier and the Broome-Tioga Green Party, credits SOAR’s consistency in organizing. In an interview, he told SOAR member Mary Lister, “One of the things that for me was so inspirational is the tenacity of your group. That you’ve been doing this since 2011…it’s a testament to long distance running versus sprinting.”

Jocelyne Jesenof, also a member of the local Green Party, agrees that “the long haul is very important.” She highlighted the importance of the picketing effort: “It’s very easy to click something on Facebook… It’s very important to be physically present somewhere.”

SOAR members and supporters do not especially enjoy standing in the cold on a picket line. They did not want to make a five-year struggle. The administration’s deafness forced these actions. But by showing up, and putting visible and consistent public pressure on the administration, students and community members overcame years of foot-dragging by formerly dismissive school officials.

The Fight Continues with subcontractors and local businesses

SOAR insisted throughout the drive for a boycott that it is more than a consumer campaign—it is a struggle for workers’ rights and the right of workers to control their time, on and off the clock. The students were able to bring in workers from different backgrounds and industries to the boycott because the loss of worker’s time and autonomy are general concerns for working people.

The fight continues. In some dining halls on campus, Reynolds products can still be found. Smaller vendors could also be using Reynolds, so there is still an urgent need for President Stenger to release a statement in support of a Reynolds-free campus and a sweatshop-free Binghamton.

But this victory gives SOAR members inspiration and strength to keep fighting. Although leading reluctantly, BU’s decision will pave the way for local businesses to take up the boycott as well. As Jocelyne Jesenof put it, the lesson of this campaign is that “by pushing, pushing, pushing, it can be done.” SOAR is encouraging community members and students everywhere to spread the boycott of Reynolds products to their campuses and communities.

To learn more about SOAR or to get involved, please check out our Facebook page, Students Organizing Against Reynolds (SOAR), or send us an email at soarbinghamton@gmail.com .

 

 

 

 

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