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Students should proudly sport union-made Hawkeye apparel

BY TERESA CHENG - GUEST OPINION | NOVEMBER 17, 2010 7:20 AM

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Years of activism by garment-worker unionists and students organizing with United Students Against Sweatshops have paid off, as new union-made, living-wage Alta Gracia hoodies and T-shrits have hit the University of Iowa Bookstore for the first time.

Come hear from Yenny Perez, a worker in the new factory, about how college apparel made under fair working conditions has changed her and her coworkers' lives at 7 p.m. today in 335 IMU.

Alta Gracia is an uplifting new model for an industry plagued by the "race to the bottom" that chips away at workers' rights in order to maximize profits. With the support of their union and the independent sweatshop monitor, the Worker Rights Consortium, to which the University of Iowa is affiliated, workers at Alta Gracia have been able to achieve a living-wage pay rate — more than 3.5 times the legal minimum wage in the Dominican Republic free-trade zones — based on a cost-of-living study conducted together with workers. This includes food, housing, access to health care, transport, childcare, school fees, and modest savings.

Parent company Knights Apparel, the leading manufacturer of college apparel in the United States, sells the union-made, living-wage college gear in contemporary styles and premium quality at no increased cost to consumers, accepting worker dignity as the bottom line for doing business.

This salario digno, or living wage, is having a widespread effect across the Villa Altagracia community. Workers have been able to pay off debt, buy more nutritious food, and invest in building more secure homes. "Alta Gracia has given my family the chance for a better education — and the factory even has a daycare free of cost where my 4-year old can play while I'm working," Perez said.

Spurred by the flow of higher wages, restaurants have reopened to greet the factory lunch rush, brand-new moto taxis scoot workers to and from work, and businesses are popping up across town.

Things have not always been so easy in Villa Altagracia.

The project's existence is a tribute to a history of fierce organizing in factories producing apparel bearing the Hawkeye logo. Workers and students pressuring their universities — especially United Students Against Sweatshops activists at the UI — fought hard to support workers producing college-logo baseball caps at Nike-supplier BJ&B. But by 2007, Nike shut down the unionized factory, and the community suffered severe economic depression. It separated families, as the single mothers who formerly worked at BJ&B were forced to migrate away from Villa Altagracia or to the U.S. in order to put food on the table for their children.

By 2010, Knights Apparel had taken note of wide support for United Students Against Sweatshops campaigns. In a revolutionary business move, Knights met student and worker demands for fair pay, decent working conditions, and union representation when it reopened the doors of the BJ&B building as the Alta Gracia factory, reuniting the families and community of former BJ&B unionists once again.

At its prime, BJ&B employed 3,500 workers; Alta Gracia currently employs 133, so student and UI support for this project is crucial to its survival and expansion.

"The success of my factory, Alta Gracia, depends on whether students prove that they'd rather buy a sweatshirt knowing that it was made in fair working conditions and not in sweatshops," Perez said.

Teresa Cheng is a national organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops. For more information or to get involved, e-mail organize@usas.org.


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