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Buy union-made college apparel — here at the UI

BY GUEST OPINION | MARCH 02, 2011 7:20 AM

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Alta Gracia is the first-ever factory making college apparel that truly respects its workers’ rights by paying them a living wage and giving them a voice on the job. For more than a decade, workers in Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic, have fought for fair working conditions in garment factories. At Alta Gracia, workers have organized a strong, independent union and can support themselves and their families with wages three times the legal minimum wage. Beginning this school year, Alta Gracia T-shirts and sweatshirts are sold at more than 300 colleges and universities across the United States, and we can be proud to know that the University of Iowa is one of them.

On Feb. 25, a coalition of students, faculty, and community activists met with management of the University Bookstore to discuss future plans for promoting Alta Gracia apparel. The delegation presented letters and petitions of support from UE Local 896-COGS (graduate-student employee union), Economic Human Rights Organization, Amnesty International, Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance support, and more than 100 members of the university and Iowa City communities. This effort was part of a National Anti-Sweatshop Week of Action headed by United Students Against Sweatshops, in which students across the country met with university bookstores asking them to source Alta Gracia apparel and affiliate with the Workers Rights Consortium. Iowa City students and community members believe that Alta Gracia is a pinnacle opportunity for the UI to lead the community in social responsibility, and they hope that the bookstore and students together can educate the campus about the importance of unions and living wages in apparel.

Alta Gracia’s “living wage” allows workers, for the first time, to provide their families with a pathway out of poverty — nutritious food, decent housing, adequate health care, transportation, education for their children, and peace of mind.

“We never had the opportunity to make wages like this before. I feel blessed,” said Santa Castillo, an Alta Gracia factory worker in a New York Times profile story.

The project’s existence is a tribute to a legacy of student activism on campus. In 2003, workers and United Students Against Sweatshops activists at the UI and across the country fought hard to demand union rights for workers producing college-logo baseball caps for Nike at Yoopong Corp.’s BJ&B factory, and workers established the first ever unionized garment factory in a free trade zone in all of the Caribbean. Unfortunately, by 2007, the factory shut down as corporations pulled orders out of the factory and Yoopong went in search of ever cheaper labor on foreign shores, leaving more than 3,000 workers without means to feed their families. The Villa Altagracia community suffered severe economic depression. Families were separated as single mothers who formerly worked at BJ&B were forced to migrate from Villa Altagracia or to the United States to support their children; some women even suffered as victims of trafficking. Though set back, student activists would not forget their solidarity with the workers of Villa Altagracia.

Now, it’s up to UI students, sports fans, and alumni to stand in solidarity with workers at the other end of the supply chain by purchasing Alta Gracia apparel and wearing their UI colors with a new kind of pride.

Audrey Coleman is thelabor-solidarity chairwoman ofUE Local 896-Campaign to Organize Graduate Students.


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