Published on Thursday, February 17, 2000 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
U of Wisconsin Students Pepper Sprayed During Wednesday Sit-In Over Sweatshops
by Sharif Durhams
MADISON - Several University of Wisconsin-Madison students were doused with pepper spray by campus police Wednesday during a sit-in at the chancellor's office to protest sweatshop conditions in factories that make Badger-licensed apparel.
More than 50 students took part in the protest, and about eight were sprayed while they unsuccessfully tried to push their way into Chancellor David Ward's office.
Earlier, about a half-dozen students made their way into Ward's office and chained themselves to each other. Dozens of other students remained in the hallway outside his office.
Students brought food into the chancellor's office and were prepared to spend the night as a part of the sit-in.
The protest, which began at about 2:30 p.m., is the latest dispute between the students and UW administration over how to prevent abuse of workers in factories that make Badger-licensed clothing.
Earlier this month, three students resigned from a task force that advises Ward on how the university should use its economic clout to pressure clothing manufacturers to make factories clean and safe and pay a living wage.
The students objected to Ward's decision that the university would remain allied with the Fair Labor Association, which critics say is too heavily influenced by apparel-makers. They want the university to become part of the Worker Rights Consortium, or WRC, a group developed by students in consultation with workers and human rights groups.
Five hours after the protest began, Ward, flanked by two officers and other administrators, told the demonstrators that the university would withdraw from the Fair Labor Association. Ward also pledged to monitor how many licensees of Badger apparel disclose the locations of the factories that make their apparel.
But he would not agree to join the Worker Rights Consortium. He said that group, established in October, had not set up enough of its guidelines and does not yet have the confidence of other university presidents.
"We all feel that there is some merit to the WRC, but none of us are in favor of unilaterally attachment to something that we don't understand yet," Ward said. "This process will take some time."
Ward said he would continue to talk to other university presidents about the WRC, but he would not be able to speak to the protesters again until Monday.
"I have prior engagements that make that impossible," he said.
About a half-dozen student leaders - chained to each other's necks with bicycle locks - sat in the chancellor's foyer and said they would stay there until more demands were met.
During the protest, campus police officers doused a group of students with pepper spray when the students tried to follow the officers into a back door to Ward's office.
The students tried to push the door open against the force of the officers. When those students tried to use shoes, an umbrella and a wooden board to pry open the door, officers sprayed them. The students retaliated by spraying a fire extinguisher into the office, but they had to clear the area when the spray became too strong. There were no serious injuries.
"Last year, we demanded that they take a stand," said Nolen Johnson, a sophomore who had to clear some of the pepper spray from his eyes. "This year, we're actually demanding that they act on that stand that they took."
A similar protest took place Wednesday in Ann Arbor, Mich., where about 20 University of Michigan students occupied a dean's office.
The 20 students, members of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, began a sit-in at 10 a.m. in the office of the dean of Literature, Sciences and Arts.
On Tuesday, University of Pennsylvania students seeking better work conditions for makers of school-related clothing ended an eight-day sit-in after school officials agreed to pull out of the FLA.
Copyright 2000 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel