GREEN YOUR SCHOOL: NYU’s Student & Labor Action Movement

As students start getting ready to go back to school, some of them are also getting ready to embark upon a new year of greening their campuses. Green America editorial fellow Sari Amiel discovered five inspiring examples of how students are making their campuses more socially just and environmentally sustainable. Every Monday and Wednesday from August 14th through August 27th, we’ll post one of Sari’s stories here on our blog.

A USAS "speak-out" demonstration marked the six-month anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse.

A USAS “speak-out” demonstration marked the six-month anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse.

When New York University’s Student & Labor Action Movement (SLAM) is not actively influencing its university’s policies, the group is opening students’ eyes to the abuses that foreign and domestic laborers face on a regular basis.

Each year, SLAM works on three to four major projects. Its labor committee alternates between protesting local injustices and participating in national campaigns that United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), of which SLAM is a chapter, organizes.

“Difficult working conditions is a universal issue,” says junior Anne Falcon. “We work on international solidarity campaigns, which just show how everything is interconnected… Fighting issues here [in New York] reverberates around the world.”

This past year, SLAM worked on USAS’ End Deathtraps campaign. This movement arose in response to the collapse of the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza factory, which caused 1,137 deaths. Just prior to the building’s collapse, garment workers had been ordered to return to their stations even after local police had deemed the building unsafe.

As part of the campaign, SLAM asked NYU’s administration to change its Labor Code of Conduct, which outlines its clothes suppliers’ responsibilities, so that these companies are required to sign The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This Accord is a legally binding document that requires retailers to take meaningful steps to improve workers’ safety at their supplier factories.

SLAM also organized a die-in as part of the campaign.  In this event, students laid in the hallway outside a meeting of the University Senate, which has both student and faculty members. After persuading the University Senate to pass a resolution in favor of changing the Code of Conduct, the group sang carols about workers’ rights outside the president’s office.

On May 1, the End Deathtraps fight continued with SLAM’s four-hour sit-in at the university’s Gould Welcome Center. The group urged NYU to stop purchasing JanSport merchandise due to the sweatshops that VF Corporation, its parent company, does business with in Bangladesh. SLAM was granted a meeting with university officials, and, five days later, NYU stated that it would stop placing orders with JanSport unless it and VF signed the Accord. For Falcon, this sit-in was the most difficult event to plan and participate in.

“Our plan was to occupy the Welcome Center for as long as it took to get a meeting with administrative officials, so we might have stayed over the entire weekend,” says Falcon. “They might have locked us in, because it was on a Friday.”

Following these actions, NYU did change its Code of Conduct, and it now requires the companies that make its logo apparel to sign the Accord.

Previously, SLAM participated in a USAS-led campaign against Adidas, which it alleged had neglected to pay severance to 2,800 workers that it laid off in Indonesia. This campaign was won nationally in April of 2013, after 17 universities, not including NYU, ended their contracts with Adidas, forcing the company to pay the severance.

On the local front, SLAM has a student debt committee, which is asking NYU to impose a 10-year freeze on tuition and increase the value of financial aid packages by 25 percent. Students voiced these demands in a protest that they staged during NYU President Sexton’s State of the University speech.

“NYU has the worst history of student debt in the history of higher education,” says Falcon. “We want our university, and every university in the country, by extension, to provide more resources for the students, as well as a more democratic means of resource distribution.”

Recently, SLAM achieved a victory in another of its ongoing local campaigns. SLAM claimed a member of the Board of Trustees at NYU Law School violated the rights of employees in his nursing home business by decreasing their vacation and sick days, raising the price of their healthcare, locking out workers, and preventing union formation. SLAM wanted him to resign from the Board, and he did so in May of 2014.

“We’ve had a really good track record,” says Falcon. “We’ve won a lot of our campaigns. So it just sort of happens that we’ve had to start new campaigns pretty much every year, which is fantastic.”

Which is remarkable considering the group is never granted an audience with the NYU president. Instead, it works with a school official whose designated job is to handle SLAM’s requests.

“[The administration can be] very unreceptive until we significantly escalate the pressure from our campaigns,” says Falcon. “The best way to apply pressure is by…getting more people [involved and] having actions in more public places, somewhere that everyone will see.”

SLAM has been featured in Democracy Now and The Nation, and the Huffington Post mentioned two of SLAM’s campaigns in its list of “the 25 Best Progressive Victories of 2013.”

—Sari Amiel

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