Emily Squires/Brian Teaman "Activism" Interview September, 2002

Q1. Could you tell me what "SOLE" is? Is that how you say it?
A1. Yes. "SOLE": Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality. Uh... one of the first debates when it was started was whether our acronym should be "Sole" or "SOLE" and we thought "SOLE" had a lot more punch to it. Uh... it was started in 1998 by some of the kids on this campus. It is an affiliate chapter of United Students Against Sweat Shops, which is a national Um... a national organization with about 200 groups like SOLE at different college campuses all across the country, and basically we deal with issues, um... working with local labor issues, such as our unions, uh... the workers on campus, and, uh... anti-sweatshop stuff, because we're a major public university with a lot of apparel that's produced in places very far away. So those are sort of the two main things that we do, but, I mean, we're definitely still tapped into our campus community, and we're connected to a national network at the same time.
Q2. So tell me a little more specifically about what the connection is between a sweatshop in Indonesia, or somewhere else, and the campus here.
A2. Um... well, sometimes the sweatshops aren't necessarily always in Indonesia. Our, uh... baseball caps, last year one of the campaigns we worked on dealt with a sweatshop in Derby, New York. They had uh... the New Era Cap Company factory had a um... exclusive contract with Major League Baseball and, golf tour, PGA um... I don't know what the "P" stands for: "professional golf tour", I suppose. And um... but about 5% of their production was baseball caps for about... most of the Big 10 schools, but about a hundred major universities and, um... the workers went on strike due to health and safety violations. and asked students at the schools' whose hats are being made by New Era to pressure their administrations to cut the contract. To uh... basically to use our power to, uh... put some pressure on management, because they weren't uh... bargaining in good faith.
Q3. What was going on, in particular, at New Era that bothered people here?
A3. Um... There were pretty nasty health and safety violations: puncture wounds, something like 15 times the industry standards. Um... their contract was coming up to expire, I believe, and, uh, the management had asked them to take, you know, a $4 dollar pay cut, which, when you're only making $9 bucks an hour, it's a pretty big chunk of change. Um... One of the things, when I spoke with the president of the union there, one thing she said one of their biggest mistakes was they basically told the workers that they weren't doing a good job, and um... this is basically the only job in town. pretty much everyone works for the factory, and you have women their who've been working 15 plus years, and you're going to tell them that "you're not doing a good job and we're going to slash your wages by $4 bucks, in addition to not taking caring of your health and your safety," um... it didn't go over so well. Um... so they organized with the Communications Workers of America and, um... went on strike, because the the management was also not, um... responding to their needs for a union. They didn't... they weren't unionized, and so which is why all of those, uh... violations were happening. Um... so they organized and won, basically.
Q4. So you talked about the New Era campaign you worked on last year. What was the other one?
A4. The other campaign we worked on last year involved our Graduate Employees Organization, which is the union here on campus that represents about 80% of our graduate student instructors, our GSI's, and um...
Q. What's GSI?
A. Graduate Student Instructor
A. and their contract, their their contracts last for 3 years with the administration and their contract was running out in January. Uh... they had been initiating conversations with the administration at the beginning of last year, just about some some adjustments to their contract, things like, um... issues about child care, issues about, um... more standardized training for all graduate student instructors, uh... protection against bottom-line budgeting, um...
A5. But what happened is: the university kept stalling and wasn't um... wasn't really participating in fair bargaining. Um... and so GEO, or the Graduate Employees Organization decided to have a "walk out," a one-day strike to show some muscle and, uh... what SOLE did is we organized undergraduate support for the walk out. So we went around to all sorts of different classes and spoke to about two thousand other undergrad students to tell them about what was going on, because in the past when GEO has had to do something like this, there has never been a lot of undergraduate support and it's always the attitude of "ugh, you know? my grad-student instructor they're just complaining and I pay money to come here and they're aren't going to teach my class! What's up with that? "So we took on the responsibility of educating our peers, um... and convincing them to walk out, basically. We got... we convinced um... we had about three thousand students, undergrads, walk out and not go to class on... it was Monday... it was a Monday, and then we had about three hundred students show up and walk the picket-lines with our GSIs. Um... and it was amazing. Um... and then we did an action again... that was on a Monday, and we did an action again later that week. There... they had... after the strike the administration and a bargaining team went back into talks and things were going really well, except the administration was just, sort of, stuck on child-care and was just not budging. So on Friday morning a bunch of us had gotten... we had gotten a call Thursday night about "we need some help," you know... "we need help, we need more pressure." So Friday morning we dumped 168 diapers on the floor of our president's office. We snuck in the administration building at 8am and dumped the diapers on his floor just to remind him that we cared about the children of our Graduate Student Instructors, their 168 kids. So we dropped that many diapers on his floor and left. And the next day they agreed to childcare and their contract was signed and they won, and we won, and it was great.
Q6. Felt good to be part of making a change happen?
A6. Definitely! I mean, that's part of the... of the reasons why I joined SOLE, was because it is, um... all of this, I mean... both campaigns had to be ran last year. Both won. Um, but... even when things don't necessarily go right it is still... it's important to me to know, and to feel connected to other students who are working for progressive change and, who are... I mean... and they're... you know, we do a lot of stuff on this campus, but we're part of a bigger movement that isn't just about labor issues, it's about environment... the environment, it's about education, it's about health care, um... it's all part of the same fight.