Labor standards on the agenda at Community Council meeting

By
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Despite student onlookers holding bright orange signs urging the Brown University Community Council at its meeting Tuesday to “support the Designated Suppliers Program,” it was President Ruth Simmons who ultimately injected some urgency into an otherwise sedate discussion of the fledgling national effort to guarantee labor standards in factories producing college apparel.

Expressing concern that waiting until February or later for the Department of Justice to weigh in on the DSP’s legality before the University takes a stand “doesn’t show any leadership,” Simmons urged a working group on the DSP to set aside legal issues, focus on the merits of the program itself and return with a recommendation next month. Her sentiments met with applause from the 20 or 30 sign-bearing members of the Student Labor Alliance in attendance.

Simmons’ remarks followed a presentation from the working group members Sarah Adler-Milstein ’08, Katie Parella ’07 and Vice President for Administration Walter Hunter. Thirty-eight schools nationwide have pledged some degree of support for the program, Parella told the council, but Brown is not among them.

The BUCC – an advisory board designed to provide a forum for various campus constituencies to consider issues facing the University – also briefly discussed the reassessment of the Plan for Academic Enrichment and a student’s concerns about the potential destruction or relocation of the Urban Environmental Laboratory.

But the DSP debate dominated the agenda. Hunter, Adler-Milstein and Parella first briefed the council on the national debate surrounding the DSP, and SLA representatives Susan Beaty ’10 and Dani Martinez ’10 urged the council to recommend the University throw its support behind the program.

The DSP is designed as a collaborative effort among U.S. colleges and universities to better ensure that school apparel is manufactured in factories that uphold certain standards, including adhering to a code of conduct that prohibits abuse, overwork and other labor violations; paying workers a “living wage” to cover family costs associated with food, clothing and education; and giving workers the freedom to unionize, Adler-Milstein told the council.

It is “pretty widely accepted” that current oversight models for labor practices among apparel suppliers are inadequate, Adler-Milstein said. Currently, “factories who do the right thing and prioritize compliance with these models are the first to close,” and there is “a lack of incentives for positive change in the industry,” she added.

The DSP is designed to provide those active incentives, she said.

The 38 current signed supporters of the program have committed to various degrees, Hunter told the council, and Parella said 90 percent of the nation’s largest schools have not signed on – including none of the ten largest.

Adler-Milstein and Parella also presented the central questions in the current debate surrounding the likely effectiveness and advisability of the program, voicing the viewpoints of both critics and supporters on each point.

These issues of contention, they said, included the DSP’s requirement that licensed apparel companies adhere to “fair pricing standards” to ensure factories have the resources to uphold new requirements, a stipulation that approved factories must produce a majority of their products for the collegiate market and the likely effect on consumer prices. Supporters believe prices will only rise by 1 to 3 percent and have little effect on demand, Adler-Milstein said, while Parella said critics indicate price increases and demand effects will be significantly greater.

Another question, on which the national movement is awaiting an opinion from the Department of Justice, is whether the program violates federal anti-trust legislation, Adler-Milstein and Parella said.

Any opinion from the Department of Justice would be expected in “January, February, early spring,” Parella said.

Upon concluding their presentation, Hunter, Adler-Milstein and Parella yielded time to Martinez and Beaty to explain that group’s support for the program.

They said that “grim conditions” in factories have produced a “desperate need” for such a program, and that contrary to critics’ concerns, the DSP represents an “enforceable and sustainable” solution to those problems. They urged the BUCC to recommend Brown support the program.

Discussion among committee members initially focused on the question of legality, and Hunter said the working group did not plan to ask the BUCC to weigh in on the debate until the program’s legality had been addressed at the national level. But Simmons said that focus seemed ill-placed – and a concern best left to the University’s lawyers.

“On the moral issue,” Simmons said, “I would think we would want to comment on that and let the people who worry about (legal issues) worry about that.”

That drew statements of support from some council members, including Geoffrey Greene, associate director for database and production services at Computing and Information Services.

“I think it’s a good program, and we should support it,” Greene said. “If people are being abused as workers in these factories, I think we should go for it.”

Clay Wertheimer ’10, also a council member, agreed. If Brown has concerns about the DSP as it is currently envisioned, he said, “the best way to solve that problem is to be involved sooner with the working group rather than later.”

(Not yet having signed on to the DSP, the presenters told the council, Brown sends representation to meetings of the national DSP working group, but to observe and not to actively participate.)

Simmons concluded the discussion by urging Hunter, Adler-Milstein and Parella to have the working group come to some conclusions about “what our role should be” in the DSP movement, then “try to come back with some statement and not wait until February.”

Simmons said she was “very impressed with the presentation and the depth of knowledge” the group displayed and that “all of that, brought to bear, should be able to produce something that we can hang our hats on.”

The committee also heard from Sarah Clark ‘08.5, an environmental sciences concentrator who expressed concern about the recent decision by the University to build the new Mind Brain Behavior Building on the current site of the Urban Environmental Lab, an old converted carriage house that currently houses the Center for Environmental Studies.

In addition to being “proud” of the hands-on student involvement that converted the building into one of the campus’ most energy efficient, Clark said, she was concerned that there is not input from students, especially those whose departments are affected, about building decisions.

Simmons, Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98, and Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president, sympathized with the student’s concerns.

“The problem is also that there are particular groups that probably need to be brought into the discussion on particular sites,” Simmons said, adding that the handling of the UEL decision was unfortunate because it was a surprise for the students affected. “The idea of having much more student involvement in this process is a good one.”

With the meeting’s scheduled end time rapidly approaching, Spies provided an accelerated summary of the first five years of the Plan for Academic Enrichment, Simmons’ wide-ranging blueprint for raising the University’s academic profile.

Under the plan, which was first laid out in 2002 and officially approved in 2004, Brown has significantly expanded the size of its faculty, introduced a need-blind admission policy and embarked on an aggressive spate of building projects.

The BUCC presentation was part of an ongoing effort to collect feedback from standing University advisory committees, with the goal of presenting the reassessment’s findings to the Corporation at its meeting in February.

One question Spies posed was whether the University had missed “something big” in its original plans. Simmons was the first to offer an example, saying that after returning from a summit of university presidents on the issue, she believed climate change would command the University’s attention in coming years.

“In this area we might be well-advised to put more energy – if I may use that term – behind this effort, because it’s taken hold in a much deeper way than I think we know,” Simmons said, her inadvertent pun drawing laughs.

“I second that as something that the student body has tremendous support for,” said Undergraduate Council of Students President Michael Glassman ’09, a council member who is also active in student environmental group emPOWER.

Council member David Bloom ’71 suggested that in the future the plan might allow alums to take “a more formative role” than simply providing donations to fund it.

Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs and University relations and a member of the council, asked whether there was a fixed end date by which the University could assess whether specific actions of the plan had been completed. The question drew an enthusiastic response from Simmons and Spies.

Spies said the University took “the direct opposite approach” and emphasized the process the plan represents, which the current reassessment exemplified.

“Any specific plan has a useful life, but the planning process … shouldn’t change, at least not quickly,” Spies said. “What we should be doing is taking moments like these and extending the plan out.”

Simmons agreed, saying the plan was most valuable because it was “open,” and created bodies like the BUCC itself to “invite comment” on University priorities. The real point of the plan is to ingrain an effective deliberative process that would survive into future generations of University leadership, she said.

Out of time, the council postponed a planned presentation from the Transportation and Parking Task Force.