Students Against Sweatshops By Liza Featherstone and United Students Against Sweatshops

Review by Susan Chenelle

In this worthy primer on one of the major players in the anti-sweatshop movement, journalist Liza Featherstone does a very good job of distilling the history of United Students Against Sweatshops and the conflicts and tensions that have challenged it along the way, both from within and without. Perhaps best of all, she supplements her very readable narrative with poignant accounts contributed by both student and worker activists, documenting particular campaigns and tactics, some even written from within occupied campus buildings, corporate megastores and Mexican maquiladoras.

While recognizing the significant impact USAS has had on corporations and colleges across the country and around the world, Featherstone, a frequent contributor to The Nation, Newsday and the Washington Post, also forthrightly addresses the serious obstacles that have threatened the movement’s development. USAS and other groups have come under fire for fighting on behalf of workers in sweatshops thousands of miles away while neglecting those at home. Many critics have also pointed out that the social justice movement is largely comprised of white, highly privileged college students, who tend to marginalize issues concerning race, class and gender and fail to realize that all forms of repression and exploitation are integrally connected. Featherstone correctly acknowledges that USAS and its counterparts have taken strides to remedy these weaknesses, particularly by adding living wage campaigns to their focus, but she often seems willing to interpret any initiative, however isolated, as a sign that such barriers are being overcome. While such hopefulness is welcome, and necessary, it could be construed not only as overly optimistic, but also as an example of the dismissiveness toward race, class and gender issues that the movement itself is often accused of. In any case, it reveals how fragile the ties of solidarity that are critical to future of the global justice movement still are.

Overall, the tone throughout this slim volume is very measured and journalistic, neither too dire or desperate nor too hopeful or ambitious. While the absence of impassioned rhetoric is generally quite refreshing, it is also frustrating, as larger considerations, such as what’s at stake and the state of the global justice movement at large, are left untouched. The realities of the post-September 11 world are not even mentioned until the conclusion, and then only given cursory speculation. This omission seems rather odd, since the implications of activism and dissent after September 11 will deeply impact the future of USAS and similar organizations. But a thorough discussion of this new, rapidly changing, reality, while crucial, is understandably beyond the scope of this book. “Students Against Sweatshops,” though an important testament to the accomplishments of an extraordinary organization, is only the first chapter. More significantly, it’s a reminder that “keeping our eyes on the prize” means not only watching where we’re going, but also remembering where we’ve been.

(Originally published in the November/December 2002 issue of Clamor Magazine.)

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Author: schenelle

High school teacher of English and journalism. Co-author of Using Informational Text to Teach literature series.

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