BUHS Is Second High School In Country To Join WRC

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Date of publication: May 16, 2006

Source: iBrattleboro.com

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Brattleboro Union High School has became the second high school in the nation to begin the affiliation process with the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC). The BUHS school board voted 6-3 in favor of motion to allow the student organization CLEA (Child Labor Education and Action) to begin drafting a letter of affiliation and a Code of Conduct at Monday's meeting.

Getting there wasn't so easy.

An early count revealed about 40 citizens in the audience. The meeting began late to accommodate the large number of citizens arriving.

David Dunn, the board chairperson, called the meeting to order at 7:05 pm, with all members in attendance except for Lynn Corum, who was allowed to participate by speakerphone, and about 60 people now in the growing audience.

"This is the largest audience we've had since the budget meeting, maybe even bigger," Dunn began.

The board approved minutes from the last meeting, then took up CLEA and the WRC. The audience was told to limit their remarks to three minutes, and were invited to come address the board.

First up was Daryl Pillsbury, a state representative from Brattleboro. "It's a good day when high school students stand for something. I support this effort. I believe in buying locally and supporting products made in the USA. I'm here tonight for the kids who stand for something. I would like us to be the first high school to join the WRC."

Applause from the crowd, now up to 80 or so. ”Please refrain from applause," said Dunn. "Did you read the entire agreement, or are you supporting the group?"

Pillsbury said he had read some of the proposal and supported the group.

Sara --, the president of CLEA, then took center stage. "We think this is a way for students to bridge the economic gap between those who make the clothes and those who buy them." She introduced a guest speaker, globalization expert and professor of International Studies at Clark University, Robert Ross.

"It's an honor to be here discussing this," he began, praising Vermont in general.

He said that he had spent years researching and writing about labor. "There were 440,000 sweatshops in the United States when I began". Sixty percent of clothing manufacturers are law violators, he said, but it was heartening that united students against sweatshops emerged.

"The WRC," the professor said "is comprised of 154 colleges and universities. They agree to a code of conduct, which is a model that can be altered. It uses the power of contract law to produce fair working conditions."

He said that clothes are made by contractors working for design companies, like Champion. "BUHS buys uniforms, so the opportunity is open to you in your contracts to set conditions."

"This is no more political than the Better Business Bureau," he added. "The WRC does the investigating. It doesn't require you to break any existing contracts. Indeed, the goal is to improve conditions, not close factories."

The professor said that this approach had proven to be effective. "I did the research and it is effective in getting clean water, food without worms in it, ending sexual harassment in workplaces, and even getting workers better pay."

He then had some unfortunate news to relay. "Just before I came in here I heard that a Chicago High School has joined." Mild groans from the audience of now about 100, realizing Brattleboro wouldn't have the distinction of being first.

The lecture continued. "This is the start of a larger 'ethical marketplace.' Factories survive when sticking to standards. It's like living wage laws. The ethical marketplace needs to expand. I'm a professor and I can talk all night about this..."

David Dunn called for questions from board members.

Shaun Murphy asked if the code of conduct could be made more simple, since BUHS didn't have licensing agreements.

The professor said "You need a code that covers nine specific areas - wages, freedom of association, child labor, etc. Your code should have language that addresses all nine."

Bob Woodworth asked "a question of scale. As a practical matter, we are small and have no clout. How can we comply and control our costs?"

No colleges had reported any price increases as a result of their decisions, the professor answered. "Wages of workers are about 1% of the price paid for clothing. By the time it is at the retail level, my grandmother's labor is about one cent on the dollar."

"Clark University isn't much bigger," he continued. Alone we're small potatoes. We don't have leverage. By joining we get it. The whales create a big wake. The capacity is there."

David Dunn asked "What is your affiliation with the WRC?"

"I'm on the advisory committee."

"I read the documents and part of your book. It is a noble cause. But the WRC seems focused on legislation and unionization. Should this board be supporting unions?"

The professor said "I disagree with your characterization. Some chapters of the WRC are asking for a percentage of their goods to come from union shops, but it isn't in the code.."

Dunn continued "In section nine it says that workers have a right to organize themselves." Big grumble from the crowd of about 120. More and more chairs are set up and more people keep arriving.

The professor gave an example of a company that had a union, but then fired 300 workers who didn't denounce it. "Labor laws are better than it is in practice."

Dunn said he didn't deny that. The professor said "all you are doing by adopting this is saying you respect the right of association." Applause from the assembled crowd.

Dunn countered "I don't deny that. CLEA is asking us to accept principles and set policy to support products from certain vendors. We have to consider our low bid system where we have to take the lowest of three bids. How will it work if the low bidders don't meet the code?"

"Well, they might not qualify," said the professor. "Conditioning contracts like this isn't exotic. American trade law says some trade is conditioned on basic rights. Taxpayers have been funding this."

Bob Woodworth asked "It says we commit to regular public updates. Does the WRC handle this?"

"Yes. Companies used to hide information about their factories saying that it was a trade secret. Colleges pressured and now we know where everything is made. There is a database of thousands of companies. You will be doing business with companies that make disclosures available now."

Scott Henry clarified the rules about low bids, saying that there was language that said the bids must be responsible, but that there was no specific statute according to the attorney.

Dunn asked "How far back in the chain do we have to go? To the jacket, or to the zipper?"

The professor said "You as the ethical buyer would have recourse if you found out something about the zippers going into the jackets. The WRC is the inspector."

Shaun Murphy asked "The WRC will do the research?"

"Yes, and disclosure is there so those workers could get info and bring it in to channels like the WRC."

Mike Hebert was recognized. "Many of those standards are political statements. I don't think we have the right to affiliate with a political group. What they are doing is good, but..."

The professor said, "With all due respect, I don't agree with your use of the term "political" to describe things. The WRC writes no legislation, supports no parties, has no candidates.."

The speaker phone said "David..."

"... Nike workers were getting sick do to noxious fumes from glue. The WRC put pressure on and they switched glues. These are not political statements."

"David.." said the speakerphone.

"One moment, Lynn," said David.

Lynn Corum, via speakerphone said "If this isn't a lobbying group, then why are they advertising for people to work in DC?"

The professor said there was a simple answer. "Their office is there." Chuckles from the audience.

"Which proves my point.." said Corum when the noise subsided.

"You are in favor of unions and legislation, but the WRC is not?" queried Dunn.

"Correct," said the professor.

Murphy read a dictionary definition of "political" which said that it was typically something concerned with governance. "The WRC seems more economic," he said.

Next up was Tim Kip who introduced himself as a math teacher at BUHS, but "tonight I come as a citizen to support this. The students are asking for something reasonable. They are appalled that children make their uniforms. We should praise them. Child labor is deplorable and hideous. I urge you to work out the legalities and support this."

Robert Miller, a former school board member, addressed concerns by a board member regarding the accounting of the grants. "That fogs the issue. CLEA got funded through the Department of Education and it was administered by SIT."

He said "the students want to enhance what they've been doing. Let's cut to the chase. The main issue is child labor. We're fortunate to have kids interested. Child labor is a crime. Anything we would do to prevent CLEA would be wrong. The majority of the community supports this. Please join CLEA and fight the crime. If not, you are tacitly going along with the crime. You should vote tonight."

Next up was a representative from WSEEA who said that they had just passed a resolution in support of CLEA. "As a labor union, we support the effort," she said, adding that if it passes, the union would donate $100 toward the student's membership dues.

Dunn asked if they were supporting the document or the students. "We summarized the proposal for our members, and we support the students."

Hebert said "we could try to make the code brief, but we're required to accept some of their views and that seems political. And, to Bob, the majority of people I spoke to said they oppose this," adding that neither could lay claim to a majority.

At this point, Bob Bady rose. "One question," he said. "There is some idea that this is somehow a divisive issue. I'd just like to know who came out tonight to oppose this." Addressing the 150 or so, "Stand up," he said.

No one stood.

Dunn tried to stop him. "No!"

Bady continued the informal poll. "All who came in favor, please stand."

Slowly, just about everyone in the audience stood up. Reporters got excited. Camera bulbs flashed.

"All I see is a disruption," said Dunn.

Another citizen rose to remind the board that they had made "political" decisions in the past by changing the mascot and adding the "world of difference' curriculum. "Even our local BS&L made a big deal out of paying a living wage to employees."

He continued, reminding them that teachers in this school are unionized and the board negotiates with them. "It troubles me that "union" is a somehow a dirty word and something to avoid. We can quibble but this is about taking a stand on a moral issue. Send the right message to the students."

Hebert said "You mention moral issues. What if students came to the board wanting to affiliate with Right To Life?"

The citizen responded "It is a good question. You would have to listen to the weight of your conscience."

Jim Day, the principal, spoke. "From the onset, I care about the students who want to aim their efforts at improving worker's rights. CLEA is doing the legwork. They are not burdening us. They will relish this task. We can manage this. These are great students and quite an organization."

Jaime Van Oot, the BUHS representative to the board said that there was a unanimous vote of the student council to support CLEA and help them raise money. "We support their ideals."

Dunn called for CLEA members to discuss this and asked what they wanted from the board by way of a motion.

CLEA's president spoke for the group of about 14. "I've come to school board meetings and have tried to address all of your concerns. Tonight, as a student, I'd like to say that I'm a senior. I'm researching international labor standards. It's easy for us to ignore the workers and just see the sneaker..."

She continued "Globalization and technology have an effect on our town. As a future member of the workforce, I want to be part of a movement. Workers around the world are as important to me as local businesses. We want BUHS to be on the cutting edge of social consciousness. Our ethics need to catch up with us."

The board then entertained a motion to allow CLEA to affiliate with WRC.

Ruth Barton had a few questions. "How much do we spend?"

Day answered that a good year would see about $8,000 spent on uniforms.

"That seems like small potatoes..."

Day cracked that she was welcome to raise the money if she wanted, and there was laughter.

Hebert said "We need to keep in mind that CLEA and the WRC are two things. Students could raise money for Tarrant or Sanders. I would actually like that. But it is different than associating with the WRC."

He continued "It is intimidation to say we support child labor. It's wonderful to be vilified in the Reformer, too. No wonder no one comes out in opposition."

A member of CLEA said that he was participating because he wanted to learn.

"But you don't need us to join the WRC for you to learn," said Hebert.

Dunn added "I don't want to support this if we are agreeing to the model code of conduct. Can we first do the affiliation, then do the code of conduct?"

An amendment was offered that provide that everything would be worked out in Planning and Policy and then sent back to the board for approval.

Barton asked if the speakerphone allowed Corum to vote. "Yes," said Dunn. Hebert added that it had been done before.

Murphy said "This amendment is just putting things off. We have seniors that worked for years on this. This is a disservice to the students and their thorough presentation. They are more informed on this than we are on this. We are here to support the young people." Other members assured him the goal was not to delay, but to be comfortable with what was signed.

The amendment passed 7-2.

The board then called the vote on the motion as amended. It passed 6-3, with Hebert, Corum, and Barton opposing.

Great applause broke out in the room.

CLEA was invited to meet with the Planning and Policy committee and were invited to their next regular meeting on June 5th.

Tim Kip said "Watching this and being a part of it is truly democracy in action. It's an example of what we can do."

Dunn commended the students for all the hard work they had put in, and called a recess to the meeting for the crowd to disperse.