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North Carolina: Sit-in against UNC’s ties to sweatshops ends with 5 arrests

By Kosta Harlan

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Chapel Hill, NC – A 16-day sit-in at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) administration building came to a dramatic close on Friday May 2, when Chancellor Moeser ordered UNC police to arrest five of the protesters. It was the longest sit-in protest in UNC’s history. Dozens of students had occupied the lobby of South Building, the administrative headquarters at UNC, in a protest against the university’s use of sweatshops for the manufacture of UNC apparel (Sit-in at administration building demands end to UNC sweatshop clothing, Fight Back!, April 2008).

The students, members of the Carolina Sweatfree Coalition, had demanded that Chancellor Moeser and the UNC Licensing Labor Code Advisory Committee sign on to the Designated Suppliers Program, which would ensure that university apparel is manufactured in factories where workers earn a living wage and have the right to organize. In contrast, most UNC apparel is currently manufactured in Central American and South Asian sweatshops, where workers are routinely harassed on the job, denied the right to organize and earn pitiful wages that fall short of what is needed to support a family.

After 16 days of sitting in, members of the Carolina Sweatfree Coalition were granted a meeting with the licensing committee and the Chancellor. Commenting on what took place at the meeting, Student Action with Workers member Salma Mirza said, “Chancellor Moeser demonstrated at that committee meeting that he had no intention of taking any moral leadership on the fact that our apparel is manufactured under sweatshop conditions.”

After the meeting, the Carolina Sweatfree Coalition held a press conference in South Building. A dozen students then entered Chancellor Moeser’s office to inform him that they would continue to occupy the administration building until he entered into a genuine dialog with the Coalition. In response, Moeser ordered the students arrested. The police arrested one student without warning, and then told the others to leave if they did not want to be arrested. Four remained and were arrested on charges of failure to disperse, while one student was charged with resisting arrest.

“We knew our arrests would join with the 46 others that have taken place across the U.S. around this campaign, and that we would be contributing to the deep history of struggle at UNC,” said Tim Stallmann, a graduate student at UNC and a member of Student Action with Workers. “This was an anti-sweatshop fight, but we were putting our bodies on the line for all workers involved at UNC: the clerical and campus workers, the student workers and the workers manufacturing UNC apparel in sweatshops around the world.”

The statement from the Coalition on the arrests said, “The Chancellor stated that he was disappointed by our actions. We cannot begin to express our disappointment in the Chancellor of a university that calls itself the ‘university of the people,’ who would prefer to arrest peaceful student protesters instead of ensuring that there is justice for the workers who make this university run.”

Members of the Coalition and Student Action with Workers, the group that led the protests, promise to continue the struggle the next year. “The campaign for justice for all workers in the Carolina community will not end with the arrests of peaceful student protesters,” explained Salma Mirza. “Though we were the ones arrested, we must ask -which is more criminal, our act of peacefully occupying an office of a public institution that our tuition pays for, or Chancellor Moeser allowing our Carolina apparel to be made under sweatshop conditions that violate international and domestic law?”

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