Election Section

UC students protest labor violations in street theater act

Story and Photos by Kimberlee Bortfeld
Friday November 16, 2001

A UC Berkeley student organization protested labor violations Thursday by staging a baseball game at Sather Gate: “The Workers” vs. “The Bosses.” Their goal was to raise awareness of workers’ rights 

“The point of the game was to show people that bosses don’t always play by the rules,” said Tarak Shah, a senior who helped coordinate what he called street theater. 

Shah, a member of Students Organizing for Justice in the Americas, said his group intended the mock game to draw attention to the ongoing labor strikes at the New Era Cap Company, which manufactures hats for Major League Baseball and dozens of universities, including UC Berkeley.  

In July, more than 230 workers at New Era’s Derby, N.Y., factory went on strike in response to a wage cut. A report released by the workers’ union, Communications Workers of America, said the company cut sick leave and slashed wages by 30 to 50 percent.  

Many workers got injured on the job as well, according to a preliminary investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium based in Washington, D.C. The consortium is a nonprofit organization that enforces manufacturing codes of conduct for factories producing collegiate apparel. It found that sewing injuries at the Derby plant exceeded the industry average, and a staggering 45 percent of the workers suffered from work-related musculo-skeletal disorders. 

Shah visited the factory in March 2000 as part of a student delegation. He said he interviewed close to 40 workers and was shocked by their stories. 

“One woman told me that she had to wear bandages around her wrists when she slept to keep her from moving them,” he said. “She couldn’t write with a pencil or carry coffee because it hurt too much.” 

Shah said he is outraged that the company makes baseball caps for UC Berkeley.  

“Our university has always had a commitment to stand up for people,” he said. “How can we allow this to happen to people making clothes for us? We have a responsibility to stand up for their rights.” 

UC Berkeley currently has a code of conduct for its clothing vendors. Last year, it became a member of Worker Rights Consortium, the organization that monitors labor practices and investigated New Era.  

However, the university’s membership in the consortium expires this academic year.  

Shah said Students Organizing for Justice in the Americas is concerned the university will consider joining a different monitoring organization, Fair Labor Association. Shah said the school should not become a member of Fair Labor because companies that Fair Labor regulates also serve on its board. 

UC Senior Vice President of Business and Finance Joseph Mullinix who oversees the university’s membership in Worker Rights was not available for comment on Thursday. But university spokesperson Chuck McFadden said the school welcomes students’ concerns about labor codes. 

“Workers’ rights are fundamental to human rights,” said junior Jon Rodney. “If people can’t hold a coffee cup or feed their family, that’s a problem we should all be aware of.”