Rethinking Globalization: Teaching and Organizing Against Sweatshops

By Bill Bigelow

Illustrator: AP/Wide World Photos

Members of Global Exchange protest Nike’s overseas labor practices
– photo: AP/Wide World Photos

Anyone who has tried to teach about globalization knows how daunting this can be. What is it?

Where is it? The concept itself can over­whelm: It’s everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time.

But ironically, the ubiquitous charac­ter of globalization may be just the thing that allows students to see its nature and to recognize ways that they can make a difference in the world.

This was brought home to me this summer while reading Liza Feather- stone’s book. Students Against Sweat­shops (Verso, 2002), a slender volume chronicling the origin and activities of United Students Against Sweatshops (

The book shows that because global­ization is everywhere, it’s also in school, and that fact offers students numerous opportunities to act for global justice and to make a difference in the lives of people halfway around the world. As Featherstone writes, “Univer­sities’ cozy ties to large companies are, paradoxically, a boon to the global eco­nomic justice movement because they bring corporatism into students’ daily lives — and, perversely, lend students power as consumers in the ‘academic-industrial complex.’” For example, Featherstone notes that students at the University of Oregon led a campus tour of various sites illustrating the univer­sity’s many ties to corporations that exploit workers around the world especially Nike, as exemplified in the Knight Library, named for billionaire Nike owner, Phil Knight. Students at Oregon and around the country have put Nike on the defensive and have forced the company to change in ways that it wouldn’t have considered without such pressure.

Sodexho-Marriott is a French transnational that provides campus din­ing services. It also is a “notorious union buster,” according to Feather­stone, and was the largest investor in U.S. private prisons, where prisoners are exploited as cheap labor. Students at schools as diverse as Arizona State, University of Texas, Xavier, Florida State, SUNY-Binghampton, Fordham, American University, Evergreen State, and Oberlin protested these links, some­times killing university contracts with Sodexho-Marriott. Ultimately, students forced the company to drop its holdings in Corrections Corporation of America.

Featherstone emphasizes that the source of students’ activism is rooted not only in a desire to help others around the world, but also in an aware­ness of their own exploitation: “Young people were outraged on the workers’ behalf, but they were also moved by a sense that their own desires were being manipulated, that the glamorous adver­tising aimed at youth markets was a cover-up meant to distract from corpo­rate wrongdoings.” As Pitzer College student and anti-sweatshop activist, Evelyn Zepeda, said, “We had been told we needed to buy these clothes to be sexy, to be popular… We felt used.”

Although Featherstone’s book focuses exclusively on university stu­dent activism, its stories, interviews and examples of activism are of interest to public school teachers and aspiring K- 12 student activists. They offer ideas for the kind of activism that students might engage in, but also can spark lesson ideas for teachers interested in teach­ing more about activism as an anti­dote to the despair that can descend on students as they learn about global crises, from AIDS to climate change.

Some teaching ideas that occurred to me while reading Students Against Sweatshops:

  • Students could do a global corpo­ration scavenger hunt, searching out the school’s hidden connections with workers around the world. Where does the school’s athletic equipment come from? Who makes it, under what conditions? Check out the student store. Where do those sweat­shirts, T-shirts, and baseball caps come from? How about food in the school cafeteria? Do the bananas come from Ecuador, where workers are currently battling savage repression in order to secure rights to unionize? Who makes seniors’ graduation gowns? (See Andrea Townsend’s article “The Student Union vs Jostens, Inc” for the story of how one group of students confronted their school’s sup­plier of gowns.)
  • Students could write each of the corporations involved in producing stuff their school uses. They could ask them a series of questions about the condi­tions under which the products were made and also ask for any codes of con­duct that companies’ subcontractors are supposed to adhere to. These may be posted at companies’ websites.
  • Students could contact the Workers Rights Consortium’s website ( for an alterna­tive code of conduct that students might compare with those of the companies they contacted. The WRC might put public school students in contact with university activists in their area who could compare notes and support each others’ activities. If there are local Stu­dents Against Sweatshop chapters in your area, invite them in to talk about how they became activists and what they hope to accomplish.
  • Like the activists at University of Oregon, students could lead globaliza­tion tours of the school, alerting other students and staff members to their hid­den relationships with others around the world.
  • Students could be encouraged to check out their textbooks. Who pro­duces these and what else do they pro­duce? For example, McDougall-Littell, a U.S. textbook publisher, is owned by Houghton Mifflin, which is owned by the giant French transnational, Vivendi Universal. One of its other divisions, Vivendi Environement, is running around the world taking advantage of International Monetary Fund require­ments that Third World countries priva­tize their water systems. Vivendi buys up water systems and then uses the “free market” to determine who will get water and for how much. Not surpris­ingly, the poor don’t fare well in this resource auction. (CorpWatch has a valuable online guide to researching corporations. Visit their website (, and click on the “Research” button at the top of their webpage.)

The point is simply that every time students enter school, they touch the lives of people around the world, and these relationships can become a topic of classroom inquiry. And since K-12 students are also consumers in a global “academic-industrial complex” this fact gives them some leverage they may not have realized that they had.

As Featherstone ably demonstrates. United Students Against Sweatshops is much more than a group of youngsters feeling sorry for poor people around the world. She shows how students are grappling with the difference between solidarity and charity, with their own “patriarchal and colonial attitudes towards garment workers” around the world, with manifestations of racism and class privilege in their own organi­zation, and with strategic issues about whether to target corporations or the global capitalist system itself.

Bill Bigelow ( teaches at Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., and is an editor of Rethinking Schools. He and editor Bob Peterson also edited Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World.

The book Students Against Sweatshops is available from Teaching for Change;; 800-763-9131.