COLA and CSAS Promote SweatFree Ithaca at city hall

COLA logo

COLA logo

Last night, community members packed City Hall for the monthly meeting of Ithaca’s City Administration Committee.  Local residents and students came to the usually sleepy meetings to express support for Sweat Free Ithaca, a campaign being run by the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA) and Cornell Students Against Sweatshops (CSAS) with the support of many community groups, including local labor unions, church groups, and the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

The aim of the campaign is to ensure that none of the apparel that the City of Ithaca pays for—things like firefighter, police, and bus driver uniforms—is produced in sweatshops.  To do this, COLA is asking the City of Ithaca to join the State and Local Government Sweatfree Consortium.  The Consortium is modeled on the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC), which seeks to ensure apparel with college logos is produced in a way that respects workers’ rights.  COLA, working with Cornell Students Against Sweatshops, pushed Cornell to join the WRC in 2006.

Already, almost 200 communities from around the country have joined the State and Local Government Sweatfree Consortium, including 6 states, 40 cities, and 118 school districts.  Over half of these entities, 116 in total, are in the state of New York, including the New York State government.

The City of Ithaca, however, currently does not have a centralized purchasing policy and does not know the conditions under which the uniforms that its workers wear are produced.

“It’s very clear that the City of Ithaca has fallen behind on this issue,” said Casey Sweeney, ’13, President of COLA.  “And it’s well past time for Ithaca to be sure our tax dollars are not going to support sweatshop conditions overseas.”

The Consortium defines sweatshop conditions as including below-subsistence wages, excessively long working  hours, unhealthy and unsafe working environments, child, indentured, and prison labor, disregard for local and international labor law and workplace regulations, disregard for fundamental women’s rights, and repression of workers’ rights to form labor unions and bargain collectively.

To move the process forward, COLA is asking that the Administration Committee outline an ethical procurement policy.  The Committee would then pass a non-binding resolution requesting that the Ithaca Common Council include funding for the project in its next budget.

By studying cities of similar size to Ithaca which have adopted this policy, COLA estimates that joining the Consortium would cost Ithaca around $500 per year.  There are also concerns that uniforms purchased from monitored factories would be more costly than those purchased from sweatshops.  However, the WRC points out that it is well documented that labor costs make up only about 1-3% of a garment’s retail price.  A tripling of money spent on these workers’ wages and safety would therefore result in an estimated 3-6% increase in final price.

To COLA and their allies, this is well worth the cost.

“It is important that our community acts as an informed and ethical global citizen,” said Andrew Wolf, a senior at Cornell who was President of CSAS when they started investigating this issue, almost two years ago.   “It is ludicrous to think a morally responsible community such as Ithaca is using its tax dollars to support sweatshops overseas.  It’s time to take a stand and help workers around the world lift themselves out of poverty, the same way we seek to protect workers’ rights in our own community.”

The resolution will be discussed and voted on at the committee’s next meeting on March 31st, and many committee members showed support.

“We need to show how much the community is concerned about this issue,” Wolf said.  “We look forward to coming down again next month.”

About the Author

Alex Bores is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. He was born and raised in New York City by two union members. Alex does labor research with Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner. Alex is the treasurer of the Cornell Roosevelt Institute, Treasurer of Conflict-Free Cornell, Vice President for Community Outreach of Half in Ten, Vice President of the Cornell Forensics Society and President of Cornell Students Against Sweatshops.