Billy Yates

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

A group of students occupied President William Powers Jr.’s office for about three hours Friday to convince him to sign a petition to join a workers’ rights group.


Members of Students Against Sweatshops and Oxfam UT, fair labor advocacy organizations, have worked for more than a year to schedule a meeting with the president. They want him to support the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent group that monitors factory working conditions.


Currently, the UT System is affiliated with the Fair Labor Association, which allows companies to monitor the working conditions in their own factories. Billy Yates, economics senior and Students Against Sweatshops member, said the FLA presents a conflict of interest because companies are less likely to report poor labor conditions in their own factories.


“The WRC reports are more accurate, and we know this from talking with the workers,” Yates said. “The FLA has contradicted itself in reports before, and our main concern is that the companies are monitoring themselves.”


Six student representatives met with Powers on Friday. Yates said he hoped Powers would have signed a document committing to the WRC, although Powers said the meeting was only for him to listen to student concerns.


“The meeting was misrepresented, and I will not go through with discussing a resolution,” Powers said.


During the meeting, the students requested a commitment to the WRC or a time frame detailing when Powers could make a decision. Powers offered none and said he would present the information to administrators at the System level.


After Powers ended the meeting, the students remained in his office in protest. About 30 more supporters chanted phrases, such as “people over profit,” from the lobby.


Doug Garrard, the senior associate dean of students, asked the representatives to peacefully leave and said the president had only agreed to a meeting, not a decision.


“The easy way to get us out of the office is committing to the WRC,” said Carson Chavana, geography junior and Students Against Sweatshops representative.


The supporters in the lobby continued chanting while the representatives in the office called and emailed friends to flood the president’s office with phone calls. Powers did not return to discuss a resolution, and the representatives left the office at 4:50 p.m.


“Powers was being diplomatic and avoided making any set decision,” said Kamene Dornubari-Ogidi, neurobiology senior and Students Against Sweatshops member. “In my opinion, this was a move to blockade us.”

Cardboard coffins lined Congress Avenue until all 138 of them filled the front lawn of the Texas Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. The coffins were painted black and represented the 138 Texas construction workers and laborers who lost their lives on the job in 2009. Their memories served as the rallying cry for the roughly 600 people who gathered at the Capitol in support of new legislation on workers’ rights and safety. The Workers Defense Project organized the rally and gathered lawmakers, clergy members and activists with the families of those who had died. “The cause we’re here for today is not just a good one, but a sacred one,” one member of the church said at the beginning of the rally. Political commentator Jim Hightower spoke at the rally to state the activists’ demands. “We’re not just here to honor the memory of the workers,” Hightower said. “We’re here for just a little bit of justice. We’re not asking for the whole thing. If we were, we’d be asking for Wall Street salaries and benefits — now that would be justice.” This justice comes primarily in the form of mandatory workers’ compensation, which would require every employer to provide wage replacement and medical benefits to any employee injured while on the job, said Billy Yates, an intern at the Workers Defense Project. As it stands, Texas is the only state that does not require such compensation, he said. He also cites simple things, such as required breaks, as important preventive measures. “A construction worker dies every two-and-a-half days in Texas,” he said. “If Texas is 112 degrees during the summertime and workers don’t get a single break, you can’t really wonder why there are so many deaths in the construction industry.” This lack of mandatory workers’ compensation, rest breaks in the work day and proper safety education all contribute to Texas’ reputation as “the most dangerous state in the union for construction workers,” a phrase that was repeated throughout the rally, Yates said. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, and Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, hope to change this. They are currently putting forth bills that would make workers’ compensation required for not only those injured on the job, but for the families who lost relatives in work-related incidents. “It’s a simple bill in that it mandates that all businesses provide what every other business in every other state already provides, and that is compensation for workers,” Lucio said. “It is what’s just and it is what’s right.” The event also included live music, prayers and stories of the hardships incurred by those injured on the job. “When we are helping to build this state, we are wanted,” said one man, who is now confined to a wheelchair after falling 30 feet while working at a construction site. “But when we are injured, we are tossed aside.”

Two different protests — coincidentally scheduled on the West Mall for the same time Monday — called attention to both the military occupation of Kashmir, India, and the use of sweatshops to produce University apparel.

About 25 students from the UT branch of Oxfam International and Students Against Sweatshops marched into the Main Building and delivered a letter to the office of President William Powers Jr.

They demanded a meeting to discuss an affiliation with the Worker Rights Consortium, which they said would help ensure the apparel and other official UT products are made under ethical conditions. The University is not currently affiliated with the consortium.

Last week, the two groups delivered a letter to Powers’ office with a Nov. 8 deadline for a response on whether they could schedule a meeting, said Billy Yates, international relations junior and a member of Students Against Sweatshops. When they did not receive a response from the administration by the deadline, students in the organization decided to march into the Main Building carrying signs and demanding a meeting.

About eight of the students delivered a letter to a security guard outside of the president’s office. Yates said they plan to continue protesting in the Main Building if they do not receive a response.

“This is going to happen,” he said. “It’s going to get louder if we don’t get a response.”

UT Student Government passed a resolution in April to support the University’s affiliation with the consortium.

The protest was meant to help raise awareness among students of the poor working conditions of those who make University apparel, including 16-hour days, low wages and unreasonably high production quotas, said Cait McCann, co-president of UT’s Oxfam chapter and a Latin American studies senior.

“As a student, I can’t always guarantee that my clothes are going to be made by people who are treated ethically,” she said. “UT as an institution has so much power. UT has the power to demand that all of our apparel is produced ethically so that we can live up to those core values that we have.”

At the same time, students gathered to protest the Indian government’s denial of California Institute of Integral Studies Professor Richard Shapiro’s entry into Kashmir without a legal basis.

The solidarity protest called upon the government to revoke the ban and promote peaceful conflict resolution in Kashmir, said Snehal Shingavi, an assistant English professor who attended the protest. The synced protests will help raise awareness nationally, he said.

“It’s pretty astonishing — the Indian government has really clamped down on Kashmir,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think that most people don’t even know where Kashmir is. I think that when you see people protesting and you see those signs, you start to think about where these places are.”