Divestment is student activism at work
Rutgers has always had a strong culture of student activism, and the recent student-led, organized efforts to have the University divest from companies with unsafe working conditions in Bangladeshi factories is an excellent example. Rutgers will now require companies that are licensed to manufacture products with the University logo to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. This deal requires firms to provide funding for appropriate safety measure to be taken in their Bangladeshi factories. Six of the 19 companies have already signed the agreement, and the remaining 13 have until July 1 to sign — otherwise, Rutgers will pull its licenses and join the worldwide efforts to pressure companies to improve workers’ rights.
Rutgers United Students Against Sweatshops is a student organization on campus that played a huge role in the University’s decision to divest from these companies. The organization focuses on grassroots efforts to make a difference on campus, where our presence as students is most impactful. By taking direct action and communicating with the University administration, RUSAS successfully pressured University President Robert L. Barchi and the Board of Governors to take a stance on labor issues in Bangladesh and end the University’s affiliation with companies that ignore unsafe factory conditions.
Ours is a culture of student activism that produces tangible, successful results — this in itself is incredibly encouraging for our generation. We are proud of the accomplishments made on campus throughout our University’s history, and this success only proves to us the power of our own voice.
In 1985, student protests led the University administration to divest from then-apartheid South Africa. The divestment campaign was a global initiative to address serious human rights issues in South Africa and pressure the country to change its policies. Much of the campaign’s success can be attributed to its presence on university campuses across America. Rutgers was considered a leader in the movement, and it became one of the first to successfully divest from U.S. companies with a presence in South Africa. Student protests — from rallies and sit-ins at Board meetings, letters to the administration, and op-ed articles in The Daily Targum — built a strong student voice on campus that forced the administration to change its policy. Ultimately, the University pulled a total of $6.4 million in investments from more than 10 major companies, including Coca-Cola and IBM. Universities are huge institutions in this country, and the administration holds significant power in its financial decisions — and as paying students, we have the right and the ability to have a say in how those decisions are made.
One comment left on an nj.com article about this topic read, “The funny thing is that the same students ‘protesting’ the working conditions now will be the same business executives ten years from now justifying why they need the sweatshops in order to stay competitive with other businesses.” But that’s not necessarily the case. We are students in an environment where we have the time and energy to focus our attention on issues of social justice in the corporate world, while an older generation that is already a part of it might not. Maybe these businesspeople who are already working in the “real world” think we’re blinded by a naïve perspective from our comfortable cushion in academia, but they’re just as clouded by their own limitations in a competitive global economy that demands such a jaded view.
In an increasingly commercialized world, conscious consumerism is only becoming more and more important as a way to battle social, political and economic injustices across the globe. Universities should be held to a very high standard when it comes to their financial decisions. We are responsible for ensuring that these decisions are both transparent and ethical. Divesting from South Africa undeniably influenced the end of its apartheid government policies, and the current divestment from companies that are not upholding worker’s rights and even basic safety in sweatshops is sure to have the same impact. We’re encouraged by the successes our student presence has helped us make, and we have the motivation to continue standing up for causes we believe in.