Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Penn State Revolutionaries

TheRaDiKaL: Ok. Please tell us a little bit about yourself, where you go to school, and why you and your fellow colleagues are organizing your fellow students, staging protests, and getting arrested by the dozens-at-a-time.

Stephanie Chapman:I just graduated from Penn State, and in my four years on the University Park campus, the last was the only one worthwhile. In the 2007-2008 school year, I went from student to student activist. And I learned and experienced more organizing, standing up and being arrested for garment workers than I learned doing anything else in college.

Last year, I joined USAS because I have the privilege and therefore, the obligation to help people who cannot help themselves.

On April 15, I was arrested alongside 30 other Penn State students for staging a sit-in at our administrative building. We told the administrators that we were not going to leave the building until Penn State President Graham Spanier signed on to the Designated Suppliers Program, which would ensure living wages and the right to democratic representation for the workers who make Penn State apparel.

We sat-in quietly during business hours while a crowd of more than 200 people marched and chanted to drum beats outside. We began chanting after 5PM. Administration representatives commended us for our "civility".

At 5:30PM the 31 students were arrested. The university charged us with Defiant Criminal Trespass—a third degree misdemeanor—punishable by a one year in prison and a $2,500 fine each.

I will be sticking around Penn State at least until our preliminary hearing on June 11.

TheRaDiKaL: Based solely on your own opinion, what real implications would adoption of the Designated Supply Program have on Penn State University? Is it at all possible that USAS activists are facing an administration entrenched in nothing more than a sense of loyalty to corporate interests, as opposed to the claims of detrimental legal and/or economic effects on the institution?

Stephanie Chapman: Adoption of the Designated Suppliers Program would give Penn State a voice and a vote in the working group implementing the program. All schools signed on would work collectively to pressure the apparel industry to improve conditions and uphold standards in factories. More importantly, if Penn State helps to put the DSP into practice, the workers making our apparel would be ensured a living wage and the right to democratic representation.

Once the DSP is implemented, consumers will be able to purchase sweatshop-free collegiate apparel, and it would not cost them much more than what they are already paying. Only 1% of the retail price of any garment goes to labor costs (to the workers). So, for example, if you doubled that amount, it would only cost the consumer 20 cents more when buying a $20 shirt. Most people are willing to pay a quarter more for an article of clothing knowing that doing so would double the wages of the worker who made it.

Forty-five universities have already adopted the DSP. Other universities recognize that Penn State has a lot of political and economic clout and a lot of influence in the collegiate market. If Penn State were to sign on to the program, more universities would follow suit.

USAS activists and the Penn State community have been refused meetings with President Spanier for two and a half years. Therefore, I can only speculate about Spanier’s motivations for delaying social progress and refusing to adopt the program. It is likely that brands have Spanier by the balls. Adoption of the DSP would not raise tuition, break contracts with licensees or carry any legal ramifications.

TheRaDiKaL: (Per President Spanier's letter [2/21/08]) Why, in your opinion, has the U.S. Dept. of Justice refused to provide a favorable rating and/or antitrust clearance for the proposed DSP?

Stephanie Chapman: In Spanier’s letter, he excused his inaction by claiming that the DSP violates anti-trust laws. But universities with prominent legal programs (Columbia, Georgetown, Duke and Cornell, among others) have already signed on to the program. Legal scholars at Penn State’s own Dickinson School of Law affirm that the DSP would not violate anti-trust laws. In addition, former U.S. Assistant Attorney General Donald Baker reviewed the program in 2006 and found that the DSP does not conflict with any national laws.

Furthermore, Spanier’s statement that the Department of Justice “refused to provide the DSP with a favorable Business Review Letter” is false. The DOJ made no decision regarding the DSP whatsoever. Rather, the WRC willingly withdrew its Business Review Letter when it became apparent that the program would be judged according to politics, not its legal merits.

The WRC’s decision to withdraw their business review request should not stand in the way of Penn State affiliation with the DSP. As Donald Baker wrote in a 2006 memo to Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, “I also want to stress…that there is no legal impediment to a University Licensor agreeing in principle to the DSP program, and participating in implementation planning, while awaiting the outcome of the DOJ process.”

TheRaDiKaL: President Spanier also stated in his email that: "the tactics your group [PSU - USAS] has enlisted are rude and inappropriate. I would ask that you cease your frequent visits to my office and communicate, if needed, through more customary channels of mail or e-mail" I suppose the president would prefer your group to engage in tactics he and the University brass could more readily ignore. What reactions do you have to this excerpt?

Stephanie Chapman: For two and a half years, our organization has tried to engage Spanier using the customary channels. We’ve emailed, snail mailed, called and (as he acknowledged) frequently visited his office. We’ve delivered endorsements and petitions and invited the administration to debate the issue at a public forum. They refused to participate, just as Spanier has refused to meet with us for years.

And though we continue to attempt communication via these completely ineffective “customary channels,” other tactics are necessary. After being ignored, along with this important issue, for two and a half years, we have recently escalated the campaign and staged protests that Spanier cannot ignore.

TheRaDiKaL: Penn State is a member of the Worker Rights Consortium; please tell our readers what this program is all about, how it ties into the DSP, and what other schools are part of it?

Stephanie Chapman: The Worker Rights Consortium is an independent agency that monitors factories all over the world in order to improve factory conditions. The WRC makes all of its investigations public on and distributes reports to affiliated universities. Licensees (brands) are encouraged to stay in factories where violations occur and work to make necessary improvements. Though the WRC works closely with licensees, there are no industry representatives on the WRC governing board (unlike the ineffective Fair Labor Association). This independence allows the WRC to perform third-party investigations of labor violations.

The WRC originally proposed the DSP in order to combat the root causes of sweatshops: inefficient monitoring, brand pressure and brand flight.

181 universities are already affiliated with the WRC including Penn State. A university or high school can affiliate with the WRC simply by sending a letter expressing affiliation from the school’s chancellor or president. Samples letters can be found on the WRC website.

TheRaDiKaL: Was your organization a part of the [semi-nude] March protest? How much planning goes into a protest? Are activists made to feel as members of one large nucleus - or - is there top/down type leadership?

Stephanie Chapman: Yes, the Naked Parade in spring of 2005 was a USAS demonstration. About 20 people marched across campus in the buff, covering their delicates with “sweatshop-free” signs, blue and white pom-poms and little else.

Protests such as the Naked Parade require a lot of organization. Planning often includes recruiting speakers, writing speeches and chants, advertising and emailing about the event, contacting the press, painting signs and banners, securing and setting up audio equipment, designing t-shirts, and reserving a “free-speech” zone on campus.

As far as organization of the group is concerned, Penn State USAS is strongly democratic. We have no official leaders or officers. Our meetings are run round-table-style by a different member of the group each week and all decisions are voted on, then discussed and voted on again until some form of consensus is reached. Though our group is unfortunately not as diverse as we would like, we try to split up responsibilities among males and females equally. While we were being arrested at the sit-in we lined up in boy-girl order.

TheRaDiKaL: Do you feel that one of the University's tactics may be to wait out the current wave of dissent? Could you please tell the readers just how long the activists at PSU plan on holding out?

Stephanie Chapman: Yes, Spanier hopes that members of USAS will graduate, move away and that the summer will allow for institutional amnesia. He hopes that the struggle for workers’ rights will be forgotten. The Penn State administration has made it very clear that they will continue to ignore concerned and informed students, faculty, local politicians and community members in hopes that we will cease the fight.

Penn State USAS has made it very clear to the administration that we are not going away. We will not stop until Penn State adopts the DSP, affiliates with the working group and meaningfully participates in the struggle for international human rights. On May 1, we marched into the administration building to once again demand that Spanier adopt the DSP and to tell him we are here to stay. Inside Old Main, about 100 protesters were met by police stationed at the bottom of the steps that lead to Spanier’s suite. For 30 minutes we chanted, sang and marched until we were threatened with arrest if we did not leave. During that time, we gave the administrators 5 opportunities to address the statement of support for the DSP we had for them to sign. Spanier was no where to be found and the administration representatives responded to our demand with complete silence.

We will hold out until Penn State adopts the DSP. This summer USAS members are contacting local, state and national politicians, attending a Penn State Board of Trustees Meeting, continuing to reach out to the Penn State community and planning events for the fall semester.

TheRaDiKaL: Tell us about the role, if any, that Student Government plays or has played with your cause? Have there been any efforts to pass favorable resolutions and/or engage the administration on your behalf?

Stephanie Chapman: The newly elected student government has really shown support for USAS this semester. The University Park Undergraduate Association President Gavin Keirans spoke at our Rally for Workers’ Rights this spring and has expressed support for the 31 students arrested and charged with defiant criminal trespass for staging a sit-in. UPUA passed a resolution on May 3 that recognizes that some form of punishment may be appropriate for the students involved in the sit-in, but states that the severity of the charges--misdemeanor of the third degree, rather than a summary offense--is an attempt by Spanier to intimidate students. In support of student activists, UPUA recommended that Spanier encourage the district attorney to drop or lessen the charges against the sit-in participants.

TheRaDiKaL: At the University of Florida, students benefit from an independently published newspaper (The Independent Florida Alligator), similarly at Penn State, students have The Daily Collegian. I guess my question to you would be three-fold. (1) How independent is The Daily Collegian? (2) Does the University brass (the Administration) exert any influence over the paper's content? (3) How would you assess the quality of reporting from the paper on the movement? Favorable, neutral, critica?

Stephanie Chapman: Our paper, The Daily Collegian, is published independently by students at Penn State. The administration tries to intimidate all student activists, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they chastised the Collegian staff for printing material that is supportive of USAS.

Spanier has published two editorials in the Collegian, one in which he makes excuses for his inaction and states that the DSP “does not exist” and another where he states that it’s “not my job” to save the 31 students he arrested for sitting-in from going to jail. Despite the administration’s attempt to intimidate student activists, the media has been a really good avenue to destroy all of the administration’s weak and inaccurate arguments against the DSP. The paper covered USAS delivering more than 3,000 copies of the DSP to faculty members to let them decide if it exists. The next article covered USAS delivering more than 1,200 signatures urging Spanier to drop the misdemeanor charges.

The paper has covered almost all of our events this past year and seems to have become more supportive as our campaign escalated. At the beginning of the year we had to do wild antics like dressing up in a Spanier mask, wearing trash bags to emphasize the administration calling student voices “garbage”, breaking a piƱata in a Fair Trade Parade and playing wiffle-ball in Old Main to gain Collegian coverage. But over the last few months, the USAS presence on campus and in the community has gained so much attention that the paper now covers us for doing almost anything.

TheRaDiKaL: I love the DSP Penn State video and plan to help spread the word. With coordinated nationwide efforts to promote the DSP on American college campuses, how will the activists at Penn State use the court of public opinion to turn the heat on an otherwise indifferent and terse-minded University administration?

Stephanie Chapman: Activists at Penn State will continue to work collectively to better the conditions of people all over the world. In addition to USAS, members of the student groups Speakout, Amnesty International, EcoAction, The Anti-Consumerists, The Atheist/Agnostic Society and Students for Justice in Palestine were among the 31 Penn State students arrested for sitting-in. USAS will continue to collaborate with other groups to fight against those who stand in the way of justice in pressed suits and paisley ties with their hands in their pockets.

TheRaDiKaL: Does your organization have a website and/or email? I'd like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me and want you to know that there are many, many fellow activists that are with you in spirit & solidarity.

Stephanie Chapman: Check out the April 15 sit-in and arrest footage, above.

For updates you can join our Facebook group: Get the Sweat Out of Penn State or contact us at


Anonymous said...

I hate communists.

Christian Duque said...

Oh well, we're here to stay.

Anonymous said...

God Job with the interview, are you almost done with the Ken Kern's interview.

Anonymous said...

make your law school stop sending me mail saying ive already been accepted. i didnt even apply!