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Activism: Local sweatshop protesters take the fight statewide

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Earlier this month, Gov. Ed Rendell endorsed an interstate effort to better enforce anti-sweatshop policies. Pennsylvania is the first state to pledge its support for a proposed anti-sweatshop consortium, made up of states, counties and municipalities from across the country.

"Rendell has taken the leadership of states nationally," says Kenneth Miller, who has long been active in local anti-sweatshop campaigns. "He requires the disclosure of factory locations. He requires wage disclosure. And he's taking the leadership in consolidating that information with different jurisdictions."

During the July 11-12 weekend, which featured the National SweatFree Summit in Philadelphia, Rendell's office announced that he signed a "declaration of intent," stating that Pennsylvania planned to participate in a nationwide "sweatfree consortium." The consortium is still in its planning stages, but organizers are hoping that Rendell's decision will convince other government agencies to get involved.

"Taxpayer funds should not be used to support sweatshops that profit from the sale of goods while workers are denied basic human rights," Rendell said in a release. "State and local government represent a major consumer block, by committing to stop the purchase of goods made in sweatshops we can drive companies to improve working conditions."

"The governor's position is that it's the morally imperative thing to do," says Rendell press secretary Chuck Ardo.

Pennsylvania joins Portland, Ore., Berkeley, Calif., and Lucas County, Ohio, as the fourth government purchaser to announce its support for a consortium. Additionally, Bjorn Claeson, the executive director of the national organization SweatFree Communities, says, "There are a number of public entities that have officially declared that they want to cooperate to pool resources," even if they haven't committed to doing so through the consortium.

Pennsylvania is one of seven states that already have anti-sweatshop laws, Claeson says. But he adds, "[I]t's unfeasible for a single state" to verify labor standards on the other side of the globe. "Nor does a single state have significant influence" over vendors if it discovers abuses.

But a consortium of government agencies would have better resources to investigate overseas working conditions. Such a consortium would also have more purchasing power, and thus more leverage over distributors.

Claeson says he "hope[s] to build upon the momentum that we have now with Gov. Rendell's commitment." The timing of Rendell's announcement seems auspicious. The SweatFree Summit included films and testimony from former garment workers. Dennis Brutus -- a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and (with Miller) a co-founder of the Pittsburgh Anti-Sweatshop Community Alliance in 2002 -- also spoke.

The Summit coincided with the centennial celebration for the National Governors Association, which also took place in Philadelphia that weekend. Rendell became chairman of the NGA on July 14.

Claeson hopes that Rendell will "create space for this issue" at the winter meeting of the NGA in February, and that his support will encourage other governors to endorse the consortium.

Claeson says the consortium will officially launch when its members represent a combined purchasing pool of $100 million. With the addition of Pennsylvania, he estimates that the consortium has roughly $11 million in pledged buying power now.

A steering committee of advocates, educators and public officials has already assembled (www.sweatfree.org/sweatfreeconsortium). It's working to get more cities and states to sign on, while also developing bylaws and an organizational structure for the consortium once it launches.

Will Rendell use his new NGA position to push the anti-sweatshop agenda? While Rendell "believes that other states should join," Ardo says, "I don't think he has any plans to reach out [to other governors] at the moment.

"Although, I think that given his prominence, it certainly gets the attention of other states."

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