Students know unions?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

November 1, 2007 Ed Cartoon

International labour union UNITE HERE, student unions and students across North America are boycotting American Eagle Outfitters claiming the company’s Canadian distributor, National Logistics Services, mistreats its workers and actively prevented them from forming a union.

UNITE HERE has worked to gain student support for its campaign called American Vulture since May.

At McGill University, McGill’s No-Sweat Campaign and GrassRoots Association for Student Power have lent support to the cause.

So too have the Students’ Society at McGill University, the Ryerson Student Union and the Canadian Federation of Students.

SSMU passed a resolution Oct. 9 to endorse the boycott of American Eagle, which committed it to distribute material and information about the boycott and promote legal actions in regard to the campaign.

Students are the key demographic for American Eagle; UNITE HERE believes a student boycott could impact the company’s image, if not its profits, and encourage it to change its distributor or pressure it to allow its workers to unionize.

Even if students are American Eagle’s target market, should student unions assume the role of moral compass?

The University of Victoria Students’ Society learned this lesson the hard way following its decision to ban Canadian Forces recruiters from campus; students want unions to represent their interests on campus, but not to determine their morals or values.

In this case, why are student groups getting involved in a labour dispute between workers in a Mississauga factory and their employer? Furthermore, isn’t American Eagle the wrong target?

A student union is not qualified to take a stance on this issue without having full knowledge of the workers’ conditions " it would be convincing students to stand behind a cause they don’t understand.

Instead, student groups should aim to promote discussion about an issue.

One could argue with its endorsement SSMU is encouraging debate, forcing students to question the labour practices of companies students support and not making students take a stand.

It could also be argued such a boycott is the most effective method to bring about change; American Eagle is NLS’ largest client and by pressuring American Eagle " potentially affecting profits, but definitely affecting image " the distributor could be forced to change its ways or lose its largest contract.

Student unions, however, should focus efforts on issues closer to their home and constituents; it should investigate the university distributor’s labour practices rather than involve itself in a labour dispute between a private company not affiliated with the school and its workers.

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