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Stopping Sweatshop Labor in Sports - Sept. 25, 2002

By Steven Potter

While some sports fans in town for the All-Star Game may worry about the authenticity of their Major League Baseball apparel and collectibles, one local group is instead trying to get the word out about the working conditions of those who make the official clothing of major league sports teams.

Fans attending the All-Star game were met in the parking lot outside Miller Park on Tuesday by representatives from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who were passing out flyers and circulating petitions asking that the Milwaukee Brewers stop selling merchandise produced in Third World sweatshops and begin distributing union-made goods.

Clothing and other items produced at sweatshop labor facilities around the world have long been the target of student and social activists because of the dangerous conditions at many of the factories and the incredibly low wages their workers earn. It's estimated that 90% of sweatshop laborers are women under the age of 30, some even pre-teen. Universities were the first prominent targets and as a result of sit-ins and educational efforts geared toward the various administrations, many schools now pay attention to where gear with the school's logo on it is made.

IWW is part of a global movement comprised of numerous groups that work to raise awareness about the issue of sweatshop labor by holding protests, leafleting and holding educational workshops.

About 20 IWW volunteers circulated some 4,000 flyers urging fans not to purchase specific items such as All-Star coffee mugs made in China, baseballs made in Costa Rica and Nike shirts made in Guatemala, among others.

The petitions and flyers also asked that the Brewers publicly disclose which countries produce their merchandise and that they adhere to the Workers Rights Consortium Code of Conduct, which requires that workers be paid a living wage and have their right to work in a safe environment respected. A living wage in many of these countries is perhaps a dollar an hour.

Prior to Tuesday's game, IWW volunteers passed out flyers at two Brewers games in June, which led to some trouble with Miller Park security and Milwaukee County Sheriff deputies, says Gerry Gunderson, a member of the Milwaukee branch of the IWW.

"We were testing the waters," says Gunderson, adding that the waters were quite hot.

On both occasions, deputies told the volunteers that Miller Park is private property and that their leafleting would be allowed only in satellite parking lots far from the stadium. If the volunteers broke that rule, the sheriff deputies said they'd be arrested for trespassing.

The IWW then attempted to discuss these restrictions with the Brewers' management, says Gunderson. Their reply, he continues, was to claim complete ownership of Miller Park and all of its related activities, a topic that has been debated due to the incredible amount of taxpayer money that went to pay for the stadium's construction.

Also attached in their reply was a copy of the Brewers' policy regarding "expressive activities," which states that such activities are allowed "in the plaza area outside of Miller Park behind home plate from the Workers Memorial Wall to the transit bus circle along the west sidewalk of Robin Yount Way," but continues to say that the designated area may be changed at will.

Milwaukee Brewers officials did not return phone calls on the topic. But Major League Baseball spokesperson Richard Levin says he's never heard of the league having an official stance one way or another on sweatshop labor, which raises questions about whether the topic has ever even been brought up.

Gunderson says Major League Baseball is one of the largest markets for sweatshop products, which is why it was so important to get the word out at the All-Star game despite the threat of arrest.

"We weren't going to be threatened by them or their vague and contradictory policies," he says.