Over the past several days, a labor dispute has developed in a Korean-owned apparel manufacturing plant in Mexico. As this dispute grew, communications from numerous local, national and international sources began to come through the UW-Madison chancellor's office, seeking to apprise me of the situation and insisting that I intervene.
My office took immediate steps to explore the situation and determined that much of the information being sent around was either erroneous or contradictory and, more importantly, that no one reliable overview was available. The lack of reliable information in a matter like this, and the hurried escalation of correspondence and demands for action regarding it, require some personal comment about where I believe UW-Madison stands on issues of worker rights, what the university is doing to advance and protect those rights in a responsible, informed manner, and what this university will and will not do in relation to curbing global labor abuses.
This university, with the active participation and encouragement of its students and staff, has been at the forefront of collegiate efforts to curb \sweatshop"" abuses as they influence the production of college and university apparel.
We have implemented a code of conduct for our licensees that is among the most stringent in the country. We have continually explored associations with organizations that promise the capacity to investigate and enforce workplace standards on a global basis, including those affecting our licensees, and have pushed those organizations to adopt the strongest practicable enforcement measures.
In an effort to further understand the complicated issues associated with an endeavor of this scale, we helped to finance and participated in a pilot-monitoring project with five other institutions involving examination of factory conditions in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Korea, Mexico and Taiwan. We sponsored a national symposium on another complicated issue, that of a living wage for workers, and are sending observers to a follow-up conference being hosted by the University of Notre Dame. We are, and will continue to be, fully engaged with the fundamental features of worker rights.
The university is not, however, and will not become a global police force for episodes of labor controversy that can and do develop on a daily basis throughout the world.
The only viable manner in which to influence worker rights on a sustained basis is through concerted action. That is why we have explored affiliations with the Fair Labor Association, the Worker Rights Consortium and other organizations holding the promise of practical monitoring and enforcement on a worldwide scale. We will continue in this approach. We will not jump into a labor controversy every time one is claimed. There is as much potential for disagreement between workers about their shared interests as there is between workers and management and only a careful, systemic approach to investigation, monitoring and enforcement will be of any lasting use. That is where I believe the resources of this university should be directed.
John Wiley is the chancellor of UW-Madison.