Sweatshops on Trial in North Carolina

August 19th, 2008 by Phil Mattera

In April, I wrote about the efforts of my son Thomas and other students at the University of North Carolina to get UNC’s administration to endorse the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP), an initiative that seeks to improve the abysmal working conditions of employees at companies that produce university logo apparel—a big business for schools such as Carolina.

After pressing the matter for many months without getting a response, UNC student activists launched a sit-in this spring at the building containing the office of Chancellor James Moeser. The hope was that Moeser, who was planning to leave UNC, would resolve the DSP issue before departing. The administration tolerated the occupation (with certain ground rules) but dragged its feet on the supplier issue.  Finally, on May 2, after the sit-in had continued for 16 days, Moeser announced he would not act on the DSP. This prompted students to occupy his personal office. After police arrived and arrested one activist, most of the protesters left. Those who remained, including Thomas, were eventually arrested and charged with “failure to disperse.” Salma Mirza, the only one who went limp when taken into custody, was also charged with resisting arrest.

Yesterday, the five anti-sweatshop activists had their day in court in Chapel Hill. The charges, all misdemeanors, were heard in Orange County District Court right across from campus on Franklin Street, the main student shopping strip and the place where UNC fans celebrate major basketball victories. District Court normally deals with mundane matters such as traffic violations, so it caused a stir when the five defendants, all wearing blue t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Justice for All Workers,” showed up with their pro bono legal team—led by veteran civil rights lawyer Al McSurely—and supporters who filled the gallery.

The defendants’ plea of not guilty was followed by a three-hour trial presided over by Judge Pat Devine without a jury. The prosecution’s case consisted of the testimony of four police officers and a video of the arrests. As his first defense witness, McSurely called on Mirza, who started to give a detailed description of the sweatshop problem and the campaign to get universities to sign on to the DSP (around 45 have done so). When the prosecution objected, Judge Devine refused to rule the background testimony irrelevant but said that no more than five minutes could be devoted to it. In doing so, the judge made it clear she was taking it for granted that the students were justified in arguing that supplier factories were abusive and that the UNC administration was complicit. The administration, though not a party to the case and not represented at the trial, was in effect being found guilty of enabling worker exploitation.

McSurely’s other objective was to have the charges against the five students dismissed. He sought to do this in several ways: he argued that the exact charge of “failure to disperse” was inappropriate in the circumstances; he elicited testimony from the students that they had never heard a final warning that they would be subject to arrest if they did not leave the chancellor’s office; he had Linda Gomaa, the first to be arrested, testify that she was taken into custody before any kind of warning was given; and he argued that Mirza’s behavior did not constitute resisting arrest.

McSurely also presented a necessity defense, arguing that even if the students technically broke the law, they should be found not guilty because their actions were in pursuit of a higher good. This was buttressed, for example, by the testimony of defendant Tim Stallmann that the university had previously improved the working conditions of the campus housekeeping staff after students staged protests and engaged in civil disobedience.

Judge Devine did not accept any of those arguments. She concluded that the defendants knew they were crossing a line when they moved the sit-in to the the chancellor’s office; that the police adequately warned the students they would be arrested if they didn’t leave the premises; and that Mirza’s behavior constituted resisting arrest. She also rejected the necessity defense, agreeing with the prosecutor that there was insufficient “nexus” between the actions of the students and the ending of worker exploitation.

The judge, however, made it clear she had enormous respect for the five students, each of whom had been called by McSurely to testify about their commitment to social and economic justice. Sarah Hirsch, for example, described her work with Witness for Peace, and Thomas mentioned that he had just completed a ten-week program with a non-profit called Bike and Build, during which he and others cycled across the country and worked on Habit for Humanity-type housing projects along the way.

After the prosecutor indicated the state was not seeking harsh penalties, Judge Devine in effect imposed no sentences at all. Instead, she entered  a “prayer for judgment continued,” a procedure—unique to North and South Carolina, it seems—in which there is a finding of guilt but no formal conviction is entered on the defendant’s record.

All parties got what they wanted. The prosecutor got a finding of guilt, the police were vindicated in their actions, and the students got an opportunity to highlight the sweatshop issue in court and ended up with the mildest possible adverse ruling. The only real loser was the UNC administration, whose intransigence on the DSP issue emerged from the trial looking even more unreasonable.

4 Responses to “Sweatshops on Trial in North Carolina”

  1. Neil Gordon says:

    Phil,

    I’m glad to see your son is following in your footsteps. Good for him and the other students. I hope their actions motivate other students at UNC and other schools throughout the country.

  2. Doug Hoffer says:

    Phil — glad to hear your son is on the front lines; perhaps the kids should try to get ESPN to do a story; if nothing else, blast it over the blogs and embarass UNC

  3. Cheryl France says:

    Phil,

    I see the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. You should be very proud, as I suspect you are.

    Congrats for a job well done!

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