The post-Labor Day lull did not stop the members of Students Toward a New Democracy (S.T.A.N.D.), an on-campus social activism club, from submitting a letter Tuesday to University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala.
The organization wants more Hurricanes apparel to be produced in an ethically sound factory called Alta Gracia, which is located in a small town in the Dominican Republic. The UM Bookstore currently carries only two racks of clothing produced in Alta Gracia, according to Rebecca Garcia, former president of S.T.A.N.D.
To bring attention to its campaign, S.T.A.N.D. hosted a public presentation Tuesday with Yenny Perez, the secretary of finances of the Alta Gracia Union, in the Student Activities Center’s Senate Room. She spoke about the challenges she faced first as a mistreated factory worker and later as a union organizer.
Perez is part of a national college tour led by Solidarity Ignite, a Washington D.C.-based group that supports Alta Gracia. As a single mother of four children, she was part of the movement that created the Alta Gracia Union, which supports workers’ rights to better wages and access to health insurance, among other benefits. She helped organize the union in reaction to the closing of the town’s former garment factory, BJ&B.
Perez and the other 2,499 workers at BJ&B were mistreated and were not given enough wages to survive. Perez had been working for BJ&B since 1992.
“I could not give three meals a day to my kids,” she said in Spanish.
In 2007, BJ&B formally shut down its operations, leaving most of the town’s population unemployed. Perez and four other women – including Alta Gracia’s president, Maritza Vargas – struggled to unionize and re-establish another factory.
The women received support from student groups such as United Students Against Sweatshops, a national student organization with local chapters across more than 150 campuses. They eventually negotiated a union contract, which offered additional benefits that BJ&B did not.
In comparison to BJ&B, where employees earned about $3 a week, Alta Gracia pays its employees about $3 an hour. These wages allow people to invest in education, nutrition, healthcare and improved housing.
Perez can now afford to send her all her kids to school, and she is returning to school, too.
Alta Gracia has changed the city for the better, Perez said.
“The streets are buzzing again,” she said. “There are more small businesses. You can feel the flow of money in the streets.”
Garcia has first-hand experience with the Alta Gracia difference. She traveled to Alta Gracia in January, spending two weeks there. She was the only student from Florida.
“I ingrained myself in the culture,” she said. “I ate their food and visited their homes.”
Garcia proposed that S.T.A.N.D. undertake the campaign in January after it had helped Chartwells employees’ fight for better wages and affordable health insurance. Garcia, however, said the club did not “accomplish much” because only three members were working on the campaign in the span of a semester.
Garcia and this year’s president, Anna Nordim, hope to mobilize students and support the Alta Gracia movement for improved working conditions in garment factories all over the world.
Nordim plans to organize more events like Tuesday’s, as well as letter drops, and to collaborate with other organizations, such as National Organization for Women (NOW) and Planet Kreyol-Haitian Student Organization.
For more information on the Alta Gracia campaign, visit solidarity-ignite.org.