Students who attended the brief speech by Verit√© official Mil Niepold last Wednesday saw an unusual model for bringing about global justice. Verit√©, a non-profit organization, works closely with corporations on a fee-for-service basis. It is hired by companies to inspect labor conditions and to suggest methods for change.
And while there is no doubt that in the more than 700 factory inspections it has conducted Verit√© has brought about positive change, the changes that Verit√© makes are only the changes that the client company has allowed. Since Verit√© is not a name-naming organization, the results of its audits are disclosed only to the client company-any information that passes to the public afterward is what the company deems acceptable for release.
Verit√© boasts that because of this confidential relationship with each company, its auditors are the ones allowed to inspect factories, rather than the protesters who march outside the gate.
It is those very protesters, though, who have put public pressure on the company in the first place to improve working conditions. Were it not for the fact that people have become increasingly aware of the exploitative practices of major corporations, there would be no incentive to allow a group like Verit√© to inspect the factories at all.
Verit√© is a good organization, and it definitely evinces change, but it is paid by the very companies it investigates and answers first to them. While Verit√© deserves praise for its work, it must be recognized that the efforts of truly independent human rights groups are what make that work possible at all.
St. John’s would do well to recognize this, too.
It is no secret that St. John’s University has ties with Nike, and it is no secret that those ties have caused the University some pains. Jim Keady’s refusal to endorse the Nike label by wearing the trademark “swoosh” and subsequent departure from the sports program still affects us today. In fact, Students for Global Justice-the sponsors of the lecture series-has its roots in the public relations campaign that followed the controversy. The group organized by the administration to tour Nike factories and show St. John’s commitment to fair treatment of workers is the same one that has evolved into the student group we have today-an organization still very much under the guidance and influence of University authority.
Like Verit√©, the goals of Students for Global Justice are noble and worthy of emulation, but also like Verit√©, the same connections to power that make them effective make them dependent. And also like Verit√©, the benefits that they enjoy are not enjoyed by others with identical goals. Just as independent human rights groups are barred from inspecting factories as Verit√© walks in on company business, student groups at St. John’s are unable to secure charters because they are not as safely in pocket or because they have different views from officials in power. A perfect example of this is of the fact that St. John’s did not allow the Campus Greens an official charter, a travesty for which there is no excuse. Even the thin rationalization that the Campus Greens’ stance on reproductive choices is contrary to the St. John’s mission holds no water, as the Campus Democrats support a party officially in favor of abortion and still maintain their charter.
Regardless, St. John’s should not censor or limit political expression because some people in the administration hold different views. It is not their place to do so and they do not have the right. Students fund campus groups through their tuition and mandatory activities fees; therefore, the student interest that enabled the Campus Greens to form in the first place is the only justification needed for their charter.
By only supporting P.R.-safe, controlled student activism, St. John’s does a disservice to its students and to itself. In the same way that Verit√© relies on independent groups to provide the public awareness that makes its job possible, Students for Global Justice depends on the people in groups like the Campus Greens to rally students to the cause of social awareness. It would be too harsh to think that St. John’s is so afraid of criticism or variety in political thought that it must discourage students from organizing a political group not under its easy control or firmly under its thumb, but if the only type of social awareness accepted is their party line, that is what will be assumed. The same way that Verit√© cannot exist without public support for workers rights, involvement in social programs like Students for Global Justice at St. John’s will atrophy without independent groups like the Campus Greens.