Ending the Business of Injustice: Anti-Sweatshop Activism at the University of Michigan, 1999-2007


The University of Michigan has a long history of student activism. Although many are familiar with the Vietnam War protests on campus in the 1960s, few are aware of the anti-sweatshop movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Inspired by the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer internship program in 1997, college students began forming anti-sweatshop groups, often under the banner of the national United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) organization, and bringing the issue to campuses. University of Michigan students launched Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, otherwise known as SOLE, in 1998 with the aim of increasing the transparency of university clothing contracts and evaluating conditions at factories that manufactured university apparel. In 1999, SOLE staged its first major action: a 51 hour long sit-in in President Bollinger’s office to demand a stronger code of conduct from the administration to protect overseas garment workers manufacturing university apparel. Over the next decade SOLE continued to push the university to reform its labor policies as well as working on local labor issues. SOLE’s efforts on campus led to the creation of the President’s Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights, the adoption of a stronger code of conduct, the university’s membership in the Worker’s Rights Consortium, and an increase in overall scrutiny of Michigan’s suppliers.

This exhibit follows SOLE's emergence as a major force on the University of Michigan’s campus in the late 1990s to their eventual fracturing and decline by 2010. The tabs at the right provide an outline of some of the critical points in the anti-sweatshop movement-- from the occupation of President Bollinger's office, to their work with local unions, to their organized efforts against UM’s contract with Nike, to the arrests during a later occupation of the president’s office in 2007. The legacies section considers the impact of SOLE on local, nation, and international labor relations as well as its impact on its own members, many of whom pursued careers in public service, labor relationships, and social justice.  For the first time, this website explores the contributions of University of Michigan students to the anti-sweatshop movement and extends the history of UM student activism nearly to the present.