A Brief History of Sweatshop-Free

Berkeley Joins Other Cities In Standing Up for Human Rights and Higher Labor Standards Everywhere


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From my new home in New York, I was informed that the City of Berkeley recently passed a sweatshop-free ordinance. I cannot express how deeply grateful I am to the mayor, the city council and the countless people that worked, often behind the scenes, to make this dream a reality.

For three years, I served on the City of Berkeley's Commission on Labor, from March 2004 to March 2007. During my second year on the Commission, Councilman Kriss Worthington and then-Commission Chairman Russell Kilday-Hicks educated commission members on efforts by various American cities spend taxpayer dollars wisely by altering their procurement methods. Often overlooked, in my opinion, is the impact that our spending has on standards of living across the world.

As a result, labor commission members formed a "sweatfree" subcommittee to develop an ordinance fit for council approval. Like other cities, the goal was to ensure that any money spent on procuring goods would support companies who engaged in positive labor practices, and not support those who engaged in labor exploitation.

The subcommittee included members the Peace and Justice Commission, former Chairman Steve Freedkin and member Diana Bohn. They took the lead on their Commission's behalf and proved to be invaluable partners. Two months after I was elected Chairman of the Commission on Labor, we held a public hearing where Chie Abad, Valerie Orth, Harry Brill, Gary Horrocks, Maggie Guerra, Abby Levine and several others spoke about the need to pass an ordinance. I recall being moved by Chie Abad's story of having to work in sweatshop conditions for many years.

Thanks to the efforts of the speakers, Commission members and Sweatfree Communities, the commission voted to recommend that the city allocate $60,000 to enforce an ordinance.

Over the next several months, members of the Labor and Peace and Justice Commissions held meetings with the city council and staff to decide on the specifics of an ordinance. We spent countless hours debating each facet of every draft produced. Finally, on Sept. 27, 2006, the Labor Commission voted to recommend the ordinance's adoption. This vote was reaffirmed a year later. The new law is a result of sometimes heated debate, but ultimately compromise between all of us.

It is easy for critics to complain that the adoption of this ordinance is yet another instance where the City of Berkeley is "meddling" in international affairs. While I can't vouch for every action taken by city government, I strongly stand by our efforts on this. We have joined Maine, Pennsylvania and the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and countless other governments to end labor exploitation across the world. As we recruit more governments to adopt these policies, our coalition will make sweeping positive impacts on standards of living around the world. It is also easy to dismiss this bill as the result of partisanship. This isn't a partisan issue. The fact is, as I said in an editorial published in 2006, "as citizens of the richest nation on the planet, we are generally able to live comfortable lives. But millions of others aren't as fortunate. There are those are forced to work in deplorable sweatshop conditions, with unreasonable demands such fifteen hour workdays for 13 cents an hour. As Americans we must speak out for those who can't."

Once again, Berkeley has spoken out on the issues that matter. Thank you.

Nicholas Smith is the former chairman of the City of Berkeley Commission on Labor. Reply to [email protected]

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