William Yates

Plan II junior and student activist Bianca Hinz-Foley spoke last Thursday on the main mall about her incarceration connected to the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition sit-in last Wednesday April 18. The arrest of the 18 activists has inspired both disillusionment and support within the UT community.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

The student-led Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition demanded to speak with President William Powers Jr. during their April 18 sit-in, and the administration has responded by locking students out of the President’s office while also offering to meet with select members of the group.

The administration locked the doors in the stairwell leading up to the President’s office on the fourth floor of the Main Building Tuesday morning. University spokesman Gary Susswein said the University decided to exercise an abundance of caution in light of last week’s protest.

“[Locking the stairwell doors] was done for several reasons, including the presence of a visiting foreign dignitary on campus, Tuesday only, and the recent disruptions to staff members who work on the fourth floor,” Susswein said.

UT Police Department officer David Sorrell, who guards the President’s office, said the office would remain on lockdown for the rest of the week.

Students who support the coalition’s demand that the University affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor monitoring organization, were unable to deliver their letters of concern to the President’s office, said Sabina Hinz-Foley, a Plan II junior who was among the 18 arrested last Wednesday.

The locked doors were representative of the University’s unwillingness to speak with students about the issue of labor conditions in factories producing UT apparel, said William Yates, coalition leader and Asian studies senior.

“This is symbolic of how much they [the administration] want to communicate with students,” Yates said. “People just wanted to do peaceful letter drops.”

Last Friday night, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly attempted to arrange a meeting between President Powers and coalition members Carson Chavana, a geography senior, and Alonzo Mendoza, a special education graduate student. Chavana and Mendoza were not arrested last Wednesday.

Reagins-Lilly confirmed that she called Alonzo shortly after 10 p.m. Friday and at 8:40 p.m. on Saturday. She also confirmed that she sent Chavana several text messages over the weekend.

“It’s not uncommon for me to have conversations with students at nine or 10 at night,” Lilly said. “My intention was never to catch the students off-guard.”

Susswein said the administration is disappointed by Chavana’s decision to decline to meet with President Powers Monday.

“The President wants to continue the progressive discussion about this issue with appropriate student leadership and learn about any new developments,” Susswein said. “But he doesn’t want to sit in on the political rally that has been proposed in place of the meeting.”

Susswein said the President will not meet with Yates or former student Bianca Hinz-Foley, both of whom were arrested last Wednesday, because the President does not want to reward criminal behavior.

Yates said a meeting with Chavana alone would not be representative of the coalition or allow Bianca to present the President with first-hand information regarding the abuse of workers in factories in Honduras, which she visited in late January of this year.

“We [the coalition] are really eager to meet with the president, but with all the conditions they are setting up, this will not be a meeting for actual honest dialogue,” Yates said. “They [the administration] were just trying to do this to save face.”

Printed on Thursday, April 26, 2012 as: Tension arises in sweatshop dispute

The University attempted to arrange a Monday meeting with the student-led Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition but prohibited coalition supporters from entering the president’s office Tuesday.

At 10 p.m. on April 20, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly called coalition member Carson Chavana, a geography senior who was not arrested last Wednesday, to set up a Monday meeting between her and President William Powers Jr., Chavana said.

The coalition agreed to the meeting on the condition that coalition leaders William Yates, an Asian Studies senior, and Bianca Hinz-Foley, a former student, be present, said Yates. Both Yates and Hinz Foley were arrested during last week’s sit-in, along with 16 others who refused to leave the building at 5 p.m.

“When a fair, democratic meeting that allows for appropriate representation and that does not have a preset agenda is offered on behalf of the administration, we, the Make UT Sweatshop-Free coalition, will be more than happy to accept,” Chavana said.

The President’s office refused to meet with Yates and Hinz-Foley because they do not want to encourage criminal behavior, said UT spokesman Gary Susswein.

“[Chavana] initially indicated a willingness to meet with President Powers but has since rejected the invitation, instead offering to meet President Powers off site, as part of larger group that includes a politician, union leader, the recently-arrested students and others, and only in the context of what she called ‘serious negotiations,’” Susswein said.

Yates said the administration was trying to rush a meeting so that they could claim to have met with the students and sweep the sweatshop controversy under the rug. Yates said Chavana alone could not represent the broad coalition or provide the President with in-depth information regarding conditions at factories producing UT apparel.

“The meeting would have been a sham,” Yates said.

Susswein said he was confused by the response to the proposed meeting because the group has been demanding a meeting with the president for over a year. The offer to meet with the President still stands and could be arranged for a later date, he said.

Susswein said the administration decided to lock the President’s office because of security concerns and to prevent further disruption of office staff.

Yates said the Tuesday lockout was indicative of the University’s larger response to the coalition’s message.

“This is really evident of how [the administration] is not ready to meet on this and how they are not taking students seriously,” Yates said. 

International Relations and Global Studies senior Billy Yates is embraced by a friend as he prepares to speak out against the arrests of 18 students at the UT Sweatshop-Free CoalitionÂ’s protest Wednesday. The group gathered in front of the tower Thursday afternoon to demand that President Powers drop the charges against the students.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Howeth | Daily Texan Staff

All 18 protesters arrested Wednesday in the lobby of President William Powers Jr.’s office were released from Austin Police Department custody Thursday morning and gathered on the Tower steps at noon to reiterate their message and rally support.

The protesters, who are members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition, drew more than 50 people to the rally.

Coalition members including Asian studies senior William Yates, former UT student Bianca Hinz-Foley and Latin American studies junior Jessica Alvarenga addressed the crowd. Assistant English professor Snehal Shingavi and education professor Noah de Lissovoy also spoke on the steps in support of those arrested.

Shingavi said the Fair Labor Association, the labor monitoring organization with which UT affiliates, fails to ensure the basic rights of factory workers producing UT apparel because it is beholden to the corporations it ostensibly monitors.

“Asking the FLA to verify that there are no human rights abuses is like asking [former Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry] Sandusky to make sure there is no pedophilia,” Shingavi said.

The University should instead join the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization that protects workers’ rights, Shingavi said.

Standing near the marble plaque where the University’s Core Value — to transform lives for the benefit of society — is engraved, de Lissovoy said the University should stand behind the arrested students.

“Instead of prosecution, the University should think about supporting these students,” de Lissovoy said. “They acted upon the principles that any decent liberal arts and sciences education should stand for. We as educators should support this.”

As of 6 p.m. Thursday, more than 20 UT faculty members had signed an online open letter to the administration requesting that the University drop all charges against the students.

The group has been protesting the University’s affiliation with the FLA for at least two years.

Speaking on behalf of the University’s administration, director of media relations Gary Susswein said Wednesday’s protest has not changed the University’s stance on the issue. UT will maintain its affiliation with the FLA and will not join the WRC, he said.

“Our position remains the same,” Susswein said. “The issue is closed.”

Yates said Wednesday’s acts of civil disobedience opened up a new period of opportunity for the movement to eliminate the production of UT trademarked apparel in sweatshop conditions. Yates serves as a regional coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops, which broadly defines sweatshops as any place where the human rights of workers are abused, according to the USAS website.

“This is really a new beginning,” Yates said. “[Wednesday’s events] have really reinvigorated our campaign. Community members, donors and alumni are upset that students are being arrested for this. Now it’s a matter of mobilizing these people to take it to the next level.”

The coalition’s plan is to use its momentum to make President Powers aware that many members of the UT community support the University joining the WRC, Yates said.

“This whole next week we will have delegations of community supporters — from students, from nonprofits, from faculty — deliver letters to the president’s office,” Yates said. “It should be peaceful.”

Members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition prepare to be arrested during a sit-in outside President Powers' office Wednesday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

Update 11:39 p.m.: Story updated to reflect that 19 protesters, not all of them students, were part of the protest and were arrested.

Update 7:22 p.m.: The story has been updated to reflect developments and additional edits.

Update 5:24 p.m.: According to UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey, "approximately 20" protesters have been arrested.

Update 5:07 p.m.: The University has released a statement about the student protesters in the Main Building. "The university is committed to ensuring acceptable working conditions for everyone who manufactures products that carry our logos," said UT spokesman Gary Susswein.

At 12:30pm 17 students and two non-student members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition entered President Powers' office, room 400 of the Main Building. A UT police department officer attempted to stop some of the protesters from entering the office, but they pushed past him.

Upon entering the office, the students sat down and began setting up laptops to spread information on social media networks and to set up a Livestream feed to broadcast live video of the protest. William Yates, one of the group’s leaders, read a short speech to the office staff present. Yates said the group was living up to the core values of the University by demanding UT’s apparel be produced in conditions that do not violate human rights. A total of five police officers arrived, including the UTPD chief Robert Dahlstrom.

Assistant dean of students Mary Mercatoris entered the office and told the group that if they left the office to protest in the lobby, they would be escorted by police to and from the restroom downstairs. After approximately 30 minutes of occupying the President’s office, the UTPD chief told the group that after one more warning the students would be arrested and removed from the office on criminal trespassing charges, he said.

The group decided to leave the office and move into the lobby and did so at approximately 1:00 p.m. Once outside, campus fire marshal Garland Waldrop told the group that the fire code allowed for no more than the 19 present to stand or sit in the lobby.

Once outside, the group were told by Mercatoris that she had misinformed them and that they would not be allowed to use bathrooms without being locked out of the lobby. A police officer then told the protesters that if they urinated or defecated in the lobby, they would be arrested on charges of public indecency.

At about 2:30 p.m. Gary Susswein of the President’s office gave an interview to the Daily Texan. Susswein said the case was closed and that the $50,000 cost of meeting the student’s demand to switch to the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization, was too high for the University in a time of budget cuts. When asked whether human rights were worth more than $50,000, Susswein said the Fair Labor Association, the oversight organization that UT is currently a member of, sufficiently protects the rights of workers producing UT apparel.

At 3 p.m. students gathered on the third floor stairwell of the Main Building. They began chanting and could be seen and heard through the stairwell by the activists locked in the lobby. Mercatoris arrived and warned the supporters gathered in the stairwell that they were disrupting office business and that if they continued to be loud that they would be arrested on trespassing charges. Students on the third floor and in the lobby continued to chant at a lower volume and Mercatoris did not threaten them with arrest again.

At 3:15 p.m. activist Jessica Alarenga read in the stairwell Martin Luther King Jr.’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Yates then urged the activists gathered on the third floor to call their friends and spread the word. The plan, he said, was to bring more people to protest in front of the tower in case students in the lobby are arrested.

At 4:20 p.m. Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly arrived and told the activists in the lobby that they would be arrested by UTPD if they stayed in the space after 5 p.m. At 4:30 p.m. protesters began rubbing Vaseline on their wrists in preparation for handcuffs and started to pack up their things. At 4:35 group leader William Yates tells the group to make sure they were wearing UT apparel. By 4:40 almost all of the protesters wear burnt orange.

At 4:45 p.m. the protesters sat in a circle and held hands on the west side of the lobby, near the elevators. Yates reminded the group to not say anything beyond their name and birthdate. At 4:50 p.m. UTPD Chief Robert Dahlstrom and Dean Lilly returned to the lobby.  Dahlstrom told the protesters that they would be arrested if they stayed and offered them a final chance to leave. At 4:53 Dean Lilly told students that they would be referred to Student Judicial Services for punishment that might affect their academic standing at the University.

At 4:48 Chief Dahlstrom again told the protesters that they would be arrested. When the tower rang 5 p.m. UTPD officers began to handcuff the protesters with zip ties. The protesters chanted "What do we want? W-R-C. When do we want it? Now." The officers loaded the protesters into the elevator, which took them to the ground floor. The activists were met with chants of "This is what democracy looks like," from supporters when they exited the elevator. Police took them to a UTPD van parked in Main Building's east loading bay.

At 5:50 the police van drove through a crowd of protesters on the north side of the Tower. The van contained more than half of those arrested. At approximately 6:00 p.m. a second van left with the remainder of the activists with the exception of Adrian Orozco, who remained in the loading bay surrounded by police officers.