On Day 25 of a hunger strike at Purdue University, Mark Franciose's fatigue registered even through the phone lines. His tired, quiet voice -- and the sustained pauses in conversation -- conveyed just how much he was struggling to fully wake up early Monday afternoon.
“I’m light-headed, it’s hard to concentrate,” said Franciose, a senior who has restricted his diet to liquids since November 17 to put pressure on Purdue President Martin C. Jischke to sign on to a new anti-sweatshop program. “It’s hard to think and also very hard to do anything physical. We’re all trying our best not to expend much energy.”
Franciose, a member of the Purdue Organization for Labor Equality, was one of 10 Purdue students still striking 25 days in, after five other students dropped out for health reasons. Franciose himself was taken to the hospital last week, attached to an IV for several hours and told to start eating solid food. His response? Not until the university puts forward a plan to participate in the Designated Suppliers Program , a new initiative that its supporters say would require companies marketing university apparel to pay their suppliers sufficient prices to enable them to improve the working conditions of their employees.
The hunger strike is the latest -- and by far the most dramatic -- action in an 18-month student effort to encourage a new strategy activists say will facilitate better labor practices in the factories that produce garments with the Boilermakers’ logo. After a handful of rallies, a “dance-in” and a number of other informational events proved ineffective, about 15 members of the labor equality group, an affiliate of United Students Against Sweatshops , and the Purdue Alliance of Libertarian Socialists chose to raise the stakes, wagering their academics and their health, as they wait for the administration to reveal its cards. A few, including Franciose, have been starving themselves since November 17, although the bulk of strikers, said Alex Cheng, a senior, joined in November 25, the Monday after Thanksgiving.
A total of 30 different colleges have signed on  to the spirit of the Designated Suppliers Program so far, and have pledged to attempt to implement it, said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a factory monitoring organization that counts 162 college members and has sponsored the DSP. Among those colleges that have endorsed the program are the institutions in the University of California system and Duke University.
Nova, who does not have any position on the Purdue hunger strike, said a task force of representatives from participating colleges is working to hammer out the details of the program. It would require that, after a three-year phase-in process, “licensees” that purchase apparel production rights from participating universities would receive 75 percent of their products from factories that pay their employees a living wage and recognize the right of their workers to unionize. The “crucial difference” between the DSP and the current codes in place , Nova said, is that for the first time, companies like Nike and Reebok would be required to pay their suppliers a price sufficient to ensure that the standards are met. A “modest” price increase of 1 to 6 percent would likely be passed along to consumers buying their favorite institution’s products in malls or college bookstores.
“Because the DSP, if it’s implemented, will go much further toward actually achieving good worker conditions in these factories than any previous program, I think it will have a profound impact on the broader industry, to demonstrate that better conditions can be achieved,” Nova said.
But at Purdue, a committee on merchandise, marketing and licensing established in 2000 and made up of administrators, faculty and students, voted 4 to 2 in November to advise President Jischke not to sign on to the Designated Suppliers Program. “No one at Purdue is in favor of sweatshops,” said James Dworkin, chancellor of Purdue North Central, a regional campus, and chair of the committee. But efforts to monitor factory conditions worldwide by the Worker Rights Consortium and Fair Labor Association, both of which Purdue have joined, have been “somewhat successful,” Dworkin said, and it was the view of the committee that change should be enacted through strengthening the processes already in place, not creating a new, potentially “unworkable” one that holds certain university contractors to a higher standard than others.
“In other things that we do at the university, we don’t require unionization and we don’t have a living wage,” said Dworkin, also a professor of management. The new program “would have a different standard for certain types of products than the other types of business operations that we deal with at the university.” Also, Dworkin added, “some say it would do more harm than good,” explaining that the pool of factories being monitored would decrease, as only those factories that could comply with the more stringent standards would be scrutinized under the DSP. “What’s going to happen to all those other employees?”
"Would you rather have a minimal or ephemeral effect on 1,000 factories or a significant or lasting effect on a few hundred factories?" Nova said in response. "The DSP makes the latter choice."
The Fair Labor Association, the other main organization that monitors factory conditions for colleges, has also raised concerns about the implementation of the DSP. Its director argued in a March letter  that the program “places too much emphasis on complying with
unilaterally specified provisions” and “underestimates the degree of capacity building, over time, required to achieve sustainable change.”
Yet, Franciose, a student representative on Purdue’s committee on merchandise, which in November submitted a dissenting opinion to Purdue's president in addition to the majority one, said the committee did not demonstrate a “good faith” commitment to considering the issues and added that current tactics to reform sweatshops aren’t working. “Their choices are either to continue with a system that everyone agrees doesn’t work and, in effect, do nothing, or to sign on,” he said. “If they say that they’re actually committed to saying that Purdue clothing isn’t made in sweatshops, there’s really no reason for them not to sign this.”
Four student strikers met with Jischke and Dworkin Wednesday to discuss the issue. In a statement released after the meeting, Jischke said he would announce his decision on the next step for the university “within the next few days.” He cited contradictory approaches endorsed by the university committee and the hunger strikers as being worthy of his consideration.
“These are complex issues. While it is easy to agree on the ultimate goal, there remains disagreement on the best approach to the problem,” said Jischke, who also urged hunger strikers to discontinue their fast in the interest of their own health.
Since then, strikers have gone to class when they can -- “It’s gotten progressively harder as the strike has worn on longer and longer,” Franciose said. They spend their nights in an encampment in a building adjacent to the student union, and spend their days at their other camp in the administration building, which closes at the end of the business day. Jeanne Norberg, a Purdue spokeswoman, said that university health services are available to the strikers. The administration has not contacted parents, she said, as it is Purdue policy to deal directly with students.
“The students that have been going for more than three weeks now are looking pretty grim. They’re very, very thin, they’re weak and not healthy at all,” said Alex Cheng, a senior who dropped out of the hunger strike after 10 days to allow himself some recovery time before finals. The strike, although effective in attracting the administration’s attention, has been “outrageously” prolonged, said Cheng, who said he feels both confident -- and concerned -- that some of his peers will keep up their strike until the administration agrees to join the group of institutions supporting the DSP.
“I’m extremely worried," Cheng said. "I really don’t know how many days they can survive like this without doing serious permanent damage to their health."