A Conversation with Justin Rodriguez of Buy Your Values, UCLA
For the past couple of years, Ethix has been working to bring ethical purchasing to the campuses of colleges and universities. Alongside Labor 411, a one-stop resource for people who want to buy union-made goods and services, Ethix has created Buy Your Values, with the first chapter at University of California, Los Angeles. To learn more about Buy Your Values and the work being done at UCLA, we spoke with Justin Rodriguez, the Buy Your Values intern.
Ethix: Tell us about Buy Your Values, UCLA.
Justin: Buy Your Values, UCLA is a student-run campaign fighting for greater standards around worker democracy, worker rights, and environmental sustainability to be implemented in UCLA apparel retail and procurement. Our campaign has specifically aimed to build bridges between garment workers and students, through organizing in support of the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB 62), as well as on-campus, working to secure licenses for union-made or worker-cooperative-made apparel and other merchandise. The initiative has been carried out by a number of students in different clubs and student government offices, such as the Facilities Commission’s Environmental Justice Now Collective, Refine LA, and the Student Labor Advocacy Project.The ultimate goal of the ongoing campaign is to materially support garment workers, both those fighting for their rights in exploitative conditions, as well as workers who have organized unions and cooperatives in order to actualize power in the workplace. Our mission has been to connect students with that fight, and to do it by building on the movements that have come before it, such as by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). We stand on the shoulders of those before us.
Ethix: How did you get involved with this initiative?
Justin: This campaign was created in community with some other student leaders when we were in student government together. I had been recently elected as the Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC) General Representative 2, just as I had been interning for the Labor 411 Foundation, based in Los Angeles, where I was given a directive to re-invigorate garment worker solidarity on campus. We have an incredible USAS chapter on campus, which goes by Student Labor Advocacy Project, or SLAP, which I was involved in during my first few years as a student. But SLAP has generally focused on University of California career and student worker movement-building, for which it has achieved great successes. I wanted to find what could be done with supporting garment workers, and bounced a lot of ideas off of my colleague in USAC, Sachi Cooper, the 2020-2021 Facilities Commissioner, as well as a veteran of the anti-sweatshop solidarity movement, Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch. We settled on a plan to uplift what USAS had previously done in its early 2000s campaigns to ensure Codes of Conduct were established at universities, while forging on a path to connect our UCLA Store with products embodying a higher standard of worker empowerment. So as you can see, it was a lot of threads coming together which eventually wove into a strong campaign.
Ethix: What would you like to see accomplished in the coming months for Buy Your Values at UCLA?
Justin: I want to build the materials and structure for something greater than just what this campaign was able to ensure. Getting the products in the Store was only a goal to build a demand for students to materially support a greater standard of worker empowerment. Beyond that, this movement really seeks to build solidarity and meaningful connections between garment workers and students. That means students organizing in LA-based garment worker campaigns, bringing garment workers to campus for programming and workshops, and at every step of the way, figuring out how to materially support workers. For materials, I would love to create guides and slide decks to a series of workshops to educate students on the UCLA licensing process and Code of Conduct, on the importance of worker empowerment, and on the importance of environmental sustainability in the garment industry. For establishing a structure, I definitely want to make sure we can establish some sort of committee made up of primarily students and faculty connections we have made to carry on the mission of Buy Your Values, both ensuring investment into products in the Store and pushing the movement forward.
Ethix: What does this movement mean to you?
Justin: Supporting unions and worker cooperatives means believing in a better future. Our campaigns for justice are sometimes too squarely focused on damage control within the current system, when we must also support initiatives by workers to build something greater. Only then can we provide the alternative to behemoths such as the over-producing, labor-exploiting garment industry. While I don’t have a very personal connection to the garment industry, I have met workers along this two-year campaign, and become ever-more convinced that worker democracy, through unions and worker cooperatives, is the future we must pursue in all industries. It’s our role as students to build a future world, and I choose to build one where working people can live fulfilled lives where they are safe and healthy.
Ethix: What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of with BYV?
Justin: Throughout the two years of our campaign, we have tried so many different strategies and demands, such as pushing for the Code of Conduct to be amended, asking for a pilot program to be started at the UCLA Store for a line of ethically-made products, and attempting to create our own online e-commerce shop for ethically-made products. UCLA Trademarks & Licensing eventually told us that the best pathway would be to find a retail buyer who would sell our partners’ union-made and worker-cooperative-made products. We first organized for broad student support for this initiative through a myriad of ways. Over a period of several months, we conducted many 1:1 meetings to ask questions about our campaign. We distributed a letter of support to get signatures from organizations, and to build a base who would support the products once they were being sold for retail. We secured signatures from the Garment Worker Center, the UCLA Labor Center, five student organizations, and all 15 USAC offices. We then approached both the UCLA Store, as well as the privately-owned Campus Store, with our products, our base of support, and an ask to take a chance on us. We ended up getting an answer from the Campus Store first, and they were interested in an initial order of COLLECTION-brand tote bags. We’re now waiting on a license from UCLA Trademarks & Licensing.
Ethix: What else would you like to tell us about your work with BYV?
Justin: It was not possible without a ton of help from all the people and organizations I named in these answers, and then some. There have been countless ups and downs throughout the two years we have been organizing. I would like to thank Cherri Senders, Daniel Cardozo, Alayna Milby, and Sahid Fawaz for their consistent support in campaign development and navigating my roles as an intern and student organizer. I would like to thank ASUCLA staff and administration for giving advice along the way to best make the case for a license. I would love to thank Ragini Srinivasan, Cameron Jewett, Jane Ni, Sachi Cooper, and countless other students who have helped at one time or another in furthering this campaign. I would like to thank all the organizations who signed on in support of our campaign. I hope the work continues in building connections between students and garment workers.
Buy Your Values is the secular counterpart to our Catholic Ethical Purchasing Alliance. Products made by COLLECTION in North Carolina, Unionwear, and Equal Exchange are featured in both initiatives. Buy Your Values recently came out with a catalog with ethical purchasing options for student groups on campus. This catalog, along with other resources, can be found on the resources page on their website. To learn more about Buy Your Values, you can visit their website at buyyourvaluesucla.org and follow them on Facebook at Buy Your Values at UCLA and Instagram @buyyourvaluesucla.