Just in time for the holiday shopping season, demonstrators protested sweatshops and the mistreatment of workers in America — a major part of large retailers’ bottom line — at Town Square Mall in Vestal Saturday.
Members of Students Organizing Against Reynolds (SOAR), Justice Will be Served! and Ain’t I a Woman!? campaigns encouraged shoppers to boycott Wal-Mart, Reynolds and Pactiv companies for their mistreatment of workers. They used picket signs, chants and a megaphone to get their message across.
“We are supporting the protest today because Binghamton students sent letters to Wal-Marts all over the country and to Wal-Mart headquarters asking them to stand with women workers especially during this holiday season, and take Reynolds products off their shelves,” said Doreen Wang, an organizer from Ain’t I a Woman!?. “Wal-Mart is one of the biggest distributors of Reynolds products.”
Wang said the owner of Reynolds Packaging Group, Graeme Hart, represented all of the practices the protesters were trying to fight.
“He has factories all over the United States, and I don’t think people really know how he’s been part of a big effort to shut down organizing efforts by workers all across the country,” Wang said. “Wal-Mart is one of the biggest distributors of Reynolds products. And actually, letters were sent to Costco and other stores, and Wal-Mart was the only one to not respond.”
In the crowd of 70 protesters, nearly half were representatives from organizations in New York City. Wang Wan Zhen, a Chinese worker from a Pactiv factory in New Jersey, spoke about factory conditions through a translator.
“They force us to work overtime many hours, we don’t even have time to go to the bathroom, we don’t have time to eat our lunch or our food,” she said. “We’re coming together because a lot of people now, whether it’s office workers or people from different industries, are also forced to work overtime.”
Samantha Fox, a graduate student studying sociology at Binghamton University, said she wanted to inform people about these companies’ practices.
“I think events like this are mostly about getting the word out and mostly getting people to recognize there is an issue, and particularly with a labor issue which can sort of resonate with a wider population,” Fox said. “I came to the rally today to support the Pactiv workers and because, as a graduate student, eventually I’m going to be on the job market, and the same sorts of issues that have led to overwork in the Pactiv factory I’m going to face in the job market, in relation to overwork.”
Wang said she believed the event was successful based on the reactions of passing people and cars.
“I think a lot of customers were very supportive,” Wang said. “We could just tell from the beeping of the cars and the waving.”
Kai Wen Yang, an event organizer from SOAR, said a diverse group of people attended.
“I thought it went well, a lot of people showed up,” said Yang, a graduate student studying sociology. “You got professors here, you got some union members here, you got students here, residents, you got someone who worked in a nearby Wal-Mart who came up and said ‘hi’ to us.”
One observer, David Moses, doubted that sweatshops are as pervasive of a problem as protesters claimed.
“If there’s such things here in the U.S. where are they?” Moses said. “If you guys know where those are at, why don’t you turn them in and shut them down?”
Student organizers expressed hope that this event would help launch other campus activism.
“That would be in the long run, of course,” Yang said. “That’s why we have the Students Organizing Against Reynolds. We want to continue to organize on campus and off campus to attract more students and local residents and people interested to eliminate sweatshops. This is just the beginning, we want to keep attracting more students.”