Strategizing against Sweatshops

The Global Economy, Student Activism, and Worker Empowerment

Matthew S. Williams
Book Cover

PB: $34.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1822-7
Publication: Jan 20

HC: $99.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1821-0
Publication: Jan 20

Ebook: $34.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1823-4
Publication: Jan 20

292 pages
6 x 9
3 figs.

Explores how U.S. college students engaged in strategically innovative activism to help sweatshop workers across the world

Read the Preface and Chapter 9 (pdf).


For the past few decades, the U.S. anti-sweatshop movement was bolstered by actions from American college students. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) effectively advanced the cause of workers’ rights in sweatshops around the world. Strategizing against Sweatshops chronicles the evolution of student activism and presents an innovative model of how college campuses are a critical site for the advancement of global social justice.

Matthew Williams shows how USAS targeted apparel companies outsourcing production to sweatshop factories with weak or non-existent unions. USAS did so by developing a campaign that would support workers organizing by leveraging their college’s partnerships with global apparel firms like Nike and Adidas to abide by pro-labor codes of conduct.

Strategizing against Sweatshops exemplifies how organizations and actors cooperate across a movement to formulate a coherent strategy responsive to the conditions in their social environment. Williams also provides a model of political opportunity structure to show how social context shapes the chances of a movement’s success—and how movements can change that political opportunity structure in turn. Ultimately, he shows why progressive student activism remains important.


“Strategizing against Sweatshops tells the important story of the global aspirations of a national campaign begun on college campuses. In the wake of a decline in both manufacturing and organized labor in America, young activists organized against inhumane working conditions abroad. Following a complicated commercial trail in search of vulnerabilities, creative organizers identified diverse targets and instituted innovative approaches to activism. In an era of resurgent youth activism, Matthew Williams’s enlightening analysis is especially welcome.”
David S. Meyer, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Irvine, and author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America

“Strategizing against Sweatshops offers an in-depth examination of how a social movement shifts from a haphazard set of tactics to a well-organized, coordinated national-level approach. Williams’s rare up-close look at how these strategies develop and his careful analysis of the detailed data on the anti-sweatshop movement produce a fascinating empirical study.
Holly McCammon, Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University, and author of The U.S. Women’s Jury Movements and Strategic Adaptation: A More Just Verdict

"Williams offers a highly relevant study of the US-based anti-sweatshop movement and its global connections.... Adding to the small number of studies on this generation of social movements, Williams reveals young activists engaged in enduring, innovative strategizing and old-fashioned shoe-leather organizing. Scholars and activists can learn much from their handling of the typical grassroots/bureaucratic tension in social-movement growth and development.... Summing Up: Recommended."

"Williams’s careful attention to the political opportunity structures that activists navigate is a helpful heuristic that more scholars should emulate."

Table of Contents

Preface: The Continuing Relevance of Progressive Student Activism in an Age of Right-Wing Populism

1. Introduction: Theorizing Social Movement Strategy

2. Globalization, the Apparel Industry, and the Roots of Sweatshops
3. Higher Education as a Political Opportunity Structure

4. The Origins of USAS
5. USAS’s Campus-Level Strategy
6. USAS’s Ideology of Worker Empowerment
7. The Organization of USAS

8. The Brands Strike Back: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Creation of the Fair Labor Association
9. The Creation of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC)
10. Embedded Autonomy and the Fire Alarm Model: The Organization and Monitoring Practices of the WRC
11. Transnational Solidarity Campaigns
12. The Designated Suppliers Program
13. SweatFree Communities
14. Conclusion

Appendix: Methods and Data

About the Author(s)

Matthew S. Williams is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and the Global and International Studies Program at Loyola University Chicago.