On March 26, members of an anti-sweatshop coalition sent City Commissioner Sam Adams a letter, urging him to bring an ordinance to city council that would prevent the city or its contractors from purchasing products, like city employee uniforms, made in sweatshops.
The letter, which asked for an ordinance by May 1, came after months of lobbying and working with Adams' office, but reflects growing frustration and decreasing patience with the political process.
"You stepped up last fall as a leader in the fight to end sweatshop labor," the coalition wrote. "Would you please let us know if you would be willing to be a strong champion, again, by taking these measures?"
The implication: Come up with something, or step aside and let someone else on city council take over. The Portland Sweatfree Campaign's organizer, Deborah Schwartz, says she hasn't received a response from Adams' office.
Activists began working with Adams on the proposed ordinance last year, but two months ago, in response to the months-long delay, coalition members—including local public employee unions—held a rally outside of city hall, demanding action. It was billed as a "friendly reminder."
Not surprisingly, the idea of an anti-sweatshop ordinance has wide—if not unanimous—support from city commissioners. The hang-up? According to an Adams staffer and others in city hall, it's largely about money—specifically, the money needed to police the ordinance. As part of their proposal, activists have asked the city to include some way to ensure that contractors and city bureaus aren't buying sweatshop products—some kind of enforcement tool. The specifics of the coalition's plan, though, have met resistance from Adams and other city commissioners.
The Sweatfree Campaign has called for one percent of all of the city's purchasing budget (equaling about $20,000) to go toward a "workers rights consortium"—a collection of cities and states across the country that've also signed on to stop buying from sweatshops. The consortium would serve as an independent review board, and would act as a resource to identify businesses that use sweat labor. But despite support for the consortium from people like San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Maine Governor John Baldacci, there appears to be little enthusiasm on the Portland City Council to commit ongoing city money to a group that hasn't even yet formed.
Schwartz, though, says her group isn't wedded to the idea of the consortium if it's going to be a deal-breaker, and is open to the idea of letting city council do it "the Portland way," with a local oversight group. "The important thing is that we have independent, nonprofit oversight," she says. "Self-regulation won't work."
Terry Richardson, Adams' labor liaison, who's been the point person for the efforts so far, says the idea is still being worked on, but that nothing will likely happen until city council finishes going through the annual budget and the state legislature winds down for the year. He expects Adams to come forward with an ordinance later this year.
"We've progressed much further since the rally," says Richardson. "And the city definitely wants to support sweatfree products. We're still moving ahead on this."