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UofL Students Plan To Occupy Campus Building Until Contract With Clothing Company Is Cut

After nearly 24 hours in Grawemeyer Hall on University of Louisville's campus, a group of about 40 students set out for a march across the campus.

The students, part of the group Cards Against Sweatshops, participated in the sit-in and protest Tuesday afternoon in an effort to influence university officials to cut ties with a clothing maker they claim mistreats workers in Bangladesh.

The clothing company at the center of the debate on UofL's campus is JanSport. But the student's qualms are with JanSport's parent company, VF. The students claim VF has refused to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which is a five-year agreement "between global brands and retailers and trade unions designed to build a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment Industry," according to the Accord's website.

More than 190 brands in 20 countries have signed the Accord, including Fruit of the Loom and American Eagle Outfitters, according to the website.

In addition to JanSport, VF is the parent company for other brands, including Vans, The North Face and Timberland.

The students began occupying Grawemeyer Hall Monday evening, demanding a meeting with University president James Ramsey. Around 1:30 pm Tuesday, the students remained and were granted a meeting with Ramsey.

Kate Hall, a sophomore at University of Louisville, said the meeting was cordial. But she chastised university officials for allegedly mistreating students during the sit-in.

"They denied us access to a bathroom while we were exercising our right to protest," she said.

UofL Dean of Students Michael Madris denied those claims.

"They were always able to use the bathroom," Madris said. "We haven't tried to remove them from Grawemeyer Hall, they've been able to stay here, they've been using the bathroom, they've been bringing in food."

Madris said university officials are open to working with the students on this issue.

“We have invited them to be a part of the ongoing dialogue and committed to them we would have a definitive time period to have that dialogue and they would be at the table with the people from business affairs, contract administration who are making the decision in this process," he said.

He also added it's highly unlikely the university will cancel its contract with JanSport in the coming days and encouraged students to focus on their classes.

"What the University wants to do is get informed and make sure that what we are doing is consistently applied to all the companies we are working with and sourcing with," he said.

Hall said the students will "continue occupying the rotunda" until university officials give a "clear answer" on the future of the contract agreements.

And when asked if its possible the University has bigger fish to fry than a contract with a clothing provider, Hall said she didn't "think there is a bigger fish."

"There are 190,000 workers who lives are at risk," she said. "There could be a factory collapse tomorrow and the university decided not to cut (the contract today), we are funding the endangerment of 190,000 workers."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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