Students Stage Nude Sweatshop Protest

Dozens of University of California, Berkeley students took advantage of a break in the recent cold and rainy weather Wednesday to strip naked and protest the use of sweatshops to make college apparel.

The revealing display in front of the building housing Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s office quickly attracted a crowd of about 300 onlookers, many of whom snickered and kept well away from the protesters. Some of the 36 or so male and female protesters remained fully clothed, while others wore nothing but their birthday suits.

Past sweatshop protests — which did not feature nudity — drew little response, said Lexa Grayner, a 20-year-old UC Berkeley student who helped organize the event.

“We’ve tried to get the word out before, and this way worked the best,” said Grayner, who wore her underpants and strategically placed plastic wrap under a bright green cardboard sign. “People know that we’re having a naked protest, and they know what it’s about, too.”

Scores of passers-by merely glanced at the protest and kept walking. After all, UC Berkeley is the campus that became famous for the exploits of Andrew Martinez, a student who became known as “the naked guy” when he attended classes in the buff in the mid-1990s before the school expelled him.

Several campus police officers watched Wednesday’s protest, and one introduced himself to Grayner before the event. Police would be watching the protest but planned to remain “low-key,” he told her.

Indeed, campus officials said no protesters were arrested during the demonstration, during which students chanted, danced and played a drum and trumpet.

They also tried unsuccessfully to persuade Birgeneau to come out of California Hall. A campus spokeswoman said Birgeneau was at an off-campus meeting Wednesday.

“Hey hey, Birgeneau you’ve got to know,” the protesters chanted.

Grayner told the crowd that “all those Cal sweatshirts you guys are wearing were made in sweatshops,” but university officials said very few companies use abusively cheap labor to make college apparel.

UC Berkeley long ago began requiring its manufacturers to meet minimum labor standards, said Maria Rubinshteyn, who directs the university’s marketing and trademark office.

“I won’t deny that sweatshops exist, but the university is doing the best it can to ensure college apparel is being manufactured fairly,” said Rubinshteyn as protesters shouted through megaphones a few feet away. “I’m actually surprised that [the protesters] are not wearing clothing. Only by providing jobs can we help the workers.”

Some onlookers were unmoved by the protest.

“I personally don’t care, because I’m apathetic,” said Ben Joyce, an 18-year-old freshman from Prunedale who watched the nude demonstrators nevertheless. “I’d sleep fine at night if my shirt was made in a sweatshop.”