A high school senior asks, "Who makes our graduation gowns?" — and recounts the struggle that ensues
By Andrea Townsend
As an underclassman I had little contact with seniors, but I could always feel the end-of-the-year excitement when graduation rolled around. The excitement was always coupled with moans and groans about all the senior stuff they had to buy: announcements and pictures, t-shirts, the prom, the all-night party, the yearbook, glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts with one's graduation year stenciled on, and, most frustrating, flimsy maroon graduation gowns, complete with cap and tassel.
The gowns are made by Jostens Inc., which for years has sold graduation materials not only to my school, Franklin, but to seniors in thousands of high schools and colleges around the country. Each year, an editorial would run in the school newspaper complaining how Jostens had a monopoly at Franklin - but no one ever did anything about it.
This year started out no differently, except for the existence of the Student Union, created last year by a small group of student activists and sympathizers. The Student Union's mission is to provide a forum for education and activism based around school-related issues, foster communication at all levels of the school, and create a supportive organization through which youth can take on leadership roles and see themselves as part of a much larger struggle.
Early in the year, the school newspaper printed an article criticizing Jostens' monopoly on providing graduation gowns. Student Union members threw around a few ideas, but nothing serious. Then, in early October, word got out about the senior class photo shoot we were all supposed to attend on Wednesday morning. Leela Yellesetty, my close friend and one of the main organizers of the Student Union, and I stopped for coffee and showed up just in time to add our faces to the blurry yearbook photo.
After the photo we were told to stay in our seats for a "presentation" by our school's Jostens' representative, Dan J. Peters. For the next half hour we were subjected to a slide show of all the Jostens products that would make our senior year in high school meaningful. In the context of the presentation it became apparent that our experiences, memories, and relationships were not important, and that the only way to make our four years of high school really count was to buy a bunch of junk. The last slides showed happy, smiling seniors in maroon gowns launching caps into the air, and we were reminded that if we bought nothing else, we must have a gown in order to graduate!
When Peters looked out at the audience and asked for questions I was the first to stand. "Where are your caps and gowns produced?" I asked. This question yielded a series of snickers from the audience. I knew what they were thinking: "There goes Andy, up on her anti-sweatshop soapbox again." But I waited for my answer.
"South Carolina," Peters responded smugly and went on to the next student who had his hand raised.
That sounded fishy to Leela and me, knowing how the garment industry enjoys twisting information. So a few days later I did an Internet search on Jostens and South Carolina. It wasn't long before I found several pieces of information confirming our suspicions. It was true that the gowns were manufactured in South Carolina; what our representative had failed to note was that they were made in Leath Correctional Facility, a minimum security women's prison in Laurens, S.C.
Prison labor has been widely criticized in activist communities, but in the corporate world it is a very profitable alternative to moving manufacturing operations overseas. Critics talk of the "prison industrial complex," and corporations receive huge perks, including cheap labor, few restrictions, and a "Made in the USA" label on their product.
But, one might ask, why should law-abiding citizens worry about prison labor? Shouldn't prisoners learn skills and be occupied during their prison terms? Isn't it important for prisoners, when released, to be able to get a job and to integrate themselves back into society?
The problem is, there is no market for additional garment assembly workers in the United States, except in prisons and sweatshops - many of them illegal. The men and women assembling our gowns are getting very good at a skill they cannot use outside of prison.
In order to remain "competitive," companies claim they have to produce garments either in prisons, where they have a captive workforce, or in other countries where wages are far lower than in the United States and where there are few labor regulations. Prisoners who work for these companies are paid little for their labor, and our tax dollars go to subsidize the cost of production for companies like Jostens. Prisoners are used to do labor so that companies here can "compete" with sweatshop labor in third world nations.
THE STUDENTS ORGANIZE
Horrified, Leela and I took our information to the Student Union and to teachers who support our activism. At this point, we had a myriad of complaints against Jostens. For starters, they had deliberately posted misleading advertisements in our halls, using scare tactics to sell their product (saying for example, that if students did not order their graduation materials by Dec. 7, they would not graduate until the year 2002.).
Furthermore, the fact that Jostens has a monopoly in our school means we have to pay more for a product of dubious quality. Then there is the environmental impact of Jostens' graduation gowns. Acetate and polyester (the materials used to produce our gowns) are made from fossil fuels, and it is a huge waste of fuel for Jostens to send these gowns across the country so that we can wear them for an hour and store them in a closet for 10 years. Who actually re-uses their graduation gown? A gown's ultimate destination is the landfill, and we can't afford to waste resources in this way any longer.
Finally, we were concerned that the gowns were made by prison labor.
Even among student activists at Franklin, there were heated arguments as to what to do with the information we had acquired. Several of my more idealistic friends and I saw this issue as a chance to educate the student body on problems relating to globalization, environmental impact, and unfair labor practices. Others felt that if we harped on these problems, we would alienate a large part of the student population. In their eyes, students would respond only if it was made into a pocketbook issue and an issue of false advertising. "Students don't like to be manipulated, and they really don't like to get ripped off," argued senior Janssen Kuhn, the school's Community Relations Coordinator.
We agreed to try and combine both ideas, using the false advertising/ monopoly standpoint to change school policy and the globalization/labor complaints to educate students and connect our struggle to the larger movement against globalization and corporate oppression.
Janssen and I met first with the disciplinary vice principal and showed him the signs that had been posted around the school. He told us that since there was no logo on the sign, we could not be sure that Jostens had posted them and that the administration had not approved their posting. We asked about the Jostens contract issue and the graduation requirements regarding attire. The vice principal said simply that he didn't have time to go through the district rules and that he didn't have a clue as to the school policy regarding gowns. If we really wanted to pursue this, he said, we should talk to the principal.
Students in Portland high schools have many rights that they don't know about and consequently don't exercise. These rights are listed in a huge book of School Board Policies, the only copies of which reside in the school's main office with the two vice principals and principal. The only time students can look at these books is when the administrators feel like sharing them.
Until we asked the principal about it, no one had any idea that the senior class could make substantial decisions regarding contracting and purchasing graduation supplies. But we found a clause granting the senior class the right to decide what they will wear at graduation and to choose which company they contract with to supply caps and gowns. For the past four years and long before that, Franklin students have been denied this right. In 1998, a vice principal no longer at the school approved a three-year contract with Jostens Inc. giving the company the right to provide gowns and memorabilia to the graduating classes of 1998-2000. The contract expired this year, but Jostens came back anyway, and students are faced with paying a potentially higher price because there was no competition for the cost and quality of gowns sold to us.
In the span of two days, groups of Student Union members met repeatedly with our principal. She was defensive. She thought we were trying to stomp on tradition by getting rid of gowns. We explained that our concerns dealt with Jostens' advertising techniques, labor practices, company policy, and environmental impact. So she agreed to call Jostens and ask them to respond. Later that week she set up a meeting with our Jostens representative, Dan Peters.
JOSTENS DEFENDS ITSELF
In our meeting with Peters and the principal, we were told that Jostens no longer makes gowns in South Carolina prisons and had moved all production to Mexico. Peters assured us that their labor practices were safe and that laborers were paid a fair wage. Peters went on to say that Jostens' labor practices were certified by an independent researcher and they had received International Standards Organization (ISO) certification, and that we could easily check on this information.
"We think social activism is extremely important," Peters made sure to say. "We would never do anything that might jeopardize our relationship with socially conscious students." At the end of the meeting, he went so far as to ask Leela and myself to tell the junior class what we had learned about his company when Jostens came back in May to bid for the graduation supply contract. We smiled and assured him that we would be more than happy to talk to the juniors about Jostens, after we'd checked out his information.
It is well known that in Mexico, union organizing is often suppressed, wages are low, and labor standards lax. When we looked up ISO certification on its website, we weren't surprised to find that it had nothing to do with the treatment or pay of factory employees. Rather, ISO certifies the consistency and quality of production. At this point, we can only speculate on Jostens' motives for telling what seems to me a blatant lie about their activities. It seems they have something to hide.
Where to from here? The first step is to continue gathering information and educating ourselves and the student body. Another step is to move beyond Franklin and start coordinating with students in other high schools and even colleges in our area and beyond.
The Portland activist community has taken an interest in our struggle. We have received encouragement from Portland Jobs With Justice and from Portland Area Rethinking Schools, and we have spoken twice on KBOO, the local community radio station. We have been in contact with activists at Evergreen State College, and with Franklin alumni who want to give their support. Now we need to connect with younger student activists, who can continue the struggle after this year's seniors have moved on.
At this point we can't claim a victory against Jostens, but the Student Union is a stronger organization for taking action against this corporation. We are in the planning stages of a large action to bring awareness of the various issues involved to the majority of Franklin's student body - and that we hope will insure Jostens never does business with our school again. This struggle is helping us understand the power and potential of our Student Union. We are finding allies we didn't know we had and building leadership among our members.
Most importantly, we are cultivating a culture of resistance at Franklin, giving students an option that wasn't there before, making activism an acceptable school activity. Students are beginning to see the impact that their voice has when we make collective demands. And no one who has tasted the thrill of solidarity can ever go back to fighting alone.
Andrea Townsend (email@example.com) is a senior at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon, and a founder of the school's student union. She is on the steering committee of Portland Jobs with Justice.
Last Updated Spring 2002