|UNITING WORKERS AND STUDENTS, A NEW MOVEMENT IS BORN
June 7, 1999
UNITING WORKERS AND STUDENTS, A NEW MOVEMENT IS BORN
See below for background and related information.
by MARC COOPER
Palo Alto, California
The bucolic, palm-studded campus of Stanford bears no resemblance to the old
and gritty auto workers' summer camp at Port Huron, Michigan, where SDS was
formed in 1962. And no stirring Big-Picture Statement of a generation's
anguish came out of this particular conference. But when some 200 student
activists converged on Stanford during the weekend of April 16-18 to link up
with labor and--in a coordinated effort--like numbers showed up
simultaneously to the same end at Harvard, Yale and Kent State, it didn't
feel too reckless (or too hopeful) to speculate that we just might be
witnessing, finally, the birth of a new national student movement.
There's been a smattering of campus protests around the war in Kosovo, and,
like a movement Old Faithful, UC Berkeley has recently erupted in a fight
over ethnic studies programs. But the big man on campus today is the worker.
Indeed, for the past several months a tsunami of sweatshop and labor-related
protests, rallies and demonstrations has flooded campuses from coast to
coast. Even the New York Times recently concluded that this is the biggest
uptick of student activism in almost two decades--since the surge of
antiapartheid activity in the early eighties.
Recently, there have been takeovers and sit-ins at the universities of
Wisconsin, Duke, Michigan and Georgetown. After four days of a late April
sit-in at the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina,
administrators agreed to support more stringent guidelines for licensed
apparel manufacturers. Even the mighty Nike has recently bowed to student
pressure, promising to make public a list of its overseas factories. "Look
around and you'll see an incredible amount of campus activism," says
21-year-old Eric Brakken, who traveled to the Stanford conference from the
University of Wisconsin. "Those veterans of the sixties who are still around
in Madison say things are getting more organized than ever."
At Yale, Scholars, Artists and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ) rallied
that same April weekend to support union organizing efforts by grad students
and teaching assistants. SAWSJ has already held several such high-profile
events. Throughout the United States, grad-student employees are forming
unions at a skyrocketing pace, with organizing activities stretching from
UCLA to the University of Minnesota to NYU. Recently Johns Hopkins became the
first university to enact a living-wage measure, an issue that has been
pushed to the forefront at Brown, Fairfield, Harvard, Stanford and the
University of Virginia. Even at conservative bastions like Southern
California's Claremont Colleges students are protesting--sitting in and
fasting to sup-
port campus workers' efforts to unionize. "Students have always shown an
ability to hold a mirror up to society and force it to face the truth about
its flaws," says AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. "What is new is that today's
students are organizing and mobilizing for workers' rights and on issues of
A confluence of factors is helping to incubate the new student movement.
Numerous organizers and activists interviewed broadly agree on two points:
first, that young people have been undersold in the media. While written off
as apathetic slackers, they have in reality been massively engaged for some
time now in low-profile volunteer and community work. But activists also
agree that students are getting increasingly impatient with the meager
results of such involvement and are ready for more radical challenges.
"I get angry when I hear we do nothing," says Suzanne Clark, a 21-year-old
senior at Brown who is at the center of a new student-labor network. "But we
are also tired of doing small demonstrations and rallies that don't get us
anywhere. We don't want to do more volunteer service. The community-service
model is being rejected. We are also starting to realize that many of us,
college degree or not, are ourselves going to be workers. And we know that
workers need unions." In part, this is a symptom of the two-tiered
economy--the students are analogous to HMO doctors who feel sufficiently
proletarianized that they have begun to unionize. But a number of the new
student radicals are themselves the children of the sixties Days of Rage.
Stanford labor conference organizer Ethan Kaplan's parents were both sixties
radicals. Co-organizer Eli Naduris-Weissman's mother is a leftist politics
professor, and his deceased father was an exiled Chilean socialist.
Many of today's students look back to the sixties as a seminal moment--a time
to be studied for all of its lessons, both positive and negative. "I see the
sixties as very chaotic, as something that scared the establishment," says
Milan Saha of the Johns Hopkins Student-Labor Action Committee. "We are more
pointed, more focused. We don't believe things are going to change overnight.
We believe that the chaos will come from within the system, not from
without." Indeed, this generation of activists seems more prepared, more
studied, even more radical in their economic critique than their SDS
ancestors. "This is really different from the sixties," says Jo-Ann Mort,
communications director of the garment and textile union UNITE. "They are
doing something right where they live, right at home. Something with
immediate and tangible impact." Close links with labor were rarely forged or
even sought by the students of the sixties. And organized labor, of course,
was firmly in the grip of a cold war leadership that rejected just about
everything that the student radicals embodied. But since then the gap between
student and labor activists has dramatically narrowed.
It has been narrowed, in part, by the now three-year-old Union Summer, which
has cranked out almost 2,000 alumni, and by the aggressive outreach programs
of unions like the Service Employees (SEIU) and UNITE. "This is a strategic,
deliberate move by Sweeney's AFL-CIO," says Amy B. Dean, executive officer of
the powerful South Bay Labor Council in San Jose, California. "The Vietnam
War's been over for a long time now. It's time for us to get back together
with students. We need the coalition that working with students brings us."
The real steam of the new movement comes from the unholy relationship between
American universities and the mostly offshore sweatshops that produce their
logo-emblazoned shirts, sweatshirts and shorts. The campus antisweatshop
campaign began to pick up speed when a dozen students returned from the Union
Summer experience of 1997 to their home campuses of Duke, Harvard, Illinois
and Georgetown with newly honed consciousness and organizing skills. After a
year of arduous organizing and growth, they got together last July and formed
the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Their goal: to impose rigid
standards for protecting workers' rights on manufacturers and contractors
that produce apparel with collegiate logos.
About 160 US universities support an antisweatshop code proposed by the
Collegiate Licensing Company--the middleman between colleges and apparel
manufacturers. But USAS and other student activists argue that the CLC's code
is not stringent enough. That's why students took over the administration
building at Duke this past January and forced the university to fight for
higher labor standards at CLC. From Duke, the movement spread like wildfire,
sparking takeovers at Wisconsin and Georgetown and lighting up around a
hundred campuses on the sweatshop issue.
The basic moral dimension of the student demands struck a sympathetic chord.
Linked by e-mail and Web pages, students rallied nationwide to try to block
their universities from making money off of sweat labor. "We can't walk
around in these sweatshirts that stand for Jesuit and Catholic identity when
we know the conditions they are produced in," says Cassandra Lyons, a
Georgetown freshman who participated in the protest at her campus.
That sort of moral indignation helped pulverize the long-standing reticence
of students on labor issues. Derek Dorn, a 22-year-old grad of Cornell and of
Union Summer who now works in the AFL-CIO research department, remembers the
dramatic impact on campus when UNITE brought in hat workers from the
Dominican Republic to discuss their working conditions. "I was amazed--300
students showed up," Dorn says. "A lot of students who otherwise would not
have shown up for a labor meeting started coming after they got exposed to
the sweatshop issue. Now they see labor as a tool that fights for social
justice across boundaries of gender and race."
It seemed inevitable that energized students would soon broaden and
radicalize their agenda. While in the sixties the civil rights movement and
the Vietnam War infused the student movement with a keen awareness of racial
oppression and the excesses of the state and its military machine, the new
radicals of the nineties are starting out where the sixties left off: with a
probing critique of the economic system, informed by an understanding of its
gender and racial dimensions. "Antisweatshop work is very radicalizing," says
the University of Wisconsin's Eric Brakken. "It doesn't take long before you
begin to understand how capitalism works."
That sort of radicalization fueled the mid-April weekend of organizing at
Stanford, Harvard and Kent State, which attempted to take the student surge
beyond the single issue of sweatshops. United Students Against Sweatshops has
been effective in its struggle, but this newly emerging network, while vowing
to work closely with USAS, intends to ratchet up student involvement with
labor. "Sweatshop work is more user-friendly. It's an easier sell," says
20-year-old Stanford organizer Naduris-Weissman. "But when you ask yourself
how you can get real, tangible economic justice in this society you quickly
find you have to fight for union rights." Fellow organizer Kaplan agrees.
"This is a crucial moment," he says. "Hopefully we are coming out of a more
self-absorbed time. Fewer people are willing to either climb the corporate
ladder or surrender to the New Age bullshit."
What happened a few weeks ago at Stanford, Harvard and Kent State--though
mostly unnoticed by the press--was a conscious attempt to form a national
student organization to better plan, coordinate and escalate the already
burgeoning student support of organized labor. "Think how much better a
campaign we can mount against a targeted company when we can coordinate
countrywide," says Kaplan. Further, these three conferences represented a
qualitative step forward from the labor confabs of the past year in that they
were 100 percent student organized and student run. "This is the first time
since I started teaching here in 1972 that I have seen Stanford students
organize a labor conference on campus," says law professor William B. Gould,
a former member of the National Labor Relations Board.
The Stanford organizers staged twenty-seven panels and workshops during the
two-day event. No bigwig radical celebs were brought in. Not even any of the
AFL-CIO top brass. Instead, dozens of frontline labor activists and
organizers from numerous central labor councils came to meet with and recruit
the students from more than fifteen represented campuses for a myriad of
local, statewide and national union battles and issues. Also present was the
AFL's Organizing Institute, the training camp for new organizers. "We used to
attract students who were just looking for a job," says the OI's recruitment
chief, Elissa McBride. "That's not so anymore. We are now getting some very
talented people. Over the last year we have noticed a marked increase in the
quality of the candidates--especially those who have been through some sort
of campus organizing activity."
The Stanford meeting culminated in a countrywide conference call bringing
together the first threads of the new national student organization. On
Sunday morning about forty groggy students gathered in a Stanford community
center and expectantly gathered around a speakerphone in the center of the
floor. First two, then five and finally about ten similar meetings came on
the line. In total, maybe forty-five to fifty colleges were represented. As
each campus name was read out and as each point of an organizational charter
was approved by acclamation, a loud cheer arose. "We are best organized now
in the Northeast and in California, with a second tier around the Southeast,"
says Suzanne Clark, who has acted as the coordinator of the incipient
organization. Much remains to be determined about the role the new group will
play in labor struggles, but whereas USAS started out with only a few
activists, this group starts out with a veteran corps of several score
leaders. They tentatively plan to come together in a formal founding
convention--perhaps in six months, perhaps in a year.
But just as the new US economy has been riven, so has the modern student
body. While student activism visibly surges, it still attracts only a very
small percentage of young people. Disengagement, disenchantment and a
nose-to-the-grindstone mentality prevails. In the sixties there was also only
a small core of activists, but in those heated times immense majorities of
students would at least temporarily rally to radical causes. Today's
activists find a growing but still distinctly limited audience. That might
change if more victories like the recent concessions made at the universities
of North Carolina and Wisconsin begin to multiply.
There will be some exciting moments ahead. Preparations are under way at the
once-raucous University of California, Santa Barbara, campus to hold a
campuswide plebiscite on rules governing sweatshop contracting. On other
campuses large swaths of the student body will be asked to support on-campus
living-wage and wage-hike campaigns. And in mid-May a wave of grad-student
union certification elections will elevate campus passions. How deep this new
activism will reach into the collective student psyche is still anybody's
guess. UCLA professor and radical writer Russell Jacoby counsels skepticism.
He fears that many of today's student activists are engaged in the domestic
version of the proverbial sophomore year abroad--that they have little taste
for taking their radicalism with them after graduation. "So many of these
activists, when you ask them, say they are planning to become lawyers," says
Jacoby. "They seem most interested in careerism and conforming to the
And yet, there's some evidence that student activists are moving beyond
simple solidarity and eschewing careers with acronyms like GM and IBM in
favor of jobs at the UAW and CWA. Outside the meeting rooms of the Stanford
conference, the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute table was attracting large
clumps of eager listeners. "I'm graduating this year from Brown, and I know
exactly the job I want to get," says Suzanne Clark. "I'm going to be an
organizer for the SEIU.
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is host and executive producer of