Students, Labor Getting Together

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

Sara Marcus

DURING LAST SPRING’S “Labor Notes” conference in Detroit, I spoke on a panel entitled “Young Troublemakers and the New AFL-CIO.”  Before an audience of about forty, of which nearly two-thirds were young people, I spoke about student activism in support of labor while the other two panelists talked about their experiences as young people working full-time in the labor movement.

The spirited discussion that occupied the majority of the hour-long session grew mainly out of questions my talk had raised about student activists’ place in the labor movement.

Discussion of appropriate roles for current students in the labor movement ran thin, possibly because that topic offered less potential for energetic consensus than the issue of what jobs college graduates should not seek in the movement.

Many audience members, perhaps a little too fervent in their noble quest to root out all potential obstacles to absolute union democracy, denounced in turn the career tracks of traveling organizer, union staffer, and AFL-CIO bureaucrat-all common post-commencement options for recent college graduates who feel passionately about organized labor.

The only alternative offered, however, came from a dull- eyed, dazed-looking young woman who talked with a disquieting reverence about how she had left school to work in a carpet factory and “bring theory to the workers.”

Assuming that the majority of student activists are uncomfortable with Marxist missionarism, what should we be planning as our post-graduation involvement with the labor movement?  More immediately, what is the proper role of current students in the movement?

New Directions for Activism

The outcome of the “Young Troublemakers” panel was hardly surprising to people familiar with the crisis of direction facing student labor activists today.  The identity politics that marked campus activism in the 1980s has begun to be partly supplanted by an acute interest and passion for class- related politics, and a boom in class consciousness and labor activism among college students in the United States.  This change has been brought about by an economy increasingly based on temporary labor, in which a B.A. is no longer a guarantee of a secure job, and the AFL-CIO’s new leadership bringing more positive images of organized labor into the public eye.

Since the increase in class-based activism occurs autonomously on individual campuses, there are no numerical statistics on the growing force of students who view class as an important aspect of campus organizing and activism.  The change is visible from other data, such as the widespread interest in the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer program; the substantial demand for the student-labor organizing guide, “Agents of Change” (between two and three thousand copies have been distributed in the past year); the high attendance at the labor “Teach-Ins” that occurred around the country last year; and the emergence of new networks, like the Northeast Student Labor Solidarity Network (SLSN), linking up activists on different campuses.

Leftist and labor journals are taking stock of the student organizations, often called Student Labor Action Coalitions, or SLACs.  Even publications like the “Washington Post” and “Newsweek” are noting young people as a factor to watch in the “new” American labor movement.

The potential of this student force is currently limited by the student labor activism movement’s profound identity crisis.  “People right now don’t know what to do with the idea of a SLAC,” says Jeremy Smith, who co-founded the Northeast SLSN with Russ Davis in 1995 to connect student labor activists on campuses throughout New England.  “A lot of SLAC activists aren’t sure what issues they should be working on.”

Problems of “Agents of Change”

Many students get involved in labor through blatant injustices perpetrated by their own school, such as the contract struggles at Barnard and Yale. Students who may never have thought about labor before feel morally compelled to take action in the face of their administration’s crimes.  Other students come across Union Summer or other labor- related internships by way of a previously unfocused commitment to justice and activism, and return to their campuses energized and hoping to incite awareness and action among their classmates.

Once the initial, immediate project is over, SLACs are left with a vacuum of direction and purpose.  Whether students’ previous experience included flyering with Union Summer or phonebanking for their campus locals, nothing in these experiences has prepared them to plan a new fight on their own. What remains in these groups may be a small, dedicated core of activists, or even a thorough network of organizations and concerned students built through previous fights.  In either case, the group needs a campaign to draw people into the movement, but lacks expertise in planning a campaign itself.

The world of “grown-up” activism is full of people who are more than willing to fill this vacancy with their own requests and projects.  “A lot of people in labor see SLACs as being a student auxiliary, a group they can go to for a couple extra bodies on the picket line,” Smith observes, echoing the gripes of many young activists.

The relationship he describes can, in the best of circumstances, be mutually beneficial.  Students need campaigns to work on, education, experience and guidance.  Local unions need flyers passed out, phone calls made, stores picketed, and a link to a group that comprises part of the future of the labor movement.  “Agents of Change: A Handbook for Student Labor Activists,” published last year by the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute, is a manual to train students for the student auxiliary model of activism.

“Most of your contact doing labor support work will be with local unions or central labor councils,” students read in “AoC”, which goes on to provide a crash course in planning strategies-all with the guidance and approval of the sponsoring local union, of course.

“AoC”`s principal flaw stems from the fact that it was written based on successful student campaigns that centered around exceptional student-union relationships.  Not all students are lucky enough to attend school near a progressive union with whom collaboration will be immediately productive and exciting.  What if the unions nearest a college campus are undemocratic, stodgy, or inactive?

Maria Wickstrom, an OI staffer who wrote “AoC” with input from the Cambridge-based Center for Campus Organizing, the Democratic Socialists of America Youth Section, and individual SLAC activists, says the choice is then between trying to “change the union,” and trying to “find a union you can feel good about.”

The idea that students could come into a union’s office and try to change its structure or strategy is unrealistic, as well as ideologically suspect for reasons Wickstrom herself acknowledges: It’s the responsibility of a union’s members, not student upstarts, to reform it. But the alternative she suggests, which amounts to a sort of union-shopping by student activists, could be dangerous for several reasons.

First, it’s difficult enough to organize on campus around a specific, constant issue.  If the struggle keeps changing every couple of weeks because students object to a certain tactic or structural aspect of the union, organizing becomes close to impossible.  In addition, if unions near a college got word that they might be in for some free office help as long as everything looked okay to the students, that could be an incentive for unions to put energy into covering up flaws instead of fixing them.

Recognizing Pitfalls

As anyone who has participated in Union Summer or an organizing blitz is aware, in order for students or other outsiders to help a pre-existing campaign succeed, they need to be prepared to accept the union’s strategy and to carry it out without argument.  Most unions aren’t prepared to take strategic advice from students, and with good reason: The majority of students are inexperienced visitors in their community, interlopers who will leave upon graduation and move on to other struggles regardless of the outcome of any particular fight.

The student auxiliary model is the easiest and most convenient for individual unions.  Many local union officials I’ve spoken with are overjoyed to find groups of committed students who are willing to help do their legwork, no questions asked.  There are also benefits for the students: Through support work for a well-run campaign at a dynamic union, fortunate activists might learn how union staffs work, what campaign plans look like, and what kind of work lies behind the scenes.

Participation in a successful picket or demonstration could introduce them to the exhilaration of group power.  Testimonials from past Union Summer activists bear witness to the fact that even obedient legwork can engender a deep and productive commitment to the aims and ideals of the labor movement.

This approach, however, contains grave dangers as well, not the least of which is a threat to long-term efforts at union democracy.  “AoC”‘s advice to “Go straight to the top elected official or lead organizer on the campaign you want to work on” makes for an unambiguous chain of command and a high degree of efficiency, but SLACs, by dealing only with the top guns in a union, risk being cut off from the membership.

This is a harmful precedent to establish.  Young activists can come to see rank-and-file input as unimportant, or develop a view of union politics that includes only the paid staff and highest-ranking leaders-not exactly a promising formula for a democratic labor movement.

As unions dream of snaring student cadres to do their work, thoughtful activists are asking why the unions don’t recruit their own members, instead of (or at least in addition to) students, to take charge of projects like phonebanking and flyering.  Of course some unions use both groups of activists, but for unions with low rank-and-file involvement, getting members to do more might seem like too much unnecessary work when there are students already committed and organized, just waiting to be directed to a task.

Some activists and organizations have already started to explore alternatives to the student auxiliary approach to student labor activism, which in its present form is clumsy and frustrating on average and destructive at worst.  The AFL- CIO, after long indifference, is apparently eager to revise this relationship and focus student momentum.

The birth of Union Summer last year was the first major sign that Sweeney & Co. were taking notice of the growing trend toward class-based student activism, but that program was originally conceived more as a public-image booster for the New Guard than as the concerted start to a meaningful youth presence in the movement that many Union Summer staffers and participants were hoping for.

After scores of young activists, inspired by their summer experiences, clamored for continuity, the bi-monthly Union Summer Newsletter was established to report on program alumni and their respective activist projects.  Frontlash, the old ineffectual youth wing of the AFL-CIO, was officially dismantled in the fall, ostensibly to make way for a new, better relationship between the AFL-CIO and young activists.

After a year of stalling and postponements, the Field Mobilization Department reportedly is soon to hire a staff member to coordinate youth outreach, with top priority on talking to local unions and teaching them how to work effectively with student groups in their area. Other goals include serving as a central resource to students trying to make contacts with local unions; coordinating national student campaigns, such as the “Students Stop Sweatshops” campaign that Cornell activists developed in conjunction with UNITE last year; educating unions on the useful potential of student power; and helping students find movement jobs.

New Organizing Models

Student labor activists, who have not been included in this planning process, aren’t waiting around for the AFL-CIO plan to bear fruit.  Last year, the Bard College Student Labor Coalition (SLC) spoke to unorganized cafeteria employees and heard about their dissatisfaction with their working conditions.  The students called a meeting to which they invited workers, students, and a local HERE affiliate.

SLC was the prime mover in the unionization drive that followed.  It was the students who conducted house visits, organized a teach-in, and built a culture of overwhelming student and faculty support.  Four months later, the workers voted to affiliate with the HERE local and began contract negotiations with the College.

This is the kind of success story the AFL-CIO loves to play up. Even better, the students who founded the Bard SLC were Union Summer alumni who had gotten in touch with each other through the Union Summer headquarters in DC. What would have happened, though, if the students had wanted to organize the dining hall workers, but the sympathetic HERE local had not been around?

For every union that would have handled the situation the same way, there are three dozen who either would have forgotten to return the students’ calls, suggested that SLC was getting in over its head, or taken over the campaign the students had initiated without giving them meaningful work to do for it.

Some activists concerned about class are looking beyond the student-union partnerships to organize around student- specific issues, such as maintaining need-blind admissions policies or improving recruitment at poorer high schools.  After the unions at Yale won their contract in December, the SLAC there spearheaded a broad coalition of ethnic and activist campus groups to agitate for a variety of financial aid reforms.

Their demands include an end to the overly punitive “bursar’s hold” that turns students’ lives upside down if they can’t pay tuition bills on time, implementation of need- blind admissions for international students, and scaling down of work-study requirements to make financial aid students work no more than ten hours a week to meet their expected contribution.  By the end of this past school year, the campaign had built up unprecedented support and momentum that seems certain to spark real change in the fall.

Smith of the Student Labor Solidarity Network believes that students working on “student issues” is the most promising solution to SLACs’ overall lack of direction.  His vision starts with a student movement that would connect student activists across geographical lines to share thoughts on campaigns such as obtaining student seats on boards of trustees, winning student input in matters of institutional governance and tenure, securing fair financial aid and admissions policies, and bringing ethics into discussions of university investments.  These coalitions would then connect with student movements in other countries.

It sounds romantic, but the people who are the best at speaking with such starry eyes about building “a student movement” are often the worst at explaining in practical terms why such a thing is worth working for. All student movements are by definition limited, especially in the United States, where the cost of attending even a public university is mounting at a rate over three times that of average household income.

Issues in Common

The fact is that the division between “student issues” and “worker issues” isn’t clear enough to support the ideology of an independent student movement-or the dichotomy some construct of student “outsiders” to a workers’ movement.  It is often pointed out that today’s college students are tomorrow’s workers, but they’re actually today’s as well: As tuition bills soar and federally-funded student loans plummet, few students can avoid having to work their way through school.

At the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, the Student Worker Organization focuses on obtaining rights for the student employees of the college.  At Yale, some of the most active members of SLAC during the contract fight were also student members of the dining hall workers’ union-and these students, many of them financial aid recipients, were among the main proponents of SLAC’s undertaking the campaign for financial aid reform.

Why would a labor activism group worry about financial aid?  wondered some of Yale’s more rigid minds.  The group’s answer, that SLAC had become the campus group addressing class issues, and the connection between union fights and financial aid reform implied in that answer, hints at the most hopeful future for SLACs’ identity crises.

Perhaps the best role models for undergraduate student labor activists are their graduate counterparts, the teaching assistants who have formed unions at universities around the country to organize around their own issues while working in alliance with other local unions.

At Yale, GESO started out organizing around TA-specific problems and gradually showed its members how efforts to change their conditions were part of a larger movement of millions of people working to change their own conditions.  Today, GESO shares office space and resources with the other unions on campus and enjoys a reciprocal relationship with them.

The idea that students demanding their rights at work and at school might have a place not just allied with the labor movement, but in the labor movement, is a powerful one that undergraduate activists should examine closely.  The impact that financial aid, affirmative action, and university democracy movements will have on the world outside the university walls will depend on whether they are thought of as ends in and of themselves, or as issues to draw students into new alliances.

At the “Young Troublemakers” panel, when I asked how student activists could help the labor movement, I should have been raising more fundamental questions about what the labor movement includes, and where its limits are. Countless times in the history of the labor movement, these questions have led to growth and expansion for the movement.  Recent additions to the labor movement such as clerical workers, casino workers, and graduate students has involved a repeated broadening of categories and boundaries, and these additions to our numbers can only lead to increased strength for all workers.

Even after the “Young Troublemakers” discussion of college graduates’ proper place in the labor movement, after long discussions with my friends and fellow activists, and after working with several unions in different capacities, I’m still not sure what my or my classmates’ role will be or should be after graduation.  I’m not too worried, though.  The question closer at hand-“What ought we be doing now?”-is enough to keep us occupied for quite some time.

Sara Marcus, who was active in Yale SLAC during last winter’s contract fight, is now an English and American Studies major at Oberlin College.