Student-Labor Activism Advances

Against the Current, No. 83, November/December 1999

Eli Naduris-Weissman

UNIVERSITY CAMPUSES SHOWED an impressive mobilization around labor issues last year, from United Farm Worker (UFW) strawberry campaigns to living wage movements to the anti-sweatshop sit-ins.

On April 16-18, in an effort to develop dialogue around this growing student involvement, activists at Harvard, Kent State, and Stanford universities coordinated simultaneous “Students and Labor” conferences at each campus.

These events were held in affiliation with a similar conference at Yale organized by Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), which also looked at student involvement in the labor movement.

The goal was to create a national student-labor association that could increase communication and solidarity among student labor groups, broaden the scope of campus-labor activism and strengthen ties between students and labor unions.

At Stanford some 200 student activists from throughout California came together, representing most of the UCs (Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Davis, Los Angeles), DeAnza Community College, San Jose

State University, San Francisco State University, as well as representatives from University of Southern California, the University of Wisconsin, and Johns Hopkins University.

And this was just one point on the very obtuse triangle completed by the Harvard and Kent State conferences, each locally representing student activists, involving over 500 students across the country.

But what were we involved in?  Like the diverse face of campus political activism, those who came to Stanford represented a mixed bag of political sympathies and emphases, as well as varying levels of involvement with labor causes.

There were anti-sweatshop students as well as Zapatista solidarity activists, defenders of ethnic studies as well as students involved in environmental issues.  There were also seasoned student labor activists, involved in long struggles with their universities to win recognition for workers’ rights and to expose the obstinate and often illegal practices employed by universities to suppress organizing drives or stifle negotiations once the drive had won.

There was even a strong showing by local student-wobblies.

But also present was a (smaller) batch of the uninitiated: students primarily involved in community service or tutoring disadvantaged youth.

Even for many students interested in stemming corporate power and environmental abuses, forming coalitions with the labor movement is not first instinct.  But for those present at least, a spark had been ignited and connections were being made, recognizing that unions and workers’ rights could be at the center of a broader movement for social change.

Of course, in the minds of most young people, unions are still the stuff of old movies and unpopular strikes.  (A local chapter of MeCHA indicated to us that while immigrant issues ranked high on its members’ list of interests, labor was near dead bottom).  But that is changing.

In a recent study, the AFL-CIO found that young workers’ interest in forming unions has increased by seven percent over the last three years.  [Source: Surveys of nonsupervisory employees conducted in March 1999, 1997 and 1996 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, AFL-CIO.] That is in addition to programs such as the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer and the Organizing Institute.

Alongside the dedicated students, the Stanford conference workshops—centered around the Right to Organize, Farm Worker Solidarity, Sweatshop Activism, Living Wage Campaigns, Worker Safety and Health Issues, and Immigrant Organizing—drew over forty-five panelists from central labor councils, local unions, nearby universities, and community organizations around the Bay Area.

Conference participants also attended discussion panels on the rise of subcontracting and temporary work, globalization, organizing in ethnically diverse environments, academic labor, women in the labor movement, intellectuals and labor, and socialist alternatives.

The Power of Experience

The focus of these panels was to get students from an understanding of the central problems each issue addresses to the ability to organize their student bodies into campaigns around the issue.  This was most successful where student experience could lead the way: such as in the living wage workshop, led by two students involved in a three-year living wage struggle at Johns Hopkins University, a pioneer in bringing the living wage to campuses.

Working with a broader living wage coalition that had won a living wage ordinance in 1994 covering all city and city contracted workers in Baltimore, students at JHU have recently pressured their university president into raising the minimum wage of campus workers seventy-five cents (including subcontracted ones) and up to $7.70 an hour over the course of three years.

Unfortunately, JHU did not agree to adjust wages to match inflation, and by the time the $7.70 wage goes into effect, it will no longer be a living wage.

Participants also learned first-hand about anti-sweatshop campaigns in a panel led by Eric Brakken, then a senior from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and now a leading organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).  A central point in the anti-sweatshop campaign, the University of Wisconsin was also the home of the first Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) in 1995.

The panels also represented a broad band of the political spectrum, from socialists to advocates of employee ownership, to union-supporting liberals and academics.  But this disparity of ultimate political visions was not the center of panel discussions—for the most part, those present focused on the growth of a student movement dedicated to pointed campaigns, whose broader politics are still emerging.

It was when the conference of facilitated panels ended that the real conferring began.  For the next twenty-four hours we we met without all those over thirty so that we could spend some time getting to know each other and figuring out what got us all to that crowded room.

This was the time when many months of conference planning turned into something very palpable: committed young activists deliberating the shape of an ill-defined movement, unifying their discontent and building solidarity.

As planned, the meeting focused on the symbolic creation of a national student-labor association of student labor groups rather than establishing a comprehensive statement of goals.  This also meant developing the organizational means for students to learn from each another and the national group to evolve as it may.

But already in our foundational moments, debates around several key issues suggested the possible directions of that evolution.  Three basic questions were asked: 1) Whom do we represent, students or youth in general?  2) Whom are we supporting, unions or workers?  3) What level of coordinated strategy could we expect in the upcoming year?

The presence of several non-student youth, representing the organization of young people both in high school and out of college, raised the question of defining our constituency.  Could we hope to broaden into a general youth movement for economic justice and workers’ rights?

Although we decided to encourage the involvement of all youth groups, leaving open the membership of the national group, most of the activism generated from the conference still takes its cues from the college and university-led campaigns of last year.

Other concerns were raised about the relationship between students and unions.  All agreed that while unions are obvious allies in most student-led campaigns, a safe distance is important, to ensure activists’ ability to articulate broader goals of economic and social justice than unions are apt to do, and to retain our credibility as independent voices for change.

Strategic Discussion

The third main question was one of strategy: Given the diversity of issues we were involved in, the lack of many strong national campaigns on the West Coast, what types of coordination could we hope for?

While this question remains to a large degree open, all present resolved to build stronger bases of support locally, and to gear up for regional meetings in the upcoming months.  After three hours of discussion Sunday morning, we entered into a conference phone call representing over twenty schools, including Brown, Evergreen State College, Harvard, Kent State and Yale, to affirm the birth of an association of students committed to workers’ rights.

The first tangible acts of that union have been the establishment of an inter-campus email list, and the planning of several regional meetings of student labor groups.  As student groups build themselves locally, coordinated actions like national days of student-labor solidarity promise to increase the symbolic strength of this new movement.

After the founding meeting, at Stanford at least, the remaining band of students went for a brisk lake dip, as the wobbly students taught us all the verses (did you know there are six?) of “Solidarity Forever” as well as five more of “Aristocracy Forever,” which in the same tune satirizes business unionism and union-management collaborationism.

Alongside the optimism often expressed about the growing involvement of students in labor issues, there lingers skepticism about the depth and longevity of this generation’s commitment to issues of economic justice that fall left of national discussion.

While guessing the long-term direction of student activism is a matter of speculation at best, the growing number of publicized success stories and increasing student interest, not to mention the emergence of coalitions both among schools and between students and outside progressive groups, suggest a growing movement.

What, if anything, can be accomplished by student-labor alliances?

Image for Sale

Most successful student campaigns play upon the inherent tension within the university between its role as a money-making corporation and as a model of a harmonious public.  These two faces come together when the university sells its image in order to attract students, alumni donations and corporate sponsors, and to sell college apparel.

By registering dissenting voices to the university’s PR campaigns, students are challenging their universities to realize in their administrative and financial systems the purported ethical ideals of the academic community: free inquiry, fairness, and an open public discourse, combined with an overall mission to serve society and as the Stanford motto puts it, “to let the winds of freedom flow.”

The discontinuity arises from the university’s rigorous attempts to separate faculty and student life from non-academic administrative practices, with different value systems for each. What some students are showing is that “economic imperative” is no longer accepted as justification for immoral practices.

Campaigning for Accountability

The outline and strategy of campus campaigns are similar: promoting the awareness of unethical university practices, and demanding moral accountability for university money.

Students can achieve a high level of visibility when they realize their power as students to raise attention within the university community, in addition to helping union-organized actions and drives.

Last Spring at Stanford, MeCHa and SLAC students leafletted daily, collected hundreds of signatures, wrote letters to the Daily and held a rally in support of food-service workers who were trying to negotiate a fair contract with their employer, Bon Appetit, an agency subcontracted by the university.

These workers can hardly support their families (who are forced to live outside of Palo Alto) with starting wages between $6-7 an hour and exorbitantly priced health-care options ($182month).

Nevertheless, Bon Appetit would not budge over a nominal twenty cent raise.  When students got involved, Bon Appetit felt the pressure and a contract was signed in two weeks (the first contract took over a year), which included a yearly scaled wage increase, thirty-five cents the first year, fifty cents the second and three percent for the third.

As campus activists prepare for another year of rising-intensity campaigns, there loom many uncertainties and unanswered questions of strategy that cut near to the center of the political character of student labor activism.

Several commentators have suspected that the widespread popularity of the anti-sweatshop movement signals the limitations of student-labor activism: that while students may be willing to pay attention to the grossest violations of labor relations, they will be less apt to support American workers in ordinary jobs.

The media perception of campus labor activism, by focusing on the growing anti-sweatshop movement both to the exclusion of other campaigns and without deeper discussions of the political arc of student labor activism, has fed this suspicion.

But the increasing emphasis of the USAS campaign on full public disclosure, grassroots monitoring of workplace conditions, and criticism of the World Trade Organization, has affirmed the radical edge of a movement threatened with co-optation by the weak, apparel industries-concocted Fair Labor Association.

Pushing the envelope of a potentially more radical student involvement with labor is the living wage movement, exemplified by such schools as Johns Hopkins University, Harvard, and the University of Virginia.

Living wage campaigns, as well as the many efforts of student groups involved in organizing the university and student work forces, represents another side of student labor activism, one that is locally-based and tied in with union efforts.  And although most student campaigns focus on single issues, like sweatshops or living wages, these issues are opening the space for wider discussion.

USAS is already calling to incorporate living wage standards into all University Codes of Conduct, and solidarity is growing among students involved in differently focused campaigns.

Justice and Dignity

The idea that inspires students today is that times again are changing, and that we can forge a movement, or at least a generational shift, towards realizing that justice is not justice without economic justice.

For now, we are using the university as our fighting grounds, and our weapons, for preserving human dignity in this competitive corporate world.

The Students and Labor conferences, along with the network they helped to create, have opened space for the elaboration of student involvement with the labor movement.  With the help of the national student-labor association and other national group efforts, student labor groups may become as much a fixture of campus politics as are environmental groups.

And if what has been accomplished so far is any example, the scope of student labor activism will continue to broaden and deepen, perhaps into a real vision of social change.

Eli Eduardo Naduris-Weissman was an organizer of the Stanford Students and Labor Conference.  He is an undergraduate at Stanford.

ATC 83, November-December 1999