Too Cruel for School

Students stand up for workers rights

by David Moberg

In These Times magazine, May 27, 2002


On campuses across the country, a groundswell of student organizing focused on workers rights has become the dominant stream of campus politics after a period when identity politics held center stage. Born out of critiques of globalization, the new labor-oriented student movement has turned its global outrage inward, focusing on workers in the United States and, especially, at the universities themselves.

The new interest in labor issues started with campaigns against sweatshops, especially providers of university-logo clothing. But the anti-sweatshop movement, while still growing and gaining sophistication, has also turned toward support for exploited workers in the United States, from New Era cap makers on strike since last summer to farm workers picketing Taco Bell. Students are also a growing force behind unionization on campus, such as food service workers at Sodexho, and living wage campaigns for university employees or contractors-given a big boost by a sit-in last spring at Harvard (and simultaneously, though less publicized, at the University of Connecticut). Increasingly, students who work at universities-especially graduate teaching and research assistants, but even undergraduate resident assistants-are also organizing themselves.

"There's been this explosion of student interest in labor issues," says Andrea Calver, the full-time liaison to the student movement on the staff of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), which won a contract for Pitzer College food service workers in California last year with student support.

This academic year has seen "the biggest influx in a long time" of groups joining the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), says field coordinator Amber Gallup. About 40 new affiliates have boosted the organization's total to 109, but there are another 250 college chapters that are less formally linked to USAS. Meanwhile, the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), a joint venture of the U.S. Student Association and Jobs with Justice, pulled together roughly 110 events for its third annual National Student Labor Day of Action on April 4, roughly double the number the first year.

The number of campus living-wage movements has tripled this year too, and a national tour of Harvard janitors and students, organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has sparked interest on roughly 80 campuses. Inspired by the organizing and legal victories of New York University teaching and research assistants, who negotiated their first contract in February, graduate student workers at Columbia, Brown, Yale, Harvard and other universities are at varied stages in their fights for union recognition. Teaching assistant organizing has also encouraged nascent organizing among non-tenured adjunct professors, such as 4,500 faculty at NYU who will be voting on union recognition.

Most progressive campus activists see themselves as advocates of social justice who have focused on labor organizing as a vehicle. "I just got interested in doing labor work because it's what took hold of me initially," says Tom Cogswell, a USAS organizer from Central Michigan University. "I could just as easily have got involved in doing environmental issues. The basic issue is there's no representation in the government and no respect for individual liberties and gross inequalities and institutionalized racism. I generally work for labor rights, but I see a larger issue at hand."

Students seem more interested in workers rights in large part because protests against corporate globalization have brought corporate power and economic issues to the forefront of their consciousness. But corporatization of the university has also driven student workers to organize and to critique university policies on everything from logo merchandise to subcontracting. Movements feed off a common spirit of "forcing universities to be moral actors, both in what they sell in bookstores or how they treat students or other employees," says SLAP coordinator Laura McSpeddon.

The evolution of the corporatized university has changed how students experience higher education. Like for-profit businesses, universities increasingly have subcontracted work, often resulting in fewer benefits, lower wages and less tolerable work regimens. The story for professors and janitors is remarkably parallel. Contingent academic workers-nontenured and parttime-made up a third of faculty in 1987 but comprise 46 percent now, and, according to one survey of humanities and social sciences, graduate students are 15 to 25 percent of all teachers.

The power of undergraduate students with a new consciousness about labor has made a huge difference for workers both on and off campus. "They've been leading, and we've been following," acknowledges Stephen Lemer of the SEIU, which represents janitors on 110 campuses. "At Harvard, they were way ahead of us."

The entrenched, conservative SEIU local leadership in Boston that had opposed the Harvard living-wage movement has since been removed. "In many cases, there's been stagnation and erosion of standards," says Lemer, architect of SEIU's successful Justice for Janitors organizing. "The upsurge in student activity changes the playing field. Our members get totally excited and much braver when students are working with them and administrators are nervous."

Similarly, a student campaign against Sodexho, a French multinational which is one of three global giants that dominate institutional food services, focused on its ownership of private prisons (which the company still operates in England and Australia, despite its divestiture from the Corrections Corporation of America). Vulnerable because of the campaign, Sodexho also faces further problems if it resists unionization of its workers by HERE. Recently the president of Xavier University in Ohio instructed Sodexho to recognize the union if a majority of workers sign union cards.

Importantly, workers rights campaigns are beginning to involve a wider range of campuses and a greater variety of students. At Ohio State, for example, black and women's student groups mobilized to support striking campus workers, mostly minority women, and then helped form a USAS anti-sweatshop group. At the University of Tennessee, where there was no union, students and campus workers have formed their own independent union, an indication that universities might be an important beachhead for organizing in the South.

Graduate student teaching and research assistants now are organized at more than 30 universities. The big break- / through came in November 2000 when the National Labor / Relations Board ruled that teaching assistants were indeed /e employees with the right to unionize, contrary to the continued arguments of universities that their teaching is simply part of their educational program. Brown and Columbia have appealed recent elections that organizers are confident they've won on the same grounds. "We say to these universities, we're not going to let anyone slow down this organizing trend," says Julie Kushner of the United Auto Workers, which organized NYU, Brown and Columbia teaching assistants. "It's clear graduate students want a voice in the workplace. You're going to have to recognize this."

The University of Illinois has resisted state Supreme Court rulings that graduate student workers are employees, so teaching assistants this year have gone on strike and occupied buildings, finally pushing the university into negotiations. "It's only with direct action that they've agreed to work something out," says Illinois Federation of Teachers organizer Mike Stewart.

The graduate students are succeeding-and adjunct professors are getting a boost-in part because of the new awareness of workers rights issues among undergraduates. "The undergrads at NYU were there for us at every juncture," Kushner says. "They were the key to our success at Columbia as well."

Off-campus, the student anti-sweatshop movement has also scored significant victories. The Workers Rights Consortium, a monitoring organization covering 96 universities that grew out of the student movement, has conducted serious research on working conditions that has underpinned student campaigns against New Era (forced to negotiate after eight campuses suspended contracts) and Kuk Dong (where student pressure helped 500 Mexican workers win recognition of an independent union as well as pay and benefit hikes from the Korean-owned Nike contractor-since renamed Mex Mode). Following the lead of Occidental College, which contracted with a union shop in the United States to manufacture its college logo ._ clothing, a new unionized garment factory, called SweatX, is now bidding for the socially conscious apparel market.

University campuses have become one of the most important fronts for revitalization of the labor movement. But the new student activism does pose challenges for unions. As Craig Smith of the American Federation of Teachers notes, both the new campus unions and student groups "see themselves as part of a social movement to a more democratic, more just society."

Although some unions have worked closely with students, training and recruiting many leaders, and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has repeatedly joined campus protests, the challenge to the labor movement will be not simply to bring more of these new workers and supporters into the heart of the labor movement, but to transform the movement itself to incorporate the new movement's broad mandate for social justice. As Gallup says of the students, "They want to be organizers, not just foot soldiers."

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