News & Politics

Heroism of Wisconsin Protestors Inspires Students to Rise Up and Fight

Students around the country have been taking the message of Wisconsin to heart--and occupying buildings in support of fair labor practices.

While the media has been occupied with the birther scandal and the Bin Laden death drama, students across the country have been taking social justice into their own hands, staging sit-ins and occupations at campuses left and right to demand fairer labor practices. They have been taking the message of Wisconsin to heart--that there must be morality and fairness even in times of budget cuts--and risking their own status as students to protest for those suffering the most.

As of this week, there have been six sit-ins and more may be in the works. Many of these campus branches of USAS (United Students Against Sweatshops) want their schools to end affiliations with Sodexo, the food distributor that has been a notorious human rights abuser and is sub-contracted at many schools for food services. Many activists also want their schools to switch affiliation from the “Fair Labor Association,” a corporate and Nike dominated group, to the Workers Rights Consortium, a labor and student-certified group that holds apparel manufacturers to higher standards. Students also want their universities to stock apparel from Alta Gracia, the model factory in the Domican Republic that allows unionization and fair wages for workers.

Springtime is always the best time for direct action, particularly on campuses where more gentle forms of persuasion, petitioning and activism often may been tried throughout the school year. When and if those tactics fail, with graduation and summer break looming, students often choose to take campaigns up a notch even as exams and summer jobs loom. 

“In the traditional USAS way, our chapters really escalated their campaigns in coordination this spring with sit-ins on both anti sweatshop and pro-campus worker campaigns," said Teresa Cheng, USAS's national campaign coordinator. "Students were inspired to take action to this level.” 

But, she adds, “This spring has been unique: a huge wave of actions began, united by student activism in Wisconsin.” Yes, the actions in Wisconsin have reverberated on and on, from massive conference calls to plan solidarity actions in support of the Wisconsin student activists to two national days of action, one in March, one in April. But the heroism of the Wisconsin demonstrators may have inspired students to risk discipline, disruption, and even arrest on behalf of workers as meetings and more genteel campaigns didn't yield results.

Here is a rundown of the sit-ins that took place as part of the United Students Against Sweatshop’s “Spring Showdown” campaign highlighting the theme “Take Back the Economy.”

*Emory: Last week, seven students from Emory and neighboring schools including Georgia Tech, were arrested after nearly a week of protests including sit-in and the erection of a “tent city” on campus. They were participating in a campaign against the university’s relationship with food-service industry giant Sodexo. As two of the activists wrote in the student paper:

Emory’s decision to contract Sodexo to provide campus food services contradicts every one of the core values our mission statement claims to uphold…

We must ask ourselves how can we justify our continued relationship with an entity such as Sodexo in light of this continually increasing body of evidence against their way of conducting business. 

*William and Mary: On April 21, five students (all female) were removed and charged with trespassing after a 16-hour occupation of their president’s office. They were demanding higher wages for campus workers, specifically housekeepers. Echoing the cries of Wisconsin, they declared it was a “moral” issue, not a budgetary one.

*Tulane: In New Orleans, 21 students occupied their university president’s office for several hours until they left under threat of police action. Watch the video here, in which students sing, chant, and describe their discussions with Sodexo workers about their poor conditions and grievance procedures. 

*University of Madison, Wisconsin: The action moved to back to activism epicenter Wisconsin when a group of students staged a sit-in to protest a new plan to split the large Madison branch off from the larger University of Wisconsin system--which students fear would lead to corporate dominance of the school rather than its proud public school tradition. Not incidentally, this plan is part of Governor Scott Walker’s budget for the state. Clearly, these students had learned a thing or two from recent events: 

Chanting the words "our house," protesters entered Bascom Hall Tuesday afternoon to hold a sit-in outside Chancellor Biddy Martin's office.”

*Rutgers students staged a sit-in in their president's office a few days ago, demanding several things: public support for a tuition freeze; three votes for students on the Rutgers Board of Governors; arbitration for Rutgers staff whose salaries had been frozen. They also demanded funds raised to go to financial aid, and like others, they wanted their university to disassociate with the FLA. While some students occupied the office, others pitched a tent and protested outside. After 33 hours, many of them without food, the students left the building with the promise of the administration addressing their demands, and vowed that if the demands were not met they’d keep fighting.

*University of Texas: Culminating a decade-long campaign to get the Longhorns’ branded clothing made under fair conditions, student activists held a sit-in at the University of Texasdemanding the school end its affiliation with the FLA and switch over to the WRC. UT leads the nation in sales of branded apparel. Billy Yates, a student who participated in the sit-in after a year of coalition-building, lobbying and meetings, was amazed by the response from administrators who had all but ignored them previously: "Only when you're doing something like this,  with video cameras, students taking pictures, calling the press, only then do they start taking this seriously."

Yates said the activists at various schools have been in communication all spring, giving each other boosts of support and solidarity, and that he'll never forget the call they received from their Wisconsin cohort on the State Capitol floor. "We can generate a lot more attention to our issues if we all do something," he said. "The inspirational vibes form this semester have been extremely encouraging."

Although the individual actions were all small-scale, the nature of the direct actions reverberated through these tight student communities, inspiring debate and education. “On the campuses--and even in the regions--the talk was about the sit-ins", says Cheng. “They propelled student-worker issues to the forefront of consciousness on campus.”

And the semester isn’t even over yet. Yates says, he hopes the UT activists have laid the groundwork to "jump into something epic" next year.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.