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The New Student Movement

In an effort to push corporations out of universities and to fight for workers' rights, students from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin have come together to create a nationwide movement.
 
 
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"We have the university by the balls," said Nati Passow, a University of Pennsylvania junior, in a meeting with his fellow antisweatshop protesters. "Whatever way we twist them is going to hurt." Passow was one of thirteen Penn students -- the group later grew to include forty -- occupying the university president's office around the clock in early February to protest the sweatshop conditions under which clothing bearing the U-Penn logo is made. The Penn students, along with hundreds of other members of United Students Against Sweatshops nationwide, were demanding that their university withdraw from the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an industry-backed monitoring group, and instead join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an organization independent of industry influence, founded by students in close cooperation with scholars, activists and workers'-rights organizations in the global South.

At first the administration met the students with barely polite condescension. In one meeting, President Judith Rodin was accompanied by U-Penn professor Larry Gross, an earring-wearing baby boomer well-known on campus for his left-wing views, who urged the protesters to have more faith in the administration and mocked the sit-in strategy, claiming he'd "been there, done that." President Rodin assured them that a task force would review the problem by February 29, and there was no way she could speed up its decision. She admonished them to "respect the process."

Watching the Penn students negotiate with their university's president, it was clear they didn't believe any of her assurances. They knew there was no reason to trust that the administration would meet one more arbitrary deadline after missing so many others -- so they stayed in the office. After eight days of torture by folk-singing, acoustic guitar, recorders, tambourines and ringing cell phones, as well as a flurry of international news coverage, Judith Rodin met the protesters halfway by withdrawing from the FLA. (To students' frustration, the task force decided in early April to postpone a decision about WRC membership until later this spring.)

The most remarkable thing about the Penn students' action was that it wasn't an isolated or spontaneous burst of idealism. Penn's was just the first antisweatshop sit-in of the year; by mid-April students at the universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa and Kentucky, as well as SUNY-Albany, Tulane, Purdue and Macalester, had followed suit. And the sit-in wasn't the protesters' only tactic: Purdue students held an eleven-day hunger strike. Other students chose less somber gestures of dissent. In late February the University of North Carolina's antisweatshop group, Students for Economic Justice, held a nude-optional party titled "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Sweatshop Clothes." In late March, in an exuberant expression of the same principle, twelve Syracuse students biked across campus nude. The protests were a coordinated effort; members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which was founded three years ago and now has chapters at more than 200 schools, work closely with one another, a process made easier by the many listservs and websites that the students use to publicize actions, distribute information and help fuel turnout.

Though the largest, most successful -- and before Seattle, the most visible -- thread of the movement has focused on improving work conditions in the $2.5 billion collegiate apparel industry, university licensing policies have not been the only targets of recent anticorporate agitation on campus. This year, from UC-Davis to the University of Vermont, students have held globalization teach-ins, planned civil disobedience for the April IMF/World Bank meetings, protested labor policies at the Gap and launched vigorous campaigns to drive Starbucks out of university dining services. In snowy January, at the conservative Virginia Commonwealth University, twenty students slept outside the vice president's office for two nights to protest the university's contract with McDonald's (the school promised the fast-food behemoth a twenty-year monopoly over the Student Commons). Students at Johns Hopkins and at Wesleyan held sit-ins demanding better wages for university workers. And at the end of March hundreds of students, many bearing hideously deformed papier-mâché puppets to illustrate the potential horrors of biotechnology, joined Boston's carnivalesque protest against genetic engineering.

* * *

With a joie de vivre that the American economic left has probably lacked since before WWI, college students are increasingly engaged in well-organized, thoughtful and morally outraged resistance to corporate power. These activists, more than any student radicals in years, passionately denounce the wealth gap, globally and in the United States, as well as the lack of democratic accountability in a world dominated by corporations. While some attend traditionally political schools like Evergreen, Michigan and Wisconsin, this movement does not revolve around usual suspects; some of this winter's most dramatic actions took place at campuses that have always been conservative, like the University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Commonwealth and Johns Hopkins. At this article's writing in late April, students were staging several significant anticorporate protests every week. It is neither too soon, nor too naïvely optimistic, to call it a movement.

Few of these students resemble -- either in appearance or tactics -- the hooded anarchist kids who famously threw rocks through Starbucks windows in Seattle last November. They look as if they shop at the Gap (and most of them do). Yet the movement does have an antihierarchical spirit; the Penn antisweat group, for example, made all decisions by consensus. Unlike their anarchist cohort, however, the student anticorporatists have leaders and spokespeople -- and most of them agree that if the movement is to maintain momentum, they will need many more. Fortunately, each major action seems to draw more people in, and new leaders are emerging fast -- some students who were on the periphery of the Penn group when I visited the sit-in in early February, for example, have already assumed official leadership positions within the organization.

* * *

Much of the struggle concerns the corporatization of higher education. Universities are run increasingly like private firms, and have ever-more intimate relations with private industry [see David L. Kirp, "The New U," April 17]. During one antisweat occupation in mid-April, for example, student activists at the University of Oregon led a campus tour of sites that illustrated the institution's numerous ties to corporations (one stop was the Phil Knight Library, named after Nike's president and CEO). A nationwide student group called 180/Movement for Democracy and Education, based at the University of Wisconsin, articulates this problem, and its connection to other issues, more consistently than any other group, even leading teach-ins on how World Trade Organization policies affect higher education. But almost all of the current student struggles -- whether over tuition increases, apparel licenses, socially responsible investing, McDonald's in the student union, the rights of university laundry workers, a dining-hall contractor's investment in private prisons or solidarity with the striking students in Mexico -- focus on the reality of the university as corporate actor.

Battle lines are now being drawn on a number of campuses, including Penn and Wisconsin, over whether universities will give in to student demands and agree to join the Worker Rights Consortium. WRC members require their apparel licensees to comply with a strict code of conduct -- guaranteeing workers a living wage and the right to organize unions -- and mandate full public disclosure of wages, factory locations and working conditions. By denying industry any role in its governance and giving power instead to a board composed of administrators, students and human rights scholars and activists, the WRC provides a nascent model for the kind of university decision-making the students would like to see: a process free of corporate influence. It is also a model in which, so far, student activists have set the terms of discussion. No wonder so many university administrators, many of whom now like to be called "CEOs," have resisted it so savagely, even, in several cases, permitting quite forceful police treatment of peaceful protesters.

Yet many universities that once rebuffed the students' entreaties have since backed down, a testament to the skill and energy of the student organizers. The wave of sit-ins this spring was deliberately timed to precede the WRC's early April founding conference. Before the Penn sit-in, only a handful of institutions, none of which had substantial apparel-licensing contracts, belonged to the new organization; now forty-seven institutions belong, and the WRC founding meeting was attended by students or administrators from forty schools. The night before the meeting, the entire ten-school University of California system joined the organization and sent a representative to New York for the event. Some institutions joined without any building takeovers, choosing to avert bad publicity through graceful capitulation. "A lot of them joined without a sit-in because they thought there would be a sit-in the next day," says Maria Roeper, an antisweat activist taking a semester off from Haverford to coordinate the WRC.

Indeed, student activists have managed to put administrators on the defensive. On April 7 student antisweat protesters wearing duct tape over their mouths -- to protest the fact that students have no say in campus decisions -- met the University of Oregon president at the airport, frightening him so badly he left the baggage claim and hid in the bathroom. Even more striking, that same day, was the sight of dozens of suited university administrators at the WRC conference scurrying to "organize" among themselves. Many were pressured into WRC membership and worry that they won't have as much influence as they want over the new monitoring organization. Administrators were supposed to elect their representatives to the governing board at the founding meeting, but instead they asked for more time; they are now expected to do so later this spring, after holding their own meeting in Chicago. "It's only natural that they should want to do that," says Roeper. "The student group [USAS] did have a lot of power."

Industry, too, is getting nervous. Top officials of the Fair Labor Association, founded in 1996 by the Clinton Administration along with business representatives and some human rights groups, have been touring campuses, trying to convince students of their organization's good intentions. (Unlike the WRC, the FLA allows industry to choose its own monitors and doesn't include provisions for a living wage.) A week before the consortium's founding conference, Nike, which supports the FLA, canceled its contract with Brown University, objecting to the university's WRC membership. Nike has repeatedly denounced the WRC, calling it a "gotcha" monitoring system. "Nike is using Brown to threaten other schools," said Brown antisweat activist Nicholas Reville at the conference. More recently, Nike's Phil Knight, who had pledged $30 million to the University of Oregon for its sports stadium, indignantly withdrew the offer after the school announced its membership in the WRC.

In the recent history of student activism, the new emphasis on economics represents quite a shift. Ten years ago, there was plenty of student organizing, but it was fragmentary and sporadic, and most of it focused on what some, mostly its detractors, liked to call "identity politics," fighting the oppression of racial and sexual minorities, and of women. Admirable as they were -- and effective in improving social relations on many campuses -- there was little sense of solidarity among these groups, and they often seemed insular, bearing little relation to life outside the university.

That political moment is over, partly because in the larger world, organized feminism is in a lull and the mainstream gay movement now focuses on issues like inclusion in the military, gay marriage and hate-crimes legislation -- moderate goals that don't speak to student idealism. By contrast, the economic left -- especially the labor movement, and the burgeoning resistance to global capital -- is enjoying a resurgence, both in numbers and in vision. The new student anticorporatists are building strong relationships with unions, which are, in turn, showing remarkable dedication to the new generation. During February's Penn sit-in, a different union local brought the students dinner almost every night. "Seattle helped the unions see that the students were serious," explains Simon Greer, Jobs With Justice's Workers' Rights board director. When the University of Wisconsin sent in the cops to drag away fifty-four peaceful antisweat protesters, George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers, issued a statement denouncing the administration's "oppressive actions."

The early-nineties struggles haven't vanished without a trace; indeed, it sometimes seems as if, through the anticorporate movement, they have returned to their early-seventies roots as movements for radical liberation. Many of the leaders are women, and feminist analysis informs the movement's focus; the antisweat activists, for instance, frequently point out that most sweatshop workers are women. And although the struggle against homophobia has largely disappeared from the student progressive agenda, the tactics -- militant, theatrical and often campy direct action -- of early-nineties groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation have clearly influenced the new crew of student activists.

* * *

Anticorporatism also has the potential to be a movement for racial justice. Farah Mongeau, a University of Michigan law student and member of U-M's Students of Color Coalition (SCC), points out, "[Sweatshop labor] obviously affects people of color. People of color are the ones who work in the sweatshops." Yet, although many core organizers are South Asian, the antisweatshop movement is mostly white. Organizing by students of color is on the upswing, but its relationship to the anticorporate groups can be uneasy. Some students of color say this is partly because white activists receive better treatment from those in power. At Michigan in February, SCC members protesting a racist secret society held a sit-in at the same time as the antisweat organization and resented the fact that while they were ignored for weeks, the predominantly white group got a meeting with the president immediately. Likewise, Justin Higgins, sophomore class president at North Carolina Central University, a historically black and working-class college, who in February had just joined the regional student anti-WTO/IMF coalition, said he wasn't planning to go to Washington, DC, and wasn't sorry to have missed Seattle. "If there had been black students [in Seattle]," Higgins said, "there would have been real bullets, not rubber bullets."

On the other hand, some less visible economic-justice campaigns on campus have been more racially mixed: those fighting university tuition hikes, for instance. And the student movement's relationship with labor may help break down its whiteness. In its early stages, very few black students were involved in the Johns Hopkins action demanding higher wages for university workers, for example, though the low-wage workers at the school are predominantly people of color. But when local unions got involved in the sit-in, they were able to recruit members of the black student group. On other campuses, multiracial alliances between anticorporate and prison activists are beginning to emerge (see "Hip-Hop Politics on Campus," page 16, on the role of hip-hop music in this coalition). In early April students at ten campuses launched a boycott campaign against Sodexho-Marriott, which operates more than 500 campus dining halls, is the largest investor in US private prisons and is also currently facing censure from the National Labor Relations Board. In an April sit-in at SUNY-Albany, activists, in addition to sweatshop-related demands, insisted that the university drop Sodexho-Marriott if the company did not divest from private prisons and improve its labor practices.

Part of the problem with early-to-mid-nineties student "identity politics" was an obsession with representation -- only queers could talk about homophobia, only people of color could talk about racism -- which seriously limited its constituency. Such first-person politics also restricted diverse activists' ability to work together and find common ground. Yet its premise -- drawn from seventies feminism -- that the personal is political laid the foundation for one of the core assumptions of the current anticorporate movement, which is that because we are consumers, we are personally implicated in the depredations of capital. In the antisweat movement, students initially got involved because they were horrified to find out about the exploitation behind products that were a part of their everyday lives. Says Penn sophomore and USAS member Roopa Gona, "We're talking about our clothes." Student public-education campaigns about Starbucks -- which, in mid-April, was pressured into buying Fair Trade Coffee -- and genetically modified food also focus on buying power. The consumer experience is one that everyone has in common, rather than one that emphasizes power differences among students.

* * *

Exposing the sweatshop horror behind ubiquitous logos is subversive, especially in a culture completely hypnotized by them. The whole purpose of logos and brands is commodity fetishism; we are supposed to crave them but not question the conditions under which they were made. But, as Naomi Klein observes in her new book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, companies trafficking in image are particularly vulnerable when those images are tarnished. Obscure information-technology companies can quietly outsource their data-entry work to Mexican sweatshops, but companies like Disney, Starbucks and the Gap are different: Their prominence in consumers' hearts and minds makes it far easier for activists to publicize their wrongdoings. Like other contemporary anticorporatists -- those vandalizing and protesting under Golden Arches worldwide, for instance -- students have expertly used big capital's catchy logos against it. And just like the Nike swoosh, "we can think of the university itself as a brand, a logo, that students consume," says veteran antisweat activist and University of North Carolina junior Todd Pugatch. Universities, especially prestigious ones or those with high-profile sports teams, depend on image, too. The recognizability of the University of Michigan's big yellow M, like that of McDonald's, can backfire if the logo comes to symbolize exploitation and corporate greed.

Still, brand targeting has limits. One of the ways in which contemporary capitalism maintains its hold on us is by defining everyone as consumers -- rather than, say, citizens, workers or activists. A crucial problem for the anticorporate movement is how to appeal to a wider public without reducing politics to shopping. And students are realizing that simply as indignant shoppers, they can't be very effective. Boycotts in the apparel industry are futile because all major clothing companies use sweatshop labor, explains Laurie Eichenbaum, a Penn senior and USAS organizer who was wearing a red Old Navy fleece when I met her: "There is no good alternative." Saurav Sarkar, of Yale Students Against Sweatshops, says, "That's the most common misperception about us. People say, 'Oh, I don't want to stop buying clothes at the Gap.'" Crucial to the anticorporate movement's gradual evolution beyond consumer consciousness and toward labor solidarity and broad structural change, as UNC's Pugatch observes, will be its relationship with workers, in the US labor movement as well as in the global South. If the WRC develops as the students hope, it will help give workers and unions a stronger voice in the apparel industry, rather than simply conferring a Good Housekeeping-style seal of approval on "sweat-free" brands.

Despite this emerging vision, not all students come to anticorporate activism with a radical outlook. "People are drawn in by the horror stories," says Maria Roeper, but then they start seeing how the whole system works. Students are also radicalized by their university's intransigence and by the realization that institutions only change when they're forced to do so. David Corson-Knowles, a Yale freshman and spokesperson for the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC), a national group founded at Yale, says he thinks his group will eventually convince the Yale Corporation -- which has the CEO of Procter & Gamble on its board -- to invest responsibly "because we're right." But in a group discussion in a coffee shop near campus, it's clear that students from the Student/Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) and the Yale chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops -- older groups that have been struggling with the administration for longer and use more confrontational tactics -- beg to differ. Yale SLAC activist Laurie Kimmington, a senior, says of the university's administrators, "They want to do nothing, as much as possible." Danielle Linzer, a Penn sophomore and STARC leader, admitted this might be the case. STARC, she acknowledged, had a "more conservative approach to reform" than United Students Against Sweatshops, but, she said, "we're a newer group, so we haven't yet been stalled the way they have."

All in all, it's impossible not to feel at least cautiously optimistic about this new movement. "We are training an entire generation to think differently about" -- pause -- "capitalism," says Kimmington. She glances at my notebook and at the STARC activists across the cafe table and giggles cheerfully. "Oops, maybe I shouldn't say that."

Liza Featherstone is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series.