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The Student Movement Comes of Age

Many students are used to being repeatedly shut down in their efforts. But many are finding, after years of effort to organize, that they are finally being listened to on a national scale. In this article, Liza Featherstone points to the recent Sodexho Marriott boycotts, the Students Against Sweatshops, the newly formed Worker Rights Consortium, and other significant steps in student-led fights for equality. Featherstone also suggests a need for more activism that links global concerns with class and race issues here at home.
 
 
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"They must be afraid of the movement," says Jonathan "Doc" Bradley, a former US Army medic who is now a student activist at the University of Arkansas, "or they wouldn't be reacting this way." The "movement" he is talking about is the student movement, and "they" are the police, university administrators and corporate moguls who have been unsuccessfully attempting to crush students' persistent challenge to corporate power. But this past summer, the movement faced even more formidable organizing challenges within its own ranks.

In August, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and 180/Movement for Democracy and Education (MDE), another student anticorporate group, held a joint conference on the University of Oregon's Eugene campus. Just a few months earlier, USAS, the most visible and successful of all the new student groups, had rocked campuses nationwide with protests against sweatshop conditions in the collegiate apparel industry, occupying buildings on more than a dozen campuses. The protests forced more than fifty universities and colleges to capitulate to students' demands and join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an organization independent of apparel-industry influence and founded in April by students as an alternative to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an industry-backed monitoring group [see Featherstone, "The New Student Movement," May 15]. Addressing the conference plenary, Thomas Wheatley, a former student and USAS activist at the University of Wisconsin who now works for the National Labor Committee, a leading antisweatshop organization, reflected on the movement's past year: "I didn't think we'd ever get this far. We're really pushing the labor movement forward, and we beat the living shit out of Nike and all kinds of companies."

"The students have, very quickly, achieved a startling measure of power. The big question is, How will they use it?"

The students have, very quickly, achieved a startling measure of power. The big question is, How will they use it? Those gathered in Eugene faced a rather daunting agenda: figuring out how to work effectively with workers in the global South and, in particular, how best to use the newly founded WRC; how to coordinate campus organizing efforts; and how to advance their work in coalition with labor unions and others fighting poverty and exploitation in the United States. To do all that, they needed to create an organization with some semblance of structure-a body that could, when necessary, allow far-flung and disparate member groups to speak with one voice. Initially, the meetings seemed imperiled by backlash at the University of Oregon. In April administrators at the college-which is Nike CEO Phil Knight's alma mater and boasts several buildings, including the main library, bearing his name-had joined the WRC after a series of student protests. Knight retaliated angrily, withdrawing a pledge of $30 million for a new sports stadium. So when the student anticorporate groups proposed holding a joint conference there, wary administrators insisted that they be allowed to participate. When the students refused, the university went so far as to file a human rights complaint against them with the city of Eugene. The students eventually relented.

As it turned out, the conference-and, some thought, the entire movement-was nearly sabotaged by another local phenomenon, the same one that, during the protests in Seattle last November, put the languidly countercultural Eugene on the national radar for the first time in thirty years: anarchism. Ambivalence about the role of authority in the student movement led to bitter conflicts over USAS's structure, which reflected acute growing pains in the organization-not unlike those plaguing the rest of this lively, sometimes militant, radically decentralized global anticorporate movement.

University of Oregon students don't have much in common with the marauding hooded Eugene residents who, calling themselves the Black Bloc, have been such a controversial presence at recent national protests. Agatha Schmaedick, a University of Oregon USAS activist, laughs at the idea. "It's ironic because people associate us with [the Black Bloc anarchists], but those anarchists think we're totally reformist!"

But Eugene, like Madison, Wisconsin, which was also well represented at the meetings, has an intensely process-oriented student activist culture. Passions raged over the proposal to establish an elected governing body that would decide many of the questions that are currently left to conference calls open to the entire membership or to paid staff in the group's Washington, DC, office (who are not elected). The anarchists and radical democrats in attendance worried that such a body would turn USAS into a "hierarchical" and "bureaucratic" organization; one even warned, in an address to the plenary, that if the group adopted this structure "we'd be no better than a corporation." Others took a dim view of such arguments. George Washington University student Todd Tucker observed, "It just seems so stupidly American, like, 'I won't take orders from anyone.' It's John Wayne, not even Bakunin!" The controversy inspired twenty-nine hours of plenary meetings, two of which lasted past 3 am; at several junctures, anarchists walked out of the room and even burst into tears.

At present, some decisions about the national organization simply don't get made at all; for example, USAS was unable to spend money organizing a major presence at national protests in Philadelphia and Los Angeles this summer because no one had the authority to approve such a commitment. Although the conference calls (which cost the organization $25,000 last year) are clearly an attempt at participatory democracy, many students say they are not democratic, since only those who happen to find out about them, or can afford to get on the phone, can participate.

"It reminds me of the major split in SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]," said Molly McGrath, a recent University of Wisconsin graduate who spent the summer organizing the Eugene conference. While it's unlikely that this event will have the world-historical consequences that the SDS wars had, the conflict was in many ways analogous: Like the SDS founders, the anarchists are fiercely dedicated to nonhierarchical structures, but many of their fellow activists-whether liberal or far left-feel that such purism about process and structure conflicts with other movement goals. For example, USAS cannot react quickly to emergencies-such as a strike that could be aided by student solidarity actions. Moreover, developing relationships with workers in the global South is especially hard without tight structure and nimble coordination. This spring and summer, students traveled to Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras to meet with labor activists and garment industry workers in those countries and to develop the networks for the nascent Worker Rights Consortium. In March, students investigated a Nike supplier in the Dominican Republic, where workers were being fired for attempting to organize unions. USAS activists also met with Dominican workers who were attempting to attend school at night and were consistently prevented from doing so by the factory's practice of forced overtime-production quotas were often impossible to meet within the nine-hour workday. In the past, the national USAS organization, lacking an infrastructure, has not been able to capitalize on such efforts, so figuring out a way to do so was an urgent priority at the meeting.

Despite the sometimes agonizing conflicts, the students made progress in Eugene. They strategized about how best to finance delegations to overseas sweatshops and about how to build alliances with workers' rights groups. They debated-and passed-a proposal to establish an International Solidarity Committee that would plan the delegations and make sure they were linked to specific campaigns. An elected governing body was established, and on the last night, those bleary-eyed USAS members who could stand to show up for the last few hours of late-night plenary decided to hold elections later this fall.

"The students' focus on corporations sometimes causes them to miss the point; for example, confronted with the incarceration boom, they focus on aspects of the prison industry that are relatively peripheral, like private prisons or prison labor. Antisweat activists at California schools, wishing to make common cause with antiprison activists, have been redefining prisons as sweatshops, because some prisons lease inmate labor for corporate profit. "

Besides the national USAS, the most crucial of this young movement's new institutions is the just-formed-and in many ways still undefined-Worker Rights Consortium. Though the WRC is a concept with great potential, it's still not clear how the organization will build relationships with workers or how it can best use the networks it already has. The WRC must carefully negotiate its own relationship to labor organizations, for example; the labor movement provides its best access to workers, yet the WRC must maintain some independence if it is to have credibility with university administrators. Funding raises even hairier questions; for instance, will the WRC, established by an anarchist-influenced student movement, accept government money? At present, the WRC is woefully understaffed and searching for an executive director; clearly it's too soon to make any judgments about its effectiveness. The disarray of the movement's national organizations may not inhibit organizing on individual campuses, partly because of the very decentralization the anarchists celebrate. Students at Ohio State, Nebraska, West Virginia, Wyoming and Montana are launching new campaigns this fall to get their schools to join the WRC and drop out of the FLA. At schools that have already joined the WRC, students are trying to make sure the administration complies with its requirements-disclosure of factory locations, for example. Some students are focusing on other pressure points; activists at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, for instance, are launching a national campaign to push Barnes & Noble-which operates 400 campus bookstores nationwide-to make its suppliers comply with the WRC's code of conduct.

Although student antisweatshop activists have been criticized for evading problems at home by focusing on corporate wrongdoing in the Third World, they have proven increasingly committed to fighting domestic poverty. A group of USAS students went on a delegation to the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in July, and hundreds of students participated in the group's protest march during the Republican National Convention. USAS is forging a long-term relationship with the welfare rights direct action group and will probably help KWRU fundraise for its Poor People's Conference in November. But students' most promising do- mestic solidarity efforts focus on the one arena in which they truly wield power: the campus. Some students are working closely with campus workers on new organizing drives at Earlham in Indiana, the University of Wisconsin, USC, Ohio State and numerous other institutions. Others are pressuring their administrations to boycott notorious unionbuster Sodexho Marriott, a French company that provides campus dining services and is also the largest investor in US private prisons (this campaign, which began in April, has already been successful at both Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington, and SUNY, Albany).

As the student movement begins to confront domestic injustices, however, anticorporatism may prove too limiting a language. It has been the movement's dominant idiom-made so dramatically visible by Seattle and A16, even penetrating national electoral politics via Ralph Nader's Green presidential campaign-and in many ways it's a useful one. As the villains everyone loves to hate, corporate power and greed lend coherence to a global youth movement that's too often viewed as diffuse and lacking focus. Anticorporatism translates admirably into union solidarity, and corporations provide a convenient euphemism for capitalism, which not everyone wants to talk about (after all, who wants to be taken for a glassy-eyed sectarian-newspaper pusher?). What's more, universities' cozy ties to large companies bring anticorporatism into students' daily lives-and, perversely, lend students power as consumers in the "academic-industrial complex."

But building a social movement to fight poverty may require a broader vision. Many people of color and poor people in the United States do not feel that anticorporatism can adequately describe their experiences of everyday inequality and injustice. Addressing the USAS conference, Maria Cordera of the Third Eye Movement, a Bay Area youth organization that fights police brutality and the prison industry, acknowledged that student anticorporate activists "need to connect prisons to globalization," but she observed that "for people of color, our bread and butter issue is not globalization, it's how are we going to feed our kids." (This, of course, is part of the reason Nader's presidential campaign has more support among the upscale than among the poor.)

Students fighting poverty in the United States must confront culprits more complicated-and closer to home-than corporate greed: class interests and the breakdown of the social contract. This past spring, Dave Snyder, a Johns Hopkins student who helped organize a sit-in over campus laundry workers' wages this year, led a USAS delegation to Kensington, the desperately poor Philadelphia community in which the welfare rights group is based. The residents "kept talking about the people who live in this nearby middle-class neighborhood, people who ignore them and shut them out," Snyder remembers. "I felt this rage against those middle-class people, trying to imagine what kind of horrible people they must be. Then we [the students] went to that neighborhood because someone's parents lived there, and I realized, this is my middle-class neighborhood; my parents would live here. I could live here."

The students' focus on corporations sometimes causes them to miss the point; for example, confronted with the incarceration boom, they focus on aspects of the prison industry that are relatively peripheral, like private prisons or prison labor. Antisweat activists at California schools, wishing to make common cause with antiprison activists, have been redefining prisons as sweatshops, because some prisons lease inmate labor for corporate profit. Although this has been effective in building multiracial coalitions, prison labor isn't as widespread as many activists claim, and-also contrary to student and youth activist rhetoric-the lure of prison labor profits does not motivate incarceration policy.

At the same time, workers overseas already understand the potential power of student anticorporatism. During the USAS conference, there was one moment that put the week's internal melodrama into perspective. That was when Rosa Gonzalez, a young worker who had just been fired for union organizing in a free-trade-zone factory in Mil Colores, Nicaragua-which supplies clothing to US companies like Kohl's and Target-addressed the students. She described a factory in which workers are frequently denied sick leave even in an emergency; women routinely have miscarriages in the bathroom. Gonzalez's own situation is desperate; her firing has branded her a troublemaker, and no other factory will hire her. Some days her family eats only one meal, she said, tears streaming down her face. Gonzalez told the students she hoped USAS could pressure the US companies to reinstate fired workers throughout the Nicaraguan maquila. "I ask your solidarity," she said. "You are our only hope."

Liza Featherstone is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series, supported by the New World Foundation and the Nation Institute.