A Week of Student Labor Action

Last week, at campuses across the country, student activists held rallies and teach-ins, completed work projects and passed out fliers. They also marched, showed documentary films, and wrote letters. Their methods and campaigns may not all have been the same, but their message was. “Worker’s rights are human rights,” says Carl Lipscombe. “All workers should have the right to organize unions, get fair wages and have access to health care and basic rights in the workplace.”

Lipscombe, 24, is the national coordinator of the Student Labor Action Project, which organizes the annual Week of Action. The event ran from March 31-- Cesar Chavez’s birthday -- through April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

The project was started six years ago as a joint program between the non-profit groups Jobs with Justice and United States Student Association. What started out as a day of action on April 4, 2000 developed into a weeklong event in 2003. Now, roughly 200 campuses are participate and Lipscomb estimates that more than 250 events were be held by the end of the week. The week provided a time when organizations from all parts of the student-labor movement – whether they are fighting sweatshop labor or unfair conditions for university employees, working for farmworker rights, or trying to get transnational corporations with unfair labor practices kicked off of campuses – could come together to educate other students about labor issues and mobilize support.

“Schools are complicit in the global economy,” says Emma Roderick, a 20-year-old sophomore at Smith College in Massachusetts. “So (we can) use the power of our administration and say ‘we’re students here and we think you need to act responsibly.’”

Rodderick has been involved in labor activism since her freshman year in high school. She says she first became interested in worker’s rights issues after reading an article about it when she was in sixth grade, but didn’t know how to get involved until she started volunteering with the National Labor Committee. Rodderick worked with the committee until she graduated and didn’t get active again until near the end of last school year when she joined the United Students Against Sweatshops campaign against Coca-Cola. The company has been targeted because of its human rights abuses in Colombia. On Friday, she and other students met with members of the college administration to try to persuade them to end their contract with Coca-Cola.

“We’re hoping that we can get Coca-Cola out of Smith by the end of the semester, and if a lot of other schools kick out Coke, too, they’ll actually start paying attention to the demands of the workers,” she says. “I think that’s mainly the point of most of these actions – if we can make a big enough deal about this, then corporations will start paying attention to the demands of their workers.” Rodderick and other activists also handed out flyers this week about the seemingly unfair pay system for mailers at The Washington Post. They encouraged students to boycott Kaplan Education Services, which is owned by The Washington Post Company.

The week was not only a time to focus on ongoing campaigns, but a time for activists to celebrate recent victories, including the successful negotiation of a living wage for employees of Georgetown University. There, more than 20 students began a hunger strike on March 15, refusing to eat until university officials agreed to pay school employees a higher wage. The strike lasted nine days. To celebrate the victory, community and religious leaders and workers, students, and faculty who were involved in the campaign held a rally on Friday.

Another success being celebrated is an agreement between Taco Bell and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. Taco Bell conceded in early March to demands for better wages and more open dialogue with tomato pickers that work for the farms that supply the fast food chain. The Student Farmworker Alliance worked closely with the farmworkers during the three-year campaign, and successfully had Taco Bell kicked off of more than 20 university and high school campuses as part of its boycott.

Sean Sellers, 23, is the national co-coordinator for Student Farmworker Alliance, one of the organizations that sponsored the Week of Action. Sellers says the organization does not plan to stop with Taco Bell. “The work’s not over,” he says. “This is just a big first step in reforming the rest of the industry. ... With this victory what we have is a solid foundation to target the rest of the fast food industry.” The organization is using this week to launch a letter-writing campaign urging Subway, Burger King and McDonald’s to meet or beat the Taco Bell agreement. Jordan Buckley, 23, who took the semester off from the University of Texas at Austin to work with the alliance, said that sample letters have been sent to the organization’s decentralized network on more than 300 university and high school campuses.

Emma Roderick explains that by reaching out to students during the week of action, activists showed one another that the movement is united. “If we can say on our campus, ‘this is part of a week of action that’s going on all across the country and all these schools are participating in it,’ it makes whatever we do that much stronger and whatever the other schools do that much stronger, too.”

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.