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
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
"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
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
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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