[sixties-l] The Student-Labor Union

From: radtimes (resist@best.com)
Date: Sat Aug 11 2001 - 18:25:54 EDT

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    radman says: ..please note reference to the Progressive Labor Party below...


    < http://www.thenation.com >

    The Student-Labor Union

    by Nicholas Woomer

    Only hours into the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS)
    national conference in Chicago--before half of the participants had even
    arrived--students were walking the picket line in solidarity
    with striking Teamsters at the V&V Supremo Foods, Inc., plant on Chicago's
    South Side. Despite the sweltering heat and a squad of tough-looking
    paramilitary types who had been hired by the company to videotape
    and intimidate the strikers and their supporters, the students remained

    Instead, they belted out old strikers' chants, chatted in Spanish with
    the workers (most of them Mexican immigrants), and attempted
    to discuss the strike with scabs through a fence topped with razor wire.
    For many of the students, this was a familiar experience. Observers
    of the new student movement have made much of the "emerging alliance
    between students and organized labor," but the scene outside
    V&V Supremo Foods demonstrated that students and labor unions have
    already forged a powerful symbiotic alliance--one that, according to
    Bruce Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and
    Textile Employees (UNITE!), represents "a very significant event in the
    history of this country and in the history of our union."

    For many unions, progressive student groups play a crucial strategic
    role in organizing campaigns. In the Hotel Employees and Restaurant
    Employees (HERE) union, for example, smaller locals lacking the
    resources necessary to fight, much less win, organizing campaigns
    at large hotels or casinos are instead concentrating on university
    cafeterias where students interact with workers on a daily basis.
    "It's gone past the pickets and the leafleting to actually getting
    students to be union organizers, and in particular, doing the
    house calls and direct one-on-one with workers," said Andrea Calver,
    HERE's student liaison.

    But students remain important strategic allies with labor unions
    even when they are not directly organizing. Labor struggles continue
    to be won or lost on the strength of moral support for the workers
    and public backlash against union busters; these are areas in which
    student involvement can be particularly useful. In Derby, New
    York, workers affiliated with the Communication Workers of America
    (CWA) are on strike at the New Era Cap Company, which makes hats for major
    league baseball teams and for colleges and universities. CWA
    Local 14177 member Jane Howald told The Nation that strikers are relying
    on students to educate consumers about the company's labor
    abuses--especially at institutions that have licensing and supply
    contacts with New Era. USAS affiliates are gearing up for a big
    fight against New Era in the fall; the organization has already sent
    a delegation to investigate the workers' claims and released a
    damning report on working conditions in the factory.

    Student activists haven't abandoned their work against sweatshops
    abroad. But USAS's rapid expansion, from an organization focused
    strictly on sweatshop abuses to one that is also focused on domestic
    labor abuses, has led some to wonder whether it is spreading
    itself too thin. Another serious vulnerability for groups like USAS
    is a lack of racial diversity. Andre Banks, the AFL-CIO's Student Program
    Coordinator (a newly created position), attributes the problem
    to "the historical development of [USAS] coming out of primarily northeast,
    very white, very elite colleges and universities and perpetuating
    that culture." This is a fact not lost on students, who are acutely
    aware that USAS, and the anti-corporate movement as a whole, remains
    predominantly white--a weakness that was readily exploited at
    the recent USAS conference by the Progressive Labor Party (PLP),
    a sectarian communist organization.

    Most conference attendees appeared to be more than a little miffed
    about the PLP's presence. PLP operatives took every opportunity
    to emphasize the need to abandon "white privilege theory" and all
    other conceptions of race in order to promote a radical class-consciousness
    that would ultimately spark the proletarian revolution. In one
    workshop on the dynamics of working with labor, two PLP members
    repeatedly tried to steer discussion toward less germane topics
    such as the coming dictatorship of the proletariat. And PLP's attempts
    to promote its "ignore race" agenda at times veered toward the invasive,
    as when the group attempted to bring seven white men into the
    People of Color Caucus.

    But while PLP's tactics certainly disrupted the conference, the
    weekend remained remarkably productive as students attempted
    to formulate a rough plan to reach out to more people of color.
    Speakers repeatedly emphasized USAS's imperative to become more race-conscious
    and to diversify itself, a task that requires much more than
    simply adjusting the racial makeup of USAS. Instead, a clear consensus
    emerged that individual students need to learn how to view and
    discuss race issues more critically. "Building an inclusive movement
    doesn't involve just recruitment. If a bunch of people of color come
    to the national USAS conference and they're not listened to and marginalized,
    then that's not going to do any good," said Banks in an interview.

    As students absorbed the seriousness of the challenges USAS faces,
    there was nevertheless abundant optimism that they would eventually
    build a genuinely broad-based and sustainable progressive movement.
    At the conference's final panel discussion, Leo Gerard, International
    President of the United Steelworkers of America, characterized
    the sectarian disruptions as a testament to the movement's vitality.
    "If you've got an institution that's fighting for the working class
    that wants to build a structure against global oppression, your mark
    of progress is when people want to start infiltrating you," he said
    to thunderous applause. As Gerard continued, he articulated his
    hopefulness about the student-labor alliances' ultimate political
    potential: "I've come, in the last six or eight months, to
    believe--fundamentally--that we have, collectively, the chance
    to overthrow the global economic system that people are trying to
    design around us."

    The conference's final speaker, Charlie Eaton, a New York University
    student and USAS organizer, outlined a broad vision for the movement,
    seemingly demonstrating that Gerard's statement was more than
    just a pie-in-the-sky vision meant to stroke idealistic students' egos:
    "Think of the sheer power of the students who produce ideas and
    the workers who produce essential goods, in a global society that
    is connected by information and by technology." Eaton urged USAS
    affiliates to maintain relationships with campus workers, form
    coalitions with other progressive student organizations and then
    work together to force the democratization of their colleges or
    universities--either through conventional means like running
    candidates for student government, or through direct actions
    like sit-ins and strikes. In a global economy that is becoming increasingly
    dependent on university research, students and workers at genuinely
    democratic universities could wield significant influence.

    For the time being however, students are keeping their attention
    to the task at hand--promoting economic justice. In fact, the advice
    Raynor gave students in an afterdinner speech was full of mandates
    they seem to have already adopted: "We've got to be focused,
    we've got to be strategic, and we've got to be militant. We can't always
    play by the rules."

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