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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