How US students built their movement

Submitted by Anon on 29 January, 2006 - 11:04

By Laura Schwartz

The US based student campaign United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has groups in almost 200 universities and has dominated student politics on US campuses since it was founded in 1997. USAS campaigns have ensured on campuses all over the US that workers are paid a living wage and collegiate apparel is no longer made in sweatshops.

Students Against Sweatshops was founded in the UK a year ago, with the aim of running campaigns similar to those of USAS, based on workers’ rights and workers’ solidarity. We can learn a lot from USAS by looking at how they build and run their campaigns.

USAS is not an NGO or charity. It is not run by full time staff, only occasionally calling on students for support. It is a grassroots student led “movement” which seeks to involve normal students in political activism. A very practical, thorough approach to the day to day business of running a campaign is, however, required for this activism to become effective.

Often USAS campaigns start with a very small group of activists. Their first step is to build a “coalition” of support. This means contacting every and any student organisation which might be sympathetic to their campaign — including feminist groups, political groups and, crucially, trade unions. This coalition can take many forms, varying from some groups giving their “endorsement”, but remaining largely inactive, to a power-sharing coalition made up of a variety of student organisations. USAS especially recommends building links with groups which are fighting some other form of oppression, such as racism, and encouraging them to work with USAS by making the connection between the oppression their members face and the exploitation of workers.

Only once a satisfactory level of support has been achieved, and substantial “awareness-raising” has been done, do USAS activists begin to “step up the pressure” and take direct action. Individual USAS groups carefully structure campaign action plans, agreeing on short-term, medium-term and long-term goals, a tactic which helps to maintain momentum.

USAS recognises that for a campaign to achieve its goals and inspire its activists, it has to be militant. Their organising manual states that “Administrators do not make decisions based on how moral or well researched you are on the subject of sweatshops… in short you have to scare them.” This is of particular interest to UK student activists, who have been told time and time again by their bureaucratic student unions that militant campaigns only alienate “ordinary” students.

USAS activists also warn against giving into arguments which invoke the “silent majority” as a reason to stop campaigning. “Demand to know who this “silent majority” is’, they say, ‘and ask why, if this majority feels so strongly about doing nothing, they don’t stand up for themselves and say so?’

For USAS, effective campaign building is not just about organisation and hard work, but a political act in itself. In order to build a successful campaign, students need to analyse the power structures that operate on campus.

“Universities are supposed to be based upon the pretence of cultivating ‘democracy,’ in the weakest sense of the word, of producing a generation of future leaders who can debate issues and, consequently, make well-informed decisions. However, in practice our universities are hardly democratic… how much influence do students and workers on campus have within these structures? The answer is, generally, very little.”

University management is not accountable to students, and will therefore very rarely act in anybody’s interest other than their own. Students need to know this in order to guard against one of the favourite stalling tactics employed by management- claiming that “we’re all on the same side” and that students can leave it to them to sort out.

Once activists have worked out who has the power on campus, they can target these people and put pressure on them to accept campaign demands. Effective campaigning involves shifting this balance of power. For example, whilst the university vice chancellor may have the formal power of decision making, when students organise an occupation or go on strike and the university stops running as a result, suddenly they are the people who wield the power.

USAS is proof that militant, well-organised, grassroots student campaigns can win real, material gains for workers both internationally and on our own campuses. Such campaigns are built through hard work, and by politicising activists so that they understand how power structures operate on and off campus, and can then set about turning them upside down.

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