A series of US student initiatives that link worker struggles to student solidarity now form the biggest protest coalition on US campuses since the Vietnam war. As Dan Katz argues, this practical, effective movement should inspire UK students and show a way forward to home-grown initiatives like Students Against Sweatshops and People and Planet.
Beginning with the anti-sweatshop struggles of the 1990s which were focussed on the garment-making transnationals, the activists of the US student movement have extended their campaigning. Activists have worked with the unions during “Union Summer” unionisation drives, they have widened their political horizons to take up issues like the Iraq war, and they have turned towards campus workers’ rights.
The US Student Labour Action Project (SLAP) describes the movement in the following way: ”A new generation of student activism is on the rise. Whether supporting worker organising on their campuses and in their communities, standing up against corporate bailouts and increasing layoffs, or fighting for living wages, immigrant rights, and an end to sweatshops, students everywhere are organising for social and economic justice with renewed vigour.”
The Living Wage Action Coalition (LWAC) comments, “we have been increasingly aware of the many ways in which our own universities and colleges were in fact sweatshops themselves. Many campus service workers are paid poverty wages. They are forced to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Often, they receive no healthcare. And worst of all, when campus workers try to organise together to have a voice in their own workplace, colleges often employ union-busting tactics that are indistinguishable from those used by sweatshop-abusing multinational corporations.”
A large number of on-going struggles are taking place, characterised by carefully planned, long-term drives to improve conditions for workers on campus.
Current key battles include a bitter dispute at the University of Miami where students from STAND (Students Toward A New Democracy) and cleaners backed by the SEIU union have been on hunger-strike against poverty pay and union-busting.
University president Donna Shalala is a former Health Secretary under Clinton. “Most [cleaners] make less than $17,000 a year, while she earns $516,904 a year, lives in the university's 9,000-square-foot presidential residence, and has a 29-foot motorboat and a dog, Sweetie, that has four dog beds” (NY Times).
On 4 April 2000, SLAP co-ordinated the first National Student Labour Day of Action to commemorate the assassination of Martin Luther King by organising student labour actions on 59 campuses. King was assassinated while he was in Memphis supporting the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ strike. In 2003, the day of action was expanded to a week of action which commemorates the lives of both King and Cesar Chavez (the Mexican-American leader of the United Farm Workers).
Each year, the week spans March 31, Cesar Chavez Day in California, to April 4th, the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. In 2005, there were over 230 actions and events including rallies, marches, sit-ins, forums, and film screenings in support of economic justice at more than 200 colleges and universities nationwide involving 15,000 students.
Their demands are:
• The eradication of corporate influence on education
• Living wages for all campus employees;
• University codes of conduct that support workers’ rights;
• An end to union-busting tactics used by school administrators;
• The right to organise and bargain collectively for all workers
The key organisation in the movement has been the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). USAS Is also expanding its activities, “We forced major multinational corporations to tell us where their factories are; we forced colleges and universities nationwide to adopt codes of conduct to protect the rights of workers sewing collegiate apparel; and we created the Worker Rights Consortium (an independent monitoring agency) to investigate collegiate apparel factories — an organisation that now (only five years since its beginning) has 144 college and university affiliates and more than 10 full time staff worldwide.
“We have also participated in numerous factory solidarity campaigns leading to major victories for workers including the formation of the first independent trade union in the garment sector of Mexico, the first trade union in a free trade zone in the Caribbean basin, the first independent union in Sri Lanka in several years, and tremendous victories in Indonesia, El Salvador, Kenya, Haiti, and elsewhere.
“Yet all of our work has not been enough… [we have developed a new] sweat-free campus proposal. Under this proposal, campus logo apparel would be produced in designated supplier factories where workers are able to enforce their rights through union representation and are paid a living wage. The goal of this proposal is to supply these factories with steady orders from university licensees at prices adequate to allow full respect for workers’ rights.”
In support of this campaign hunger strikes, sit-ins and protests are taking place across US campuses.