The New Student Movement
Much of the struggle concerns the corporatization of higher education. Universities are run increasingly like private firms, and have ever-more intimate relations with private industry [see David L. Kirp, "The New U," April 17]. During one antisweat occupation in mid-April, for example, student activists at the University of Oregon led a campus tour of sites that illustrated the institution's numerous ties to corporations (one stop was the Phil Knight Library, named after Nike's president and CEO). A nationwide student group called 180/Movement for Democracy and Education, based at the University of Wisconsin, articulates this problem, and its connection to other issues, more consistently than any other group, even leading teach-ins on how World Trade Organization policies affect higher education. But almost all of the current student struggles--whether over tuition increases, apparel licenses, socially responsible investing, McDonald's in the student union, the rights of university laundry workers, a dining-hall contractor's investment in private prisons or solidarity with the striking students in Mexico--focus on the reality of the university as corporate actor.
Battle lines are now being drawn on a number of campuses, including Penn and Wisconsin, over whether universities will give in to student demands and agree to join the Worker Rights Consortium. WRC members require their apparel licensees to comply with a strict code of conduct--guaranteeing workers a living wage and the right to organize unions--and mandate full public disclosure of wages, factory locations and working conditions. By denying industry any role in its governance and giving power instead to a board composed of administrators, students and human rights scholars and activists, the WRC provides a nascent model for the kind of university decision-making the students would like to see: a process free of corporate influence. It is also a model in which, so far, student activists have set the terms of discussion. No wonder so many university administrators, many of whom now like to be called "CEOs," have resisted it so savagely, even, in several cases, permitting quite forceful police treatment of peaceful protesters.
Yet many universities that once rebuffed the students' entreaties have since backed down, a testament to the skill and energy of the student organizers. The wave of sit-ins this spring was deliberately timed to precede the WRC's early April founding conference. Before the Penn sit-in, only a handful of institutions, none of which had substantial apparel-licensing contracts, belonged to the new organization; now forty-seven institutions belong, and the WRC founding meeting was attended by students or administrators from forty schools. The night before the meeting, the entire ten-school University of California system joined the organization and sent a representative to New York for the event. Some institutions joined without any building takeovers, choosing to avert bad publicity through graceful capitulation. "A lot of them joined without a sit-in because they thought there would be a sit-in the next day," says Maria Roeper, an antisweat activist taking a semester off from Haverford to coordinate the WRC.
Indeed, student activists have managed to put administrators on the defensive. On April 7 student antisweat protesters wearing duct tape over their mouths--to protest the fact that students have no say in campus decisions--met the University of Oregon president at the airport, frightening him so badly he left the baggage claim and hid in the bathroom. Even more striking, that same day, was the sight of dozens of suited university administrators at the WRC conference scurrying to "organize" among themselves. Many were pressured into WRC membership and worry that they won't have as much influence as they want over the new monitoring organization. Administrators were supposed to elect their representatives to the governing board at the founding meeting, but instead they asked for more time; they are now expected to do so later this spring, after holding their own meeting in Chicago. "It's only natural that they should want to do that," says Roeper. "The student group [USAS] did have a lot of power."
Industry, too, is getting nervous. Top officials of the Fair Labor Association, founded in 1996 by the Clinton Administration along with business representatives and some human rights groups, have been touring campuses, trying to convince students of their organization's good intentions. (Unlike the WRC, the FLA allows industry to choose its own monitors and doesn't include provisions for a living wage.) A week before the consortium's founding conference, Nike, which supports the FLA, canceled its contract with Brown University, objecting to the university's WRC membership. Nike has repeatedly denounced the WRC, calling it a "gotcha" monitoring system. "Nike is using Brown to threaten other schools," said Brown antisweat activist Nicholas Reville at the conference. More recently, Nike's Phil Knight, who had pledged $30 million to the University of Oregon for its sports stadium, indignantly withdrew the offer after the school announced its membership in the WRC.
In the recent history of student activism, the new emphasis on economics represents quite a shift. Ten years ago, there was plenty of student organizing, but it was fragmentary and sporadic, and most of it focused on what some, mostly its detractors, liked to call "identity politics," fighting the oppression of racial and sexual minorities, and of women. Admirable as they were--and effective in improving social relations on many campuses--there was little sense of solidarity among these groups, and they often seemed insular, bearing little relation to life outside the university.
That political moment is over, partly because in the larger world, organized feminism is in a lull and the mainstream gay movement now focuses on issues like inclusion in the military, gay marriage and hate-crimes legislation--moderate goals that don't speak to student idealism. By contrast, the economic left--especially the labor movement, and the burgeoning resistance to global capital--is enjoying a resurgence, both in numbers and in vision. The new student anticorporatists are building strong relationships with unions, which are, in turn, showing remarkable dedication to the new generation. During February's Penn sit-in, a different union local brought the students dinner almost every night. "Seattle helped the unions see that the students were serious," explains Simon Greer, Jobs With Justice's Workers' Rights board director. When the University of Wisconsin sent in the cops to drag away fifty-four peaceful antisweat protesters, George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers, issued a statement denouncing the administration's "oppressive actions."