Palo Alto, California

The bucolic, palm-studded campus of Stanford bears no resemblance to the old and gritty auto workers’ summer camp at Port Huron, Michigan, where SDS was formed in 1962. And no stirring Big-Picture Statement of a generation’s anguish came out of this particular conference. But when some 200 student activists converged on Stanford during the weekend of April 16-18 to link up with labor and–in a coordinated effort–like numbers showed up simultaneously to the same end at Harvard, Yale and Kent State, it didn’t feel too reckless (or too hopeful) to speculate that we just might be witnessing, finally, the birth of a new national student movement.

There’s been a smattering of campus protests around the war in Kosovo, and, like a movement Old Faithful, UC Berkeley has recently erupted in a fight over ethnic studies programs. But the big man on campus today is the worker. Indeed, for the past several months a tsunami of sweatshop and labor-related protests, rallies and demonstrations has flooded campuses from coast to coast. Even the New York Times recently concluded that this is the biggest uptick of student activism in almost two decades–since the surge of antiapartheid activity in the early eighties.

Recently, there have been takeovers and sit-ins at the universities of Wisconsin, Duke, Michigan and Georgetown. After four days of a late April sit-in at the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina, administrators agreed to support more stringent guidelines for licensed apparel manufacturers. Even the mighty Nike has recently bowed to student pressure, promising to make public a list of its overseas factories. “Look around and you’ll see an incredible amount of campus activism,” says 21-year-old Eric Brakken, who traveled to the Stanford conference from the University of Wisconsin. “Those veterans of the sixties who are still around in Madison say things are getting more organized than ever.”

At Yale, Scholars, Artists and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ) rallied that same April weekend to support union organizing efforts by grad students and teaching assistants. SAWSJ has already held several such high-profile events. Throughout the United States, grad-student employees are forming unions at a skyrocketing pace, with organizing activities stretching from UCLA to the University of Minnesota to NYU. Recently Johns Hopkins became the first university to enact a living-wage measure, an issue that has been pushed to the forefront at Brown, Fairfield, Harvard, Stanford and the University of Virginia. Even at conservative bastions like Southern California’s Claremont Colleges students are protesting–sitting in and fasting to support campus workers’ efforts to unionize. “Students have always shown an ability to hold a mirror up to society and force it to face the truth about its flaws,” says AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. “What is new is that today’s students are organizing and mobilizing for workers‘ rights and on issues of economic justice.”


A confluence of factors is helping to incubate the new student movement. Numerous organizers and activists interviewed broadly agree on two points: first, that young people have been undersold in the media. While written off as apathetic slackers, they have in reality been massively engaged for some time now in low-profile volunteer and community work. But activists also agree that students are getting increasingly impatient with the meager results of such involvement and are ready for more radical challenges.

“I get angry when I hear we do nothing,” says Suzanne Clark, a 21-year-old senior at Brown who is at the center of a new student-labor network. “But we are also tired of doing small demonstrations and rallies that don’t get us anywhere. We don’t want to do more volunteer service. The community-service model is being rejected. We are also starting to realize that many of us, college degree or not, are ourselves going to be workers. And we know that workers need unions.” In part, this is a symptom of the two-tiered economy–the students are analogous to HMO doctors who feel sufficiently proletarianized that they have begun to unionize. But a number of the new student radicals are themselves the children of the sixties Days of Rage. Stanford labor conference organizer Ethan Kaplan’s parents were both sixties radicals. Co-organizer Eli Naduris-Weissman’s mother is a leftist politics professor, and his deceased father was an exiled Chilean socialist.

Many of today’s students look back to the sixties as a seminal moment–a time to be studied for all of its lessons, both positive and negative. “I see the sixties as very chaotic, as something that scared the establishment,” says Milan Saha of the Johns Hopkins Student-Labor Action Committee. “We are more pointed, more focused. We don’t believe things are going to change overnight. We believe that the chaos will come from within the system, not from without.” Indeed, this generation of activists seems more prepared, more studied, even more radical in their economic critique than their SDS ancestors. “This is really different from the sixties,” says Jo-Ann Mort, communications director of the garment and textile union UNITE. “They are doing something right where they live, right at home. Something with immediate and tangible impact.” Close links with labor were rarely forged or even sought by the students of the sixties. And organized labor, of course, was firmly in the grip of a cold war leadership that rejected just about everything that the student radicals embodied. But since then the gap between student and labor activists has dramatically narrowed.

It has been narrowed, in part, by the now three-year-old Union Summer, which has cranked out almost 2,000 alumni, and by the aggressive outreach programs of unions like the Service Employees (SEIU) and UNITE. “This is a strategic, deliberate move by Sweeney’s AFL-CIO,” says Amy B. Dean, executive officer of the powerful South Bay Labor Council in San Jose, California. “The Vietnam War’s been over for a long time now. It’s time for us to get back together with students. We need the coalition that working with students brings us.”

Movement Time

The real steam of the new movement comes from the unholy relationship between American universities and the mostly offshore sweatshops that produce their logo-emblazoned shirts, sweatshirts and shorts. The campus antisweatshop campaign began to pick up speed when a dozen students returned from the Union Summer experience of 1997 to their home campuses of Duke, Harvard, Illinois and Georgetown with newly honed consciousness and organizing skills. After a year of arduous organizing and growth, they got together last July and formed the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Their goal: to impose rigid standards for protecting workers’ rights on manufacturers and contractors that produce apparel with collegiate logos.

About 160 US universities support an antisweatshop code proposed by the Collegiate Licensing Company–the middleman between colleges and apparel manufacturers. But USAS and other student activists argue that the CLC’s code is not stringent enough. That’s why students took over the administration building at Duke this past January and forced the university to fight for higher labor standards at CLC. From Duke, the movement spread like wildfire, sparking takeovers at Wisconsin and Georgetown and lighting up around a hundred campuses on the sweatshop issue.

The basic moral dimension of the student demands struck a sympathetic chord. Linked by e-mail and Web pages, students rallied nationwide to try to block their universities from making money off of sweat labor. “We can’t walk around in these sweatshirts that stand for Jesuit and Catholic identity when we know the conditions they are produced in,” says Cassandra Lyons, a Georgetown freshman who participated in the protest at her campus.

That sort of moral indignation helped pulverize the long-standing reticence of students on labor issues. Derek Dorn, a 22-year-old grad of Cornell and of Union Summer who now works in the AFL-CIO research department, remembers the dramatic impact on campus when UNITE brought in hat workers from the Dominican Republic to discuss their working conditions. “I was amazed–300 students showed up,” Dorn says. “A lot of students who otherwise would not have shown up for a labor meeting started coming after they got exposed to the sweatshop issue. Now they see labor as a tool that fights for social justice across boundaries of gender and race.”

It seemed inevitable that energized students would soon broaden and radicalize their agenda. While in the sixties the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War infused the student movement with a keen awareness of racial oppression and the excesses of the state and its military machine, the new radicals of the nineties are starting out where the sixties left off: with a probing critique of the economic system, informed by an understanding of its gender and racial dimensions. “Antisweatshop work is very radicalizing,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Eric Brakken. “It doesn’t take long before you begin to understand how capitalism works.”


That sort of radicalization fueled the mid-April weekend of organizing at Stanford, Harvard and Kent State, which attempted to take the student surge beyond the single issue of sweatshops. United Students Against Sweatshops has been effective in its struggle, but this newly emerging network, while vowing to work closely with USAS, intends to ratchet up student involvement with labor. “Sweatshop work is more user-friendly. It’s an easier sell,” says 20-year-old Stanford organizer Naduris-Weissman. “But when you ask yourself how you can get real, tangible economic justice in this society you quickly find you have to fight for union rights.” Fellow organizer Kaplan agrees. “This is a crucial moment,” he says. “Hopefully we are coming out of a more self-absorbed time. Fewer people are willing to either climb the corporate ladder or surrender to the New Age bullshit.”

What happened a few weeks ago at Stanford, Harvard and Kent State–though mostly unnoticed by the press–was a conscious attempt to form a national student organization to better plan, coordinate and escalate the already burgeoning student support of organized labor. “Think how much better a campaign we can mount against a targeted company when we can coordinate countrywide,” says Kaplan. Further, these three conferences represented a qualitative step forward from the labor confabs of the past year in that they were 100 percent student organized and student run. “This is the first time since I started teaching here in 1972 that I have seen Stanford students organize a labor conference on campus,” says law professor William B. Gould, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board.

The Stanford organizers staged twenty-seven panels and workshops during the two-day event. No bigwig radical celebs were brought in. Not even any of the AFL-CIO top brass. Instead, dozens of frontline labor activists and organizers from numerous central labor councils came to meet with and recruit the students from more than fifteen represented campuses for a myriad of local, statewide and national union battles and issues. Also present was the AFL’s Organizing Institute, the training camp for new organizers. “We used to attract students who were just looking for a job,” says the OI’s recruitment chief, Elissa McBride. “That’s not so anymore. We are now getting some very talented people. Over the last year we have noticed a marked increase in the quality of the candidates–especially those who have been through some sort of campus organizing activity.”

The Stanford meeting culminated in a countrywide conference call bringing together the first threads of the new national student organization. On Sunday morning about forty groggy students gathered in a Stanford community center and expectantly gathered around a speakerphone in the center of the floor. First two, then five and finally about ten similar meetings came on the line. In total, maybe forty-five to fifty colleges were represented. As each campus name was read out and as each point of an organizational charter was approved by acclamation, a loud cheer arose. “We are best organized now in the Northeast and in California, with a second tier around the Southeast,” says Suzanne Clark, who has acted as the coordinator of the incipient organization. Much remains to be determined about the role the new group will play in labor struggles, but whereas USAS started out with only a few activists, this group starts out with a veteran corps of several score leaders. They tentatively plan to come together in a formal founding convention–perhaps in six months, perhaps in a year.

But just as the new US economy has been riven, so has the modern student body. While student activism visibly surges, it still attracts only a very small percentage of young people. Disengagement, disenchantment and a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality prevails. In the sixties there was also only a small core of activists, but in those heated times immense majorities of students would at least temporarily rally to radical causes. Today’s activists find a growing but still distinctly limited audience. That might change if more victories like the recent concessions made at the universities of North Carolina and Wisconsin begin to multiply.

There will be some exciting moments ahead. Preparations are under way at the once-raucous University of California, Santa Barbara, campus to hold a campuswide plebiscite on rules governing sweatshop contracting. On other campuses large swaths of the student body will be asked to support on-campus living-wage and wage-hike campaigns. And in mid-May a wave of grad-student union certification elections will elevate campus passions. How deep this new activism will reach into the collective student psyche is still anybody’s guess. UCLA professor and radical writer Russell Jacoby counsels skepticism. He fears that many of today’s student activists are engaged in the domestic version of the proverbial sophomore year abroad–that they have little taste for taking their radicalism with them after graduation. “So many of these activists, when you ask them, say they are planning to become lawyers,” says Jacoby. “They seem most interested in careerism and conforming to the corporate culture.”

And yet, there’s some evidence that student activists are moving beyond simple solidarity and eschewing careers with acronyms like GM and IBM in favor of jobs at the UAW and CWA. Outside the meeting rooms of the Stanford conference, the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute table was attracting large clumps of eager listeners. “I’m graduating this year from Brown, and I know exactly the job I want to get,” says Suzanne Clark. “I’m going to be an organizer for the SEIU.