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No Sweat | The Nation

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No Sweat

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Palo Alto, California

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

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."

Sixties-Schmixties

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.

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