No Sweat | The Nation


No Sweat

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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.

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.

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