Chicago, August 2-5.
Only hours into the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) national conference in Chicago–before half of the participants had even arrived–students were walking the picket line in solidarity with striking Teamsters at the V&V Supremo Foods, Inc., plant on Chicago’s South Side. Despite the sweltering heat and a squad of tough-looking paramilitary types who had been hired by the company to videotape and intimidate the strikers and their supporters, the students remained unfazed.
Instead, they belted out old strikers’ chants, chatted in Spanish with the workers (most of them Mexican immigrants), and attempted to discuss the strike with scabs through a fence topped with razor wire. For many of the students, this was a familiar experience. Observers of the new student movement have made much of the “emerging alliance between students and organized labor,” but the scene outside V&V Supremo Foods demonstrated that students and labor unions have already forged a powerful symbiotic alliance–one that, according to Bruce Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!), represents “a very significant event in the history of this country and in the history of our union.”
For many unions, progressive student groups play a crucial strategic role in organizing campaigns. In the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union, for example, smaller locals lacking the resources necessary to fight, much less win, organizing campaigns at large hotels or casinos are instead concentrating on university cafeterias where students interact with workers on a daily basis. “It’s gone past the pickets and the leafleting to actually getting students to be union organizers, and in particular, doing the house calls and direct one-on-one with workers,” said Andrea Calver, HERE’s student liaison.
But students remain important strategic allies with labor unions even when they are not directly organizing. Labor struggles continue to be won or lost on the strength of moral support for the workers and public backlash against union busters; these are areas in which student involvement can be particularly useful. In Derby, New York, workers affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) are on strike at the New Era Cap Company, which makes hats for major league baseball teams and for colleges and universities. CWA Local 14177 member Jane Howald told The Nation that strikers are relying on students to educate consumers about the company’s labor abuses–especially at institutions that have licensing and supply contacts with New Era. USAS affiliates are gearing up for a big fight against New Era in the fall; the organization has already sent a delegation to investigate the workers’ claims and released a damning report on working conditions in the factory.
Student activists haven’t abandoned their work against sweatshops abroad. But USAS’s rapid expansion, from an organization focused strictly on sweatshop abuses to one that is also focused on domestic labor abuses, has led some to wonder whether it is spreading itself too thin. Another serious vulnerability for groups like USAS is a lack of racial diversity. Andre Banks, the AFL-CIO’s Student Program Coordinator (a newly created position), attributes the problem to “the historical development of [USAS] coming out of primarily northeast, very white, very elite colleges and universities and perpetuating that culture.” This is a fact not lost on students, who are acutely aware that USAS, and the anti-corporate movement as a whole, remains predominantly white–a weakness that was readily exploited at the recent USAS conference by the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a sectarian communist organization.