“They must be afraid of the movement,” says Jonathan “Doc” Bradley, a former US Army medic who is now a student activist at the University of Arkansas, “or they wouldn’t be reacting this way.” The “movement” he is talking about is the student movement, and “they” are the police, university administrators and corporate moguls who have been unsuccessfully attempting to crush students’ persistent challenge to corporate power. But this past summer, the movement faced even more formidable organizing challenges within its own ranks.
In August, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and 180/Movement for Democracy and Education (MDE), another student anticorporate group, held a joint conference on the University of Oregon’s Eugene campus. Just a few months earlier, USAS, the most visible and successful of all the new student groups, had rocked campuses nationwide with protests against sweatshop conditions in the collegiate apparel industry, occupying buildings on more than a dozen campuses. The protests forced more than fifty universities and colleges to capitulate to students’ demands and join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an organization independent of apparel-industry influence and founded in April by students as an alternative to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an industry-backed monitoring group [see Featherstone, “The New Student Movement,” May 15]. Addressing the conference plenary, Thomas Wheatley, a former student and USAS activist at the University of Wisconsin who now works for the National Labor Committee, a leading antisweatshop organization, reflected on the movement’s past year: “I didn’t think we’d ever get this far. We’re really pushing the labor movement forward, and we beat the living shit out of Nike and all kinds of companies.”
The students have, very quickly, achieved a startling measure of power. The big question is, How will they use it? Those gathered in Eugene faced a rather daunting agenda: figuring out how to work effectively with workers in the global South and, in particular, how best to use the newly founded WRC; how to coordinate campus organizing efforts; and how to advance their work in coalition with labor unions and others fighting poverty and exploitation in the United States. To do all that, they needed to create an organization with some semblance of structure–a body that could, when necessary, allow far-flung and disparate member groups to speak with one voice.
Initially, the meetings seemed imperiled by backlash at the University of Oregon. In April administrators at the college–which is Nike CEO Phil Knight’s alma mater and boasts several buildings, including the main library, bearing his name–had joined the WRC after a series of student protests. Knight retaliated angrily, withdrawing a pledge of $30 million for a new sports stadium. So when the student anticorporate groups proposed holding a joint conference there, wary administrators insisted that they be allowed to participate. When the students refused, the university went so far as to file a human rights complaint against them with the city of Eugene. The students eventually relented.
As it turned out, the conference–and, some thought, the entire movement–was nearly sabotaged by another local phenomenon, the same one that, during the protests in Seattle last November, put the languidly countercultural Eugene on the national radar for the first time in thirty years: anarchism. Ambivalence about the role of authority in the student movement led to bitter conflicts over USAS’s structure, which reflected acute growing pains in the organization–not unlike those plaguing the rest of this lively, sometimes militant, radically decentralized global anticorporate movement.