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Student Organizations Under Assault | The Nation

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Campus-oriented news, first-person reports from student activists and journalists about their campus.

Student Organizations Under Assault


Selma Aly of United Council of UW Students

Student organizations nationwide are facing an onslaught of what should be named “student right-to-work” laws as state legislatures across the United States are proposing bills that serve to debilitate statewide student associations and other student advocacy organizations.

“Right to work” laws are state statutes that govern the extent to which an established union can require employees’ membership, payment of union dues or fees as a condition of employment, either before or after hiring. The most recent case of a student right-to-work law is the back-door budget deal struck by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and his right-wing cronies that will undermine student activity funding for the United Council of UW Students, the same statewide student association that worked tirelessly to win a tuition freeze for University of Wisconsin students.

The current system allows for students to opt out of these fees if they choose to; however, the new bill specifies that students will now have to specifically opt in to the fees, making it nearly impossible for United Council to sustain themselves. Student leaders consider this an aggressive attack on students’ right to organize themselves and the United Council, a group that has been able to reliably fight for college affordability for UW students is facing an uncertain future. “The Joint Finance Committee voted to end decades of advocacy for lower tuition and college affordability. This vote is a complete breach of trust between legislators and students,” said Geoff Murray, president of United Council of UW Students and a student at UW-Stevens Point.

I first heard about these laws a month ago when Arizona state legislature passed HB 2169, almost an identical law to that recently passed in Wisconsin. This law included a clause that states that any organization that sought to influence “the outcome of an election” would be ineligible for university funding.

As a result of this law, Get Out the Vote (GOTV) drives, which have been an integral part of getting students and other young people out to the polls in swing states, are under threat in Arizona and Wisconsin. In fact, any organizations that support, for instance, the DREAM Act or oppose budget cuts to education or any other public service could now be completely defunded. Importantly, these laws continue to disproportionately affect left-wing student organizing efforts across these states.

In Wisconsin, students affiliated with United Council are not taking these attacks lying down. United Council has reached out to labor organizations for support in targeting politicians who are seeking re-election to repeal the Joint Finance Committee decision. Labor leaders have expressed solidarity with the students’ struggle to maintain access to their own student activity fees. “The agenda of Scott Walker and his right-wing followers in the legislature is clear. Last session they made it harder for UW students to vote. This session they want to make it harder for students to even speak,” said Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 40.

As we continue to organize for more accessible and democratic educational institutions, our student organizations will become more effective and, thus, more threatening, and our budget streams will be the first things under attack, as Arizona and Wisconsin show us. Politicians of both parties are scared of students who are willing to attend every budget meeting, who will listen to their peers and who are militant and organized.

Today, in the wake of impending threats to all of our organizations, there’s a critical need for a national movement to protect students right to organize. This growing pattern of ‘student right-to-work’ laws needs to be fought on a national level, with states who are not yet affected helping to strategize across state lines before it’s too late.

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