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 s
Democrats and Republicans alike are claiming the education bill as a victory. The national testing plan--mandating annual tests in grades three through eight, plus one in high school--is a significant departure from the past. As right-wing pundit Chester Finn once observed, liberals have traditionally hated the word "testing" and conservatives have hated the word "national." But old principles gave way to current political imperatives. Democrats seized on words like "accountability" and Republicans armed themselves with "compassion."
The bill is not, however, a victory for children in public schools, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Harvard Civil Rights Project has shown that poor and minority children are hurt the most by an excessive reliance on high-stakes testing--in which performance on standardized tests determines promotion to the next grade, graduation or even the survival of the school. High-stakes tests are associated with high dropout rates, an escalating problem among African-American boys. Exams alone don't motivate struggling students and can even have the opposite effect, according to a Boston College study.
What students need are tests that truly measure how well schools are teaching basic skills, accompanied by constructive responses to weak points--tutoring, after-school programs that go beyond remediation, summer school (when necessary) that does more than rehash the year's curriculum and, above all, expertly trained, decently paid teachers for all our schools, especially those serving a high concentration of poor students. The education bill emerging from Congress guarantees none of those things. Instead, failing schools receive as little as one year of technical assistance, and students get tutoring and transportation subsidies to attend another school; within five years the failing school could face total "reconstitution," meaning the staff would be fired.
A critical difference between the House and Senate bills is the method of measuring school success. The House would require schools to break out test scores by race, exposing schools where well-off white students are thriving while minority kids are stuck in the low-performing track (the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that Bush is fond of lamenting); the Senate lets schools average their test scores, masking any racial achievement gap. Bush is under intense pressure from the Republican-dominated National Governors Association--conservative governors fear having to pour resources into schools revealed to be neglecting their minority students--to support the Senate's version on this point.
Ted Kennedy and the other Senate liberals hailing the education bill as a triumph focus on the dollar signs. They can claim that the Senate bill authorizes $33 billion--including more money for teacher training, improving school buildings and programs for disabled and immigrant children--versus Bush's $19 billion and the House's $24 billion. But even the Senate figure falls woefully short, and getting the funds appropriated down the road will entail a messy fight, given the promised tax cuts. That inconvenient fact could spoil the bipartisan fun.
In the progressive playbook for 2001, labor is called on to assume a leading role.
For God, country and the ruling class.
On May 8 twenty-three jubilant, grubby Harvard students left the offices of university president Neil Rudenstine after a twenty-one-day sit-in, the longest in Harvard's history. The students had demanded that the university pay its workers what the City of Cambridge had determined was a living wage--now the minimum for all municipal employees--$10.25 an hour. A university committee had ruled against a similar proposal a year earlier, but this time, after the sit-in drew three weeks of coverage critical of the university in the local and national media, the administrators gave ground, agreeing to reopen serious discussion.
Several commentators pointed out the incongruity of privileged Ivy Leaguers taking up such a blue-collar cause, but what the coverage often missed was that the Harvard sit-in was part of a growing movement on US campuses emerging from a burgeoning alliance between student activists and organized labor.
A significant factor in the Harvard students' victory was the support of local and national unions. The carpenters' local and the Boston office of the progressive, union-backed group Jobs With Justice organized a community march in support of the students. The dining-hall workers' union, itself in the middle of contract negotiations, listed amnesty for the student protesters among its demands and twice held rallies outside the president's office. In the last week of the sit-in, AFL-CIO leaders, including president John Sweeney, staged a 1,500-person rally at Harvard, and AFL-CIO lawyers helped shape the students' final agreement with the administration.
Across the country, according to Jobs With Justice, living-wage campaigns are now active on at least twenty-one college campuses, and those at Wesleyan and the University of Wisconsin/Madison have already claimed victories. Meanwhile, students elsewhere are working on related campus labor issues, like outsourcing, benefits and organizing nonunion workers--not to mention the catalyzing cause of sweatshops.
The AFL-CIO's student outreach program, Union Summer, has played a key role in turning simmering concerns on campus about sweatshops, globalization, the decline in real wages and the growing gap between rich and poor into effective campaigns. Union Summer, which was part of Sweeney's platform when he was campaigning for the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, gives 200 interns--mostly, but not exclusively, college students--a small stipend and a few days' training in labor history and organizing, and then sends them out for monthlong stints with labor campaigns around the country.
After a month talking with people who work twelve-hour swing shifts and support a family on $6.50 an hour, the students often feel that returning to sheltered college life is no longer an option. "It was a transformative experience for me," says Dan Hennefeld, a Harvard graduate who's now employed by the garment and textile workers union, UNITE, and who attended the first Union Summer in 1996, after his freshman year. "It made me want to be in the labor movement," he says. When Hennefeld got back to Harvard that fall, he helped start a group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement, which became the driving force behind the recent sit-in (three of the organizers were also Union Summer grads).
The nearly 2,000 graduates of Union Summer have played a major role in spreading awareness of labor issues on campus. In addition to those at Harvard, student labor leaders at Duke, Brown, Georgetown and the universities of Tennessee, Connecticut and Wisconsin are all Summer alums. To make room for an increasing number of applicants, the AFL-CIO is offering three specialized, ten-week internships this summer: Seminary Summer for future religious leaders (mostly seminarians, novices and rabbinical students), Law Student Union Summer and International Union Summer, now in its second year, which places a few college students in organizing campaigns in such countries as Egypt, Mexico and Sri Lanka.
During their brief stints the interns are schooled in organizing techniques and tactics. "I'm blown away by how smart and focused the student leaders today are," says Paul Booth, currently assistant to the president of AFSCME and one of the writers of the 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society. And, he adds, they've taken to heart an essential principle of today's campus activism: organizing campaigns around the school itself. Students understand, Booth says, that "they ought to be getting the institutions they relate to to do things that are meaningful."
Says Harvard's Hennefeld, "We realized early on that we wanted to focus on Harvard and the way it fits into labor issues. That potentially made the most sense to students, and it seemed the most effective use of whatever power we had." As on many campuses, this school-focused work quickly centered around their colleges' connection to overseas sweatshops, where underpaid workers turn out the sweatshirts the students wear to advertise their privileged status. These targeted antisweatshop campaigns have so far convinced seventy-eight colleges to join the Workers' Rights Consortium, the strictest of the independent groups that monitor conditions under which university garments are made.
For many antisweat student activists, the transition to campus labor issues seemed only natural. "While we were doing our antisweat work, we talked to a lot of people who said, You've got to look at what's going on here. It would be hypocritical not to," says Becky Maran, one of the leaders of UConn's successful wage campaign. "With the energy and momentum from winning [the antisweatshop] campaign, we felt we had the strength to move on."
Students' domestic labor campaigns have taken a variety of forms. At the universities of Pittsburgh and Utah, student labor groups have latched on to pre-existing citywide living-wage campaigns. At Harvard and Johns Hopkins, located in cities that had already adopted a living wage, student campaigns have focused on pressuring their administrations to adopt the city's wage floor. And at the University of Tennessee, where "right to work" laws make a living wage at best a distant goal, labor campaigns have used the mere idea of a living wage to encourage workers to organize. Recent UT graduate Anna Avato, now an AFL-CIO organizer, says that after a media campaign was launched, "Workers were calling us and saying they wanted a meeting. By the end of the week, we had 150 workers at our first action." Within a year, the UT campus workers had formed an independent union, put an end to forced overtime and, in May, fended off a subcontracting threat.
On many campuses, activism that started as a living-wage struggle has spiraled off in other directions. Harvard students, with their newly strengthened ties to campus labor, are helping out with upcoming contract negotiations and continuing to organize among those janitors and dining hall workers still without a union. At Wesleyan, where a union wage fight for campus janitors was won a year ago, students have spent the past year working with the bus drivers of Middletown public schools to pass a Middletown living-wage ordinance. At Johns Hopkins, where a seventeen-day sit-in in March 2000 convinced the administration to pay its workers a living wage a year earlier than planned, students have been working on a half-dozen campaigns, allying themselves with locals of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), UNITE, the service employees' union (SEIU) and ACORN, a grassroots organizing group. At UT, with the independent campus workers' union up and running, students have taken a back seat to the workers themselves, helping to recruit new members and keeping up the pressure on the administration.
No matter what economic justice issue these campus efforts focus on, the thread that ties them together is their collaboration with labor. Encouraged by the students' successful campaigns, their enthusiasm and their ability to attract media attention, local and national unions are showing increased interest in working with student groups. UNITE pledged $25,000 to United Students Against Sweatshops to get it started in 1997 and continues to collaborate with USAS on ways to expand antisweat work. Jobs With Justice has joined the progressive United States Students' Association to form the Student Labor Action Project, which advises campus labor campaigns across the country and puts them in touch with local unions. And SEIU is planning an effort to bring young organizers, SEIU staff and student leaders together for discussions about how to reach out to more students.
Campus leaders, for their part, are eager to learn from the organizing experience of their union partners, as well as to get involved in real-world struggles for economic fairness. While such collaborations can be tricky--neither the student movement nor organized labor wants to give up its independence--both students and labor recognize the potential benefits. Dan DiMaggio, a Harvard freshman who participated in the sit-in, says that it "definitely galvanized workers. We went to a union negotiation the other night, and they gave us a standing ovation as they were about to receive their final offer." He adds, "The unions are very receptive to this idea of working together, and if the unions work together, that's pretty serious. If the unions and the students work together, that's pretty serious too."
The biggest brand name in for-profit education is floundering.
The March 14 announcement by the Coca-Cola Company that it is scaling back its aggressive marketing strategy in public schools is a clear victory for opponents of schoolhouse commercialism. But it's unlikely that it will do much in the long run to halt the flow of sugary caffeinated drinks into the hands of schoolchildren. According to one soft-drink-industry insider, Coke has so little control over its independent bottlers and distributors that it couldn't turn off the school spigot even if it wanted to. "Local bottlers can't afford to turn down the contracts with schools, because they know a competitor will step right in--and Atlanta [Coca-Cola headquarters] knows this too," the industry expert told me. Executives at five large Coca-Cola bottling companies all said in interviews that they would continue to sign exclusive contracts with local schools if the schools still want them.
And want them they do. The sad reality is that public school officials are so thoroughly addicted to the cheap fix of soda money that they've become a chief ally of the soft-drink industry and a driving force behind school commercialization. In Ohio recently, local school officials defied a state order to stop peddling soda and candy to students while breakfast and lunch are being served (a violation of federal law) because it would have cut into their profits. The state is now threatening to withhold federal money from the schools. And in Maryland, school administrators and organizations like the National Association of Secondary School Principals joined forces with the bottlers, the vending machine lobby and companies like Channel One and Frozen to squash a bill aimed at limiting commercialism in Maryland public schools.
The measure--The Captive Audience/Stop Commercialism in Schools Act of 2001--would have required school boards to ban commercial advertising in schools, restrict soda and candy sales and prohibit the purchase of textbooks with commercial logos. "The lobbyists kicked my ass," said Democratic State Senator Paul Pinsky, the measure's chief author. Pinsky noted that his bill went down to defeat one day after Coke's announced policy changes and only after Coke lobbyists had checked back with the home office on how to proceed.
A similar scenario is shaping up in California, where a bill that would effectively ban sales of soda and junk food in state schools is facing opposition from school officials and the California-Nevada Soft Drink Association. Ironically, the measure was drawn up in cooperation with leading child nutrition experts and school nutrition directors, who increasingly find themselves on the opposite side of school-health issues from their bosses.
Through contracts with Coke and Pepsi, some schools are raising as much as $100,000 a year, money that pays for things like band uniforms, field trips, team sports and computer rewiring. But in exchange schools become indentured to the corporations. Typically, the contracts require that schools sell a set quota of soft drinks each year (with cash incentives for selling more). This transforms schools from the status of being mere custodians of vending machines into active sales agents for soda. In Colorado Springs in 1998, for example, school officials sent teachers a letter urging them to allow students to drink Coke in class and suggesting that they keep soda machines on twenty-four hours a day [see Manning, "Students for Sale," September 27, 1999].
There can be no solution to the commercialization of public education until public schools are adequately and equitably funded. The Bush Administration will offer little help. Education Secretary Rod Paige signed a $5 million, five-year contract with Coca-Cola while superintendent of the Houston public schools and has proposed no solutions to the school funding crisis.
Consequently, parents and community activists should encourage local school boards to find other solutions to their budget problems. One obvious solution is higher taxes, an option that school districts are loath to propose. But as Andy Hagelshaw, the director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, points out, none of the approximately 250 exclusive cola contracts in effect nationally pay out more than $10 to $15 extra per pupil per year, less in bigger school districts. Surely, paying $10 a year more in school taxes is a good investment if it helps eliminate corporate hucksters and exploitation in schools. There are other funding alternatives as well, many of which the center helps schools adopt and implement: For example, instead of relying on the soda subsidy, many school districts are negotiating beneficial arrangements with smaller local businesses that contain no advertising or commercialism. Nationally, the Algebra Project, which produces a math curriculum and provides teacher training to urban schools, has accepted corporate underwriters who receive nothing in return except a brief mention in an annual report.
The failure of educators to think critically about the impact of school commercialism on the quality of schools is a terrible ethical lapse. It's time for the education establishment to think twice before it sells out its students to the highest bidder.
In Canada, Maude Barlow gave a stirring speech criticizing the free-trade agenda of the Summit of the Americas.
A sit-in at the university highlights the gulf between a great educational institution and the unconscionable working conditions many of its employees experience there.
Congress is poised to reauthorize fearmongering "abstinence-only" sex ed.