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.

Most conference attendees appeared to be more than a little miffed about the PLP’s presence. PLP operatives took every opportunity to emphasize the need to abandon “white privilege theory” and all other conceptions of race in order to promote a radical class-consciousness that would ultimately spark the proletarian revolution. In one workshop on the dynamics of working with labor, two PLP members repeatedly tried to steer discussion toward less germane topics such as the coming dictatorship of the proletariat. And PLP’s attempts to promote its “ignore race” agenda at times veered toward the invasive, as when the group attempted to bring seven white men into the People of Color Caucus.

But while PLP’s tactics certainly disrupted the conference, the weekend remained remarkably productive as students attempted to formulate a rough plan to reach out to more people of color. Speakers repeatedly emphasized USAS’s imperative to become more race-conscious and to diversify itself, a task that requires much more than simply adjusting the racial makeup of USAS. Instead, a clear consensus emerged that individual students need to learn how to view and discuss race issues more critically. “Building an inclusive movement doesn’t involve just recruitment. If a bunch of people of color come to the national USAS conference and they’re not listened to and marginalized, then that’s not going to do any good,” said Banks in an interview.

As students absorbed the seriousness of the challenges USAS faces, there was nevertheless abundant optimism that they would eventually build a genuinely broad-based and sustainable progressive movement. At the conference’s final panel discussion, Leo Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers of America, characterized the sectarian disruptions as a testament to the movement’s vitality. “If you’ve got an institution that’s fighting for the working class that wants to build a structure against global oppression, your mark of progress is when people want to start infiltrating you,” he said to thunderous applause. As Gerard continued, he articulated his hopefulness about the student-labor alliances’ ultimate political potential: “I’ve come, in the last six or eight months, to believe–fundamentally–that we have, collectively, the chance to overthrow the global economic system that people are trying to design around us.”

The conference’s final speaker, Charlie Eaton, a New York University student and USAS organizer, outlined a broad vision for the movement, seemingly demonstrating that Gerard’s statement was more than just a pie-in-the-sky vision meant to stroke idealistic students’ egos: “Think of the sheer power of the students who produce ideas and the workers who produce essential goods, in a global society that is connected by information and by technology.” Eaton urged USAS affiliates to maintain relationships with campus workers, form coalitions with other progressive student organizations and then work together to force the democratization of their colleges or universities–either through conventional means like running candidates for student government, or through direct actions like sit-ins and strikes. In a global economy that is becoming increasingly dependent on university research, students and workers at genuinely democratic universities could wield significant influence.

For the time being however, students are keeping their attention to the task at hand–promoting economic justice. In fact, the advice Raynor gave students in an afterdinner speech was full of mandates they seem to have already adopted: “We’ve got to be focused, we’ve got to be strategic, and we’ve got to be militant. We can’t always play by the rules.”