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.”