A Critique of the Student Labor Movement

2011 has been a year of increased labor activism both in Wisconsin and in the nation. From the protests surrounding Governor Walker’s Budget Repair Bill to the newly minted “Occupy Wall Street” movement, blue collar workers, unions, and labor activists have seen a resurgence in their ability to organize people behind their causes. With this, especially in Wisconsin, we have seen a mass movement of students joining the labor protests (myself included) hoping to block legislation, protect workers rights, and in some cases fundamentally change the way our state and nation think about our society’s power structure.

Before this year, the student labor movement at UW-Madison was relegated to the Teachers Assistants’ Association (TAA) and radical leftist student organizations such as the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC). During the Budget Repair Bill Protests and subsequent citizen occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol, students of all stripes joined: College Dems, education majors, and even conservatives, especially those from working class backgrounds. As the debate raged on however, the usual far-left organizations took control of the tactics and messaging, turning off other students from the movement they had coalesced to, and ruining any chances students had for making a difference in the struggle. Why were more moderate students turned away from the movement? Let’s first look at a list of some of the tactics used by SLAC, et. al. and the effect their “successes” have had in the past few years. (Im going to leave the TAA out, because I believe they actually do legitimate organizing and are the reason UW can attract high quality grad students).

-In protest of workers rights violations in Honduras SLAC successfully pressures UW to break ties with Nike, losing Wisconsin students $49,000 in scholarship money in the process. This was done by storming the Chancellor’s office, and celebrated by holding a “dance-in.”

-The far-left successfully stops the New Badger Partnership, and in doing so, demonizes, alienates, and quickens the resignation of one of the most innovative leaders UW has ever had, who was extremely well-liked by students overall. The general freedoms of authority sought by the New Badger Partnership were granted to Madison (and other UW schools) anyway. Leland Pan, a SLACktivist sitting in Bascom Hall makes the asinine claim that all New Badger Partnership supporters were “middle class and white”

-Students connected to United Council of UW Students (UC) dress as zombies and cause damage to carpeting in the Capitol that taxpayers must pay to replace. The same United Council connected group later in the day stands in the way of a ceremony honoring Special Olympic athletes to protest the Governor.

-SLAC interrupts the opening of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery by banging on glass walls and shouting while Governor Doyle was speaking. Same group continues disrupting WID activities including a non-related Business Conference

These SLACers, many of whom are from upper-class families and don’t even know what it actually means to be working class, have continuously picked the wrong battles, made asses of themselves, and turned away moderate students from joining their causes because of their actions. These “flavor-of-the-week” protests over basically everything have harmed the notion of student involvement in state government, and have made even serious student lobbying efforts less effective. Sadly, even the best idea from these groups, the Briefcase Brigades proposed by Max Love in which students with suits and briefcases brought factsheets to legislative offices, was seen as simply a gimmick by those involved, and not as how students should conduct themselves ALL THE TIME when talking with legislators.

So, how can students help advance labor causes? First off, stop protesting every little thing. Labor protests, while good for bringing people together, aren’t going to be effective without causing some economic pressure, such as through a general strike. Even President Obama, who stated while he was running that he would “put on his marching shoes” if public workers were organizing, is now ignoring the working classes occupying Wall Street, just as Wisconsin Republicans ignored the thousands of people marching and occupying the Capitol.

Second, GROW UP. When you want to make a political point, do so in a respectful manner. Write a letter, make phone calls, go to the legislative office dressed nicely and bring some literature. Don’t threaten, don’t yell, and certainly don’t cause damage. Doing so only makes you look like a fool and makes it less likely the other person will listen to other students in the future.

Third, choose your battles wisely. Is standing up for Honduran workers really more important than helping your fellow Badgers afford school? Is occupying Bascom or Willy Street in solidarity with the Wall Street protesters effective at all when those people either agree with you already or can’t do a damn thing to change anything? Is ensuring that a handful of campus jobs being union jobs more important than working towards a living wage for all campus employees, or increased wages for student labor? These should be simple questions.

The last, and probably most effective thing undergraduates can do if they really care about workers rights is drop the relatively useless African American Studies, Comparative literature, Philosophy, etc. hobby majors and work towards becoming an industry leader or public leader that you’re supposed to be working towards when you decided to go to a world-class university. (side-note: I’m not decrying the humanities, I majored in History, just those that choose this route expecting to easily get jobs in power positions later). Once you’re actually in that position of authority, treat YOUR employees (those working class and otherwise) with respect. Change society from within, and change the rules yourself.


3 responses to “A Critique of the Student Labor Movement

  • Iread@wisc.edu

    I agree with a lot of what you said, but let me make one huge exception: “and are the reason UW can attract high quality grad students”.

    You’re saying the *TAA* is the reason? I think you can argue the TAA helps through more competitive TA salaries, but by far the number one reason UW-Madison has strong graduate programs and students is the research dollars brought in and prestige of the institution.

  • CF

    Oh, I certainly agree that if it weren’t for the research dollars UW wouldnt be considered as a destination for top grads, however, the advocacy that the TAA has done concerning tuition remission and other benefits allows UW to go out and recruit away the top talent looking at other institutions. Both come into play.

    I put that statement in there because I don’t believe the rest of the post really pertains to the TAA, even though I had mentioned them previously. As at least a former collective bargaining unit, they ARE workers, and not simply students who advocate for worker causes.

  • Patrick

    “Change society from within, and change the rules yourself.”

    Reminds me of the final scene of SLC Punk – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi2y9-Mxq-0

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