Imagine a world where everyone who chooses to can go to college. Picture a world where workers on school campuses and in communities have a voice about their working conditions and where the fruits and vegetables that people eat are picked by workers who earn a living wage. Imagine a time when students and others can proudly wear university apparel, knowing the workers who made the clothing were paid fairly with basic rights including breaks, safe working conditions and an eight-hour workday. And finally, think about what it will be like when jobs not only support workers but also protect the environment.
These aims were the demand of thousands of youth and student leaders on over 100 campuses in more than 30 states during the ninth annual Student Labor Week of Action March 28-April 4. The Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) and dozens of other local and national student-worker solidarity groups sponsored the events.
The AFL-CIO co-sponsored the week of action to highlight the fight for fair wages and the freedom to form unions among low-wage workers. The anniversaries of Cesar Chavez’s birth and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were also recognized.
“This was a national movement to connect campaigns for a broader unity among youth, students and workers,” said Carlos Jimenez, SLAP national coordinator.
The week’s actions focused on raising awareness about the fight for living wages for campus employees and university codes of conduct supporting workers’ rights both on campus and overseas. Other objectives included developing green jobs that support workers in every community and promote a healthy environment, affirmative action and access to higher education for all, and fair wages and working conditions for people who grow food and harvest crops.
Jimenez said young people need to “take ownership” of their stake in the environmental, economic, civil rights and social justice movements, and connect the various issues for progressive change.
“The core of all our problems is greed,” he noted.
“Every hour the war in Iraq is costing us a student Pell grant,” Jimenez said. “I am fundamentally opposed to that. The war is a fiasco. We can’t stop talking about the war, especially since it’s an election year,” he added.
“The recent upsurge of young people voting sends a strong message of power and a united voice for political change, but we need to go beyond the ballot box and hold our elected officials accountable,” he added. “We have to work hard and confront the challenges ahead and take action. And we need to feel personally invested in these present struggles and do something to help change this country around.”
Lisa Chen, 20, chairs the working class caucus of the United States Students Association. Chen, a student at the University of California, San Diego, is a leader of the Student Worker Collective. She helped organize a successful civil disobedience action with AFSCME Local 3299, in Los Angeles on April 3, in which over 800 union workers, students, elected officials and religious leaders blocked street intersections at the UCLA campus. Chen said the workers are fighting for a statewide contract including a minimum wage increase for university service and patient care workers.
“It’s important to realize that labor struggles are in the forefront for real change and we have to see the effects of those struggles, which is key for us as students,” said Chen, adding that it is equally important that more students are getting involved, especially in the presidential elections.
“We’re just getting started and it’s an exciting moment in the student-worker alliance,” said Chen. “We need to know what’s going on in our communities and it’s a civic duty to be involved.”