Students join with labor

Over the past few years youth and students have become more active in living-wage legislation, union drives, anti-sweatshop campaigns and anti-globalization protests.

In many instances, youth and students have taken the lead on campuses to force administrators to adhere to ethical code of conduct agreements. On other occasions, youth and students have pressured campus administrations to sign neutrality and non-interference agreements when campus employees, like janitors, service employees or grounds keeper staff, have been in contract negotiations.

In April 2001, as part of the Harvard Justice for Janitors Campaign, Harvard Students staged a 21-day sit-in on behalf of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 254. Harvard, the second wealthiest non-profit institution in the world, “was paying us poverty wages,” said Frank Morley, a Harvard janitor.

Between 1994 and 2001, wages of Harvard janitors fell 30 percent, and two-thirds of all Harvard janitors could not afford health care. Many worked two or three jobs.

In 1998 Harvard refused to adopt a living-wage standard similar to that of the city of Cambridge, where Harvard is located.

In February 2002 Harvard agreed to a new union contract. Janitors at Harvard received an “immediate raise,” bringing their wages above the Cambridge living wage. By 2005 they will make $14 an hour. Also, as part of the contract, janitors received full family paid health insurance and a guarantee from the university that all subcontracted workers will receive equal pay and benefits.

“When enough people get together,” said Morley, “they can do anything.”

While the Harvard Justice for Janitors campaign focused primarily on improving the immediate conditions of the Harvard janitors, other student-led initiatives that have brought students and labor together, have been slightly different in form.

New initiatives like the Federation of Labor Youth (FLY) and the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) focus on immediate issues. But, they breech the studentworker divide in different ways also.

Julia Beatty, New York coordinator for SLAP, said, “we are building relationships for the long-run with the hopes that students will become active supporters of union organizing campaigns on campuses or in the surrounding community.”

According to Beatty, SLAP, founded in 1999 by Jobs with Justice (JWJ) and the United States Student Association (USSA), “facilitates networking, relationship building and training,” to address issues that affect students and union members.

This is especially important for youth that have had very little experience with trade unions. “Nothing existed nationally to connect youth and students to labor,” said Beatty.

One thing that makes SLAP unique is its ability to bring union “resources, manpower and training” to campaigns on the campus. Nationally SEIU, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and Communication Workers of America (CWA), among others, have played an important role in building “labor activity that supports students,” as Beatty said.

New York City SLAP is currently mobilizing support from trade unions to fight another round of City University tuition hikes, which are likely to force thousands of students out of college. According to Beatty, 29,000 students couldn’t afford to attend college after the last tuition hike. A new round of tuition hikes is likely to have the same effect.

While SLAP focuses primarily on organizing young people by addressing issues that affect them as students, FLY focuses on organizing young people by addressing issues that affect them as workers.

While the AFL-CIO has endorsed and supports constituency groups like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), up until recently it has not made the same efforts with young workers.

FLY, founded this past January as the official youth organization of the Harris County, Texas, AFL-CIO, signals the beginning of a trend of re-examining the importance of organizing young workers.

“There are tons of young workers, young trade unionists and young organizers,” said Miles Rodriguez, FLY coordinator. “But, young workers are not organized. Young workers have different reasons for working. And they need a special way to address the concerns that young workers have.”

One way that FLY has addressed issues unique to young workers is by hosting a Young Trade Unionists School.

FLY’s first school, held this past September, was a day-long event with 40 young unionists. Not only did it focus on the basics of organizing, leadership development, labor law and workers’ rights, it also focused on bringing all young workers together.

While many students are workers, FLY doesn’t consider itself a student-labor organization. Organizing students who work is seen as part of an overall strategy to “include youth into the labor movement,” said Rodriguez. Adding, “the goal of the AFL-CIO is to organize the unorganized. And youth are a part of that.”

Even though SLAP and FLY address the issue of student, youth and labor solidarity in different ways, both are focused on fighting on the issues that affect young people.

The author can be reached at


Youth flexes power to stop war

By Susan Webb

A movement to stop war on Iraq and create a “culture of peace” is springing up among youth on campuses and in communities around the country. From California to Maine, young people are finding a voice on this issue in growing numbers, joining as well as initiating a wide range of peace actions, including marches, candlelight vigils, teach-ins, rallies and street-corner “honk for peace” postering.

The National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (NYSPC), made up of over 20 organizations, is playing a key role in coordinating peace organizing among young people, giving it national voice and developing materials and resources for its use. Formed in response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, NYSPC initiated and helped organize this year’s April 20 March on Washington, which drew 100,000 people to the U.S. Capitol.

Erica Smiley, coordinator of the Black Radical Congress Youth Caucus and its representative to NYSPC, told the World the youth and student coalition is mapping ways for young people to use their power to “keep the U.S. from invading other countries, and to block the attack on civil liberties here at home.” There is definitely increased interest in these topics among youth, she said, and an increase in activism as well. “We’re on the build, on the rise,” she declared.

The United States Students Association (USSA), encompassing student governments at approximately 300 public and private colleges and universities representing millions of students, is an active participant in NYSPC. On campuses around the country “signs of resistance are everywhere,” with students involved in forming peace coalitions and educating their campuses, Nicholas Centino, USSA Students of Color Campus Diversity Project Director, told the World. Student activists oppose “war in the interest of oil,” and also want to “stop democracy from being hijacked,” he said.

“Young people are perhaps the greatest constituency against this looming war,” Libero Della Piana, national coordinator of the Young Communist League (YCL), told the World. “They don’t see why a solution can’t be negotiated, why a peaceful solution isn’t possible. They see the hypocrisy in the Bush administration’s threat of using weapons of mass destruction in order to disarm Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”

Della Piana, who has traveled around the country in recent weeks helping promote the YCL’s Nov. 22-24 national convention in Chicago, said high school and college students tell him they don’t think the war will make them safer – instead, they think it increases the risk of escalating conflict, civilian victims and insecurity. “A pro-peace sentiment has built up on the campuses much more quickly than during the U.S. war in Vietnam,” he commented.

A major concern of student activists now is how to build a grassroots movement, said Centino. “Students want to evaluate what power they have. In addition to marching and rallying, in the end how can the balance of power be changed?”

A NYSPC strategy meeting Nov. 2-3 in Washington, D.C., discussed plans for “a movement not only to stop war on Iraq but to promote a culture of peace,” Shelly Delos, YCL liaison to NYSPC told the World. Instead of pouring billions of dollars into a “war on terrorism” that curbs civil liberties and funds the military-industrial complex, money should go to education, she said. “Young people, especially people of color and working class young people, have to join the military in order to be able to go to college, because they can’t afford it otherwise. That’s just not fair!” She noted that the military is targeting these youth for recruitment.

Della Piana charged that war on Iraq “will drain university budgets, increase tuition, and heighten the economic crisis, which impacts young people harder than the general population.”

Young people need to be alerted to the fact that, since Sept. 11, 2001, bills have been introduced in Congress to reinstate the military draft and to create a new mandatory military service for all young men, Della Piana said. Working-class students who rely on Federal student loans are particularly at risk, he warned, because registration for the draft is still mandated for receiving such loans.

“War on Iraq and ‘war on terrorism’ is not a ‘peacenik’ issue,” Delos commented. “ It encompasses reproductive rights issues, and many others. Civil liberties are under attack, people’s personal lives and privacy are being invaded.” CARE2000, a coalition of reproductive rights groups, and the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, which works to improve the lives of lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered-questioning youth, are among the founding members of NYSPC. Other NYSPC members include the Student Peace Action Network (SPAN), a grassroots peace and justice organization working from campuses across the U.S., Muslim Students Organization of the U.S. and Canada, and Student Environmental Action Coalition.

Now, the youth and student coalition is considering ways to mobilize youth to flex its electoral and economic power, Smiley said. Looking toward 2003 and 2004, “we want to demonstrate that youth have electoral power and energize them to use it.”

The author can be reached at

PDF version of ‘Fighting for peace and justice’