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Worker-Student Campaigns: Solidarity in Action!

Ever since the upswing of anti-sweatshop activism on college campuses during the 1990s, students have been acting in solidarity with workers demanding their rights in apparel-industry sweatshops around the world. At the same time, we have been increasingly aware of the many ways in which our own universities and colleges were in fact sweatshops themselves: Many campus service workers are paid poverty wages. They are forced to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Often, they recieve no healthcare. And worst of all, when campus workers try to organize together to have a voice in their own workplace, universities and colleges often employ union-busting tactics that are indistinguishable from those used by sweatshop-abusing multinational corporations.

As student activists in pursuit of a radically different and more just world, we realize the need to use our unique leverage as tuition-paying members of powerful institutions of "higher education" to support the struggles of those most oppressed by our increasingly corporate schools: campus workers. Students are acting in solidarity with campus workers in a variety of ways, including:

Living wage campaigns | Union organizing drives | Union contract negotiations


Living wage campaigns:

The living wage concept has been around since practically since the wage system began, and has shown up everywhere from labor union rallies to writings from the Vatican since the nineteenth century. As the real value of the minimum wage plummeted in the latter half of the twentieth cenutury, workers and community activists joined forces to push back. In 1994, workers and community members fought for and won the very first municipal living wage ordinace. After a flood of living wage victories in other cities, campus workers and students brought the movement to campus. In 2001, Harvard students occupied their President's office for three-weeks in order to escalate Harvard janitors' demand for living wages.

Narrowly defined, a "living wage" means workers should be compensated based on the local costs of living such that nobody working a full-time job should be living in poverty. As costs of living go up because of inflation, the living wage must be adjusted accordingly. However, a living wage policy goes much further than this. Workers' needs and demands are rarely based around money alone; often healthcare, other benefits, safety on the job, better hours, job security, and respect and dignity are equally or more important to workers. So, of course, students include all of these "non-wage benefits" and guarantees of basic workers' rights in a living wage policy, according to campus workers' demands.

Once workers and students have developed a policy proposal, they demand that the university administration adopt the policy. Universities are employers and therefore must be held accountable for the poverty wages and harassment that campus workers face. Especially if the university subcontracts labor done on campus to outside companies (they do this to cut costs and to deny responsibility when workers demand better), administrators need to be held accountable.

When a policy is passed -- which always requires direct action to disrupt the administrators' lives until they deal with workers' demands -- administrators are forced to make a public statement committing to raise workers' pay to a living wage, and to implement all of the other demands of workers and students. A public statement or policy posted on the university's website is often the only leverage workers and students have to hold adminsitrators accountable to the promises made at the end of a successful campaign.

Living wage campaigns are a great way to support workers who don't have a union because they have no structured way of having a voice over their own job. And when workers are already unionized, living wage campaigns can be equally important (in fact, the famous Harvard living wage campaign was very much led by the union). A living wage policy can mean a wage raise in the the time between union contract negotiations, and living wage policies can also include all sorts of demands that U.S. labor law doesn't allow union contracts to deal with (i.e., anything outside the realm of wages, hours, and benefits).

Students can (and should!) use their unique leverage over administrators to support these struggles that workers lead!

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Union organizing drives:

While living wage campaigns are a great way for workers' demands to become university policy, our administrators are notorious for sounding great on paper without taking any real action. Unfortunately, when administrators break the promises made to campus workers in living wage policies, there is no legal recourse for workers. On the other hand, if workers organize a union they will not only have a voice in a legally-binding contract, but they will have the powerful resources of an international union supporting them when they have grievances on the job.

Students support organizing drives in a number of ways. First, students recognize that we live in an age when 75 percent of employers hire union-busting "consultants" when workers start an organizing drive to ensure that the drive fails [Kate Bronfenbrenner, "Uneasy Terrain: The Impact of Capital Mobility on Workers, Wages and Union Organizing," U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission, 2000.]. Workers face intense risks when they express their right to organize, and U.S. labor law doesn't offer much help. So when workers step up and start to organize, it's really important for students to let workers know they want to see workers win their organizing drive and that students will be ready to take action as soon as employers try to bust the union or fire pro-union workers. Workers need to lead their own struggle, but student support can give folks the extra confidence to express their rights and risk their livelihood.

Also, students often support organizing drives by demanding that their university pass a "neutrality" policy. In a neutrality policy an employer (the university in this case) promises not to interfere if workers decide to form a union. This policy is worked out between students, workers and the union they're organizing with. A good neutrality policy would include specific guarantees that the university would not use union-busting tactics, would not tolerate if subcontracted companies used such tactics to crush an organizing drive of subcontracted employees, and would recognize union representation through a card check rather than the undemocratic and complicated (but standard) election process. (Read more about all this in the Unions & the Organizing Process workshop.) As with living wage policies, it's essential to force administrators to make a very public statement when adopting a neutrality policy because, as with living wage policies, the main way to enforce the policy is by holding the administrators accountable in the community and in the press, and publicly calling out administrators as hypocrites if they don't live up to the policy.

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Union contract negotiations:

Once workers are organized, the main way they have power over their jobs and workplaces is through union contract negotiations. These negotiations occur whenever the workers' contract ends, which might happen each year, every four years, or on some other schedule. If workers have demands that they don't expect their employer to accept during the negotiations, they will begin taking action early, sometimes months before the contract is actually up. These actions could be anything from quietly wearing a campaign button to work, to a rally or march, to a strike.

Students take action in solidarity with workers before and during contract negoations by bringing workers demands to administrators. If the unionized workers are directly hired by the university, then students pressure administrators to accept all of the workers demands during the negotiations. If union workers are subcontracted, then students pressure administrators to force the subcontractor to accept workers' demands.

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