< Back | Home

April 5, 2006

Reflecting a National Trend, Local Student Labor Movement Finds Its Voice

By KEN PICARD, Seven Days

BURLINGTON -- There's been a "dramatic upsurge" in student participation in the Labor Movement over the last three years, and this trend has been particularly evident at the University of Vermont. That was the assessment of Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO, who was in Burlington last week to help UVM's Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) launch its "Student Labor Week of Action."

On March 30, SLAP kicked off a week of labor-related events, which will culminate in a large labor demonstration scheduled for April 7. UVM's Student Labor Week of Action coincides with 242 events being held on 162 campuses across the country. The goal, organizers say, is to focus public attention on rising tuitions and fees, the outsourcing of campus services and union-busting activities by institutions of higher learning.

SLAP activists are calling on UVM administrators to pay all campus employees a livable wage, to respect workers' right to organize, to bargain in good faith, and to only hire contractors who engage in responsible employment practices. Students are also demanding that UVM be more responsible in how it selects outside contractors that provide campus services.

In an interview with Seven Days, Maryland-based Acuff explained that UVM students appear to be more engaged in their local labor movement than their counterparts at other campuses. "I'm here in Burlington because they've had such a great campaign for the last two years to get the university to do the right thing," Acuff said. "It's been a great coalition."

Acuff admitted that the AFL-CIO stands to benefit from cultivating a new generation of employees who are sympathetic to union causes. Last July, the union suffered a serious setback when two unions representing 3.2 million workers -- the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union -- broke from the AFL-CIO. "We understand that the American Labor Movement is in a crisis, as is the global labor movement," Acuff said. "Neoliberalism is taking its toll."

But since 1999 and the "Battle in Seattle," Acuff noted, there's been a growing recognition among social-justice activists -- union organizers, environmentalists, human rights groups -- that they share a common adversary: namely, corporate greed. And, as this generation of college students has become more politically active than their "Gen-X" predecessors, student activists have discovered that they can be a significant political force on campus.

Student awareness of their political and economic clout has also coincided with the growing "corporatization" of higher education, Acuff said. Many otherwise liberal and worker-friendly institutions, including UVM, have been strongly anti-union, and some have even sought the services of anti-union consultants to squelch organizing efforts. New York University, for example, terminated its bargaining with graduate workers who were trying to unionize, after the National Labor Relations Board ruled that grad students weren't covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Similar union drives by grad workers have met similar resistance at Yale, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania.

Acuff said he's never surprised when otherwise progressive institutions, like UVM, resist union efforts. "Every organizing campaign is a struggle over money and power. And people of privilege don't like to give up power," he said. "What distinguishes a union member from a union activist is a passion for justice. That's what brings students to these fights."


© Copyright 2006 Seven Days