Student Anti-Corporatism


Campus rebellion is no longer in the news. Neither nationally  nor internationally. The student movement of the 1960s is history. But globalisation has paved the way for new student organising against corporate power. American students now see their role beyond campus. They are trying to get organised for reasons other than campus interests.


In August, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and Movement for Democracy and Education (MDE), another student anticorporate group, held a joint conference on the University of Oregon’s Eugene campus. Just a few months earlier, USAS, the most visible and successful of all the new student groups, had rocked campuses nationwide with protests against sweatshop conditions in the collegiate apparel industry, occupying buildings on more than a dozen compuses. The protests forced more than fifty universities and colleges to capitulate to sutdents’ demands and join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an organisation independent of apparel-industry influence and founded in April by students as an alternative to the Fair Labour Association (FLA), an industry backed monitoring group.


The students have, very quickly, achieved a startling measure of power. The big question is, How will they use it? Those gathered in Eugene faced rather daunting agenda: figuring out how to work effectively with workers in the global South and, in particualr, how best to use the newly founded WRC; how to coordinate campus organising efforts; and how to advance their work in coalition with labour unions and others fighting poverty and exploitation in the United States. To do all that, they needed to create an organisation with some semblance of structure — a body that could, when necessary, allow far-flung and disparate member groups to speak with one voice.


Besides the national USAS, the most crucial of this young movement’s new institutions is the just-formed — and in many ways still undefined — Worker Rights Consortium. Though the WRC is a concept with great potential, it’s still not clear how the organisation will build relationship with workers or how it can best use the networks it already has. The WRC must carefully negotiate its own relationship to labour organizations, for example; the labour movement provides its best access to workers, yet the WRC must maintain some independence if it is to have credibility with university administrators. Funding raises even hairier questions; for instance, will WRC, established by an anarchist-influenced student movement, accept government money? At present, the WRC is woefully understaffed and searching for an executive director; clearly it’s too soon to make any judgments about its effectiveness.


As the student movement begins to confront domestic injustices, however, anticorporatism may prove too limiting a language. It has been the movement’s dominant idiom made so dramatically visible by Seattle and A 16. As the villains everyone loves to hate, corporate power and greed lend coherence to a global youth movement that’s too often viewed as diffuse and lacking focus. Anticorporatism translates admirably into union solidarity, and corporations provide a convenient euphemism for capitalism, which not everyone wants to talk about. What’s more, universities’ cozy ties to large companies bring anti-corporatism into students’ daily lives and, perversely, lend students power as consumers in the ‘‘academic-industrial complex.’’ But building a social movement to fight poverty may require a broader vision. Many people of colour and poor people in the United States do not feel that anticorporatism can adequately describe their experiences of everyday inequality and injustice. Addressing the USAS  conference, Maria Cordera of the Third Eye Movement, a Bay Area youth organisation that fights police burtality and the prison industry, acknowledged that student anti-corporate activists ‘‘need to connect prilons to globalization.’’


Students fighting poverty in the United States must confront culprits more complicated than corporate greed: class interest and the breakdown of the social contract.


Workers overseas already understand the potential power of student anticorpratism. During the USAS conference, there was one moment that put the week’s internal melodrama into perspective. That was when Rosa Gonzalez, a young worker who had just been fired for union organising in a free-trade zone factory in Mil Colores, Nicaragua which supplies clothing to US companies like Kohl’s and Target addressed the students. She described a factory in which workers are frequently denied sick leave even in an emergency; women routinely have miscarriages in the bathroom. Gonzalez’s own situation is desperate ; her family eats only one meal, she said, tears streaming down her face. Gonzalez told the students she hoped USAS could pressure the US companies to reinstate fired workers throughout the Nicaraguan maquila. ‘‘I ask your solidarity,’’ she said. ‘‘You are our only hope.’’


Colser to home students fail to respond to international issues. Gone are the days of anti-Vietnam War rallies. Even devastating floods in West Bengal did not move the student community much. If corporatisation of education is a new phenomenon sweeping the third world, students too should internationally find a new target to attack corporate power.