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Building Power, Student-Style

Isabelle Nastasia May 20

Infrastructure of the Student Movement 

On April 30th, student leaders from the United Council of University of Wisconsin were arrested during their occupation of Chancellor Ward’s office demanding that their university end contracts with Palermo’s Pizza, a company with a history of abysmal treatment of immigrant workers. At the same time, University of North Carolina students affiliated with the North Carolina Student Power Union and the NC NAACP chapter held a sit-in at the capitol building to oppose voter suppression and budget cuts by their state legislature. Police arrested two members of the NC Student Power Union.

These stories went viral on Facebook and Twitter on April 30, helping them to reach a broad and varied audience. While the careful planning of these actions can be attributed to those on a local level, students in both states would not have been able to tell their stories as quickly and virally as they did without a clear statewide and national infrastructure to support their actions. The statewide student associations and unions that these students are affiliated with act as a strong support system, and ensure that their actions are noticed by those across and even outside of these respective states.

Over the past few years—and in particularly the past few months—students and young people around the US have been connecting, building campaigns and organizations, and taking action. (Think Keystone XL pipeline, student debt bank Sallie Mae, campus-based rape culture.) Which makes this a crucial point to ask: what’s a good strategy for student organizing? And perhaps: what about our current infrastructure has made student movement building in the US pale in comparison to students in Chile, Quebec, and the UK?

Before we do this, we need to identify and demystify the five major formations that young people have in the U.S. have utilized in attempts to organize ourselves — offering benefits and drawbacks to each, as well as how they might forge pathways toward a stronger student movement. These forms of infrastructure include: student organizations, student governments, national and statewide student associations, youth-led organizations and student unions. 

Student clubs—clubs have little to no power within our educational institutions; that said, they can be used to build power. Having access to student activity fees provides benefits to chartered clubs on college campuses who otherwise would have members pay for supplies (fliers, posters, t-shirts) out-of-pocket. Mostly, clubs are helpful for getting students involved in local campaigns where they'll rapidly realize how un-useful clubs actually are due to clubs' bureaucratic scramble for resources, transient student base and, in most cases, resistance to anything political.

Student governments—so much could be said about student governments. Ultimately, I believe that student governments are weak forms of student participation. The danger in trying to radicalize SGs is that organizers will burn out within the bureaucracy. However, I also believe that student governments can be used to create policy change on a university level and so should not be completely disregarded.

National and statewide student associations—statewide student associations are usually (but not always) connected to student governments and are mostly funded through student fees, grassroots fundraising and foundation grants. Unlike associations in Quebec, the U.S. statewide student associations do not come from a history of syndicalism. “Syndicalism”, in political-economic theory, describes a system of representation characterized by federated collectives and unions, and student syndicalism often refers to a system in which students are organized into assemblies by university departments, and unions on a state level. For the few US organizations that do have a syndicalist history, their radical roots have been washed away. Most of these associations, especially those connected to United States Student Association (USSA), identify targeting individual political seats via direct action to make concrete wins as an effective way of creating positive change that affects the material conditions of students and working class people’s lives for the better.

Youth-led organizations—these groups function largely outside of educational institutions and can be used to challenge negative policies while fighting for larger, transformational goals. An example of this type of group is Dream Defenders, a coalition of Black and Brown youth that are best known for holding a sit-in at a sheriff’s office to demand George Zimmerman’s arrest for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Student unions—student unions are rare in the U.S., but there are some. The Philadelphia Student Union is an organization of high school students fighting against school closings in their city (which organized a student walk-out yesterday); the California Student Union is a group comprised mostly of graduate students organizing themselves as an exploited labor force within the university; the Hunter Student Union which has been organizing undergraduate students to win bargaining power in department-based policies at Hunter College in CUNY. In the U.S., student unions are mostly just self-identified and have not yet built enough power to strike—an indefinite boycott of classes used to disrupt the economic foundations of a university, often understood as the major weapon of student unions.

Outside of the U.S., student unions are a popular form of student infrastructure and have gained international attention from models employed in Chile and Quebec. As Jasper Conner points out in his treatise, Towards a New Student Unionism, “In Quebec, University unions take action when department unions put forward proposals to the rest of the campus. University unions are where students coordinate on things that affect all students, but again, don’t make decisions on issues that don’t affect all students. [Student] unions would follow this pattern, federating outward to the state level where most issues of funding are decided, at least for state schools.” The unions in Quebec do in fact come from a strong history of student syndicalism and have power equated to that of labor unions–having organized several successful and broadly supported strikes in the past ten years.  

The last four forms of student governance mentioned above act as strong support systems for organic and strategic direct action campaigns on a local, regional and national level, which has been crucial in spreading the word in recent campaigns.

What’s Next for the U.S.?

UW United Council and North Carolina Student Power Union are part of a movement of students across the U.S. to create statewide coalitions and associations that build necessary infrastructure to connect their struggles and leverage their victories on a local level towards larger structural change throughout their regions. For instance, the NC Student Union was formed out of a group of a young people who organized a conference on how to build student power across their state. While the group has no formal leadership, they identify as a union that which could grow into an organization similar to what Quebec students had in the form of ASSÉ with the power to strike and shut down their university.

In the meantime, students in Ohio, New York, and Florida are also building student associations and unions, and youth-led organizations akin to that of UW United Students and NC Student Power Union. In Ohio, students have been tirelessly organizing multiple actions across their state around issues of higher education. In New York, students have been occupying the President’s office of Cooper Union protesting the implementation of tuition at their university, one of the country’s last free institutions for higher learning. In Florida, students and young people have been fighting back against the school-to-prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex and for comprehensive immigration reform with the Dream Defenders, which has been described as our generation’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  

The Trouble with Associations

The challenge with these statewide student associations, as mentioned earlier, is that they rely heavily on the educational institutions to legitimize themselves. As Ella Baker said in 1963 during the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, “We are getting praise from the places that worry me.” Student associations’ close relationships to the university itself can become problematic when these institutions become threatened by our organizing. The first thing they will do is attack our funding base. An example of this is when the Arizona state legislature passed HB 2169, a law that specified that universities cannot allocate any money to student organizations if that money will then be used to influence “the outcome of an election or to advocate support for or opposition to pending or proposed legislation”. This law left the Arizona Student Association defunded and in danger of collapse. It is a clear attack on left-wing student organizing efforts across the state.

Statewide student associations must remain autonomous, receiving funding through grassroots fundraising or directly from their membership (if this is facilitated through student activity fees, associations must have a backup plan for if this option quickly becomes threatened or revoked entirely) and build power outside of the educational institutions. These shifts in association governance would also broadly solve the problems of the tug-o-war between conservative and left-leaning leadership because the infrastructure of these organizations would not rely on the financial and ideological investment of local student governments or be regulated by non-student University staff, who often play a vital role in squashing radical culture on a campus level. There are some strong models of associations that follow this model, including New York Students Rising (NYSR) and the Ohio Student Association–both are organizations that have grown out of this new movement to formalize student movement infrastructure and unite the student left by building power for students through making concrete wins that directly affect the lives of students.

Looking forward, youth across the U.S. are eager for the 2013 national student power convergence this summer in Madison, Wisconsin from August 1-5, where many of these student organizations will come together to strategize on how to broaden our student power movement throughout the U.S. and workshop our skills along with other budding student leaders and organizers. Student associations and student unionism will be a major theme seeing as entire tracks of the convergence will be dedicated to discussion and workshop on how to create this infrastructure.

This article originally appeared on Youngist.org.

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