Left Forum 2009: Politics of the Contemporary Student Left

Panel presentation at Left Forum 2009: “Turning Points,” Pace University, NYC, April 17-19, 2009

The panel was recorded, edited, and posted online by the Platypus Affiliated Society (http://platypus1917.org/).

Alexander L. Hanna (chair): former organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops
Atlee McFellin: Students for a Democratic Society, New School Radical Student Union
Pam Nogales: Platypus (New York)
C. J. Pereira Di Salvo: former organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops
Laurie Rojas: Platypus (Chicago), former member of Students for a Democratic Society

A short description of the panel, along with C. J. Pereira’s talk, are posted below the jump.

Young people’s heightened participation in politics in the run-up to the election of Barack Obama was crucial to his election and cannot be ignored. The burning post-election questions that the Left must answer are 1) what are the current politics of youth and student organizations and 2) how can the mobilization of youths and students be expanded and deepened? This panel aims to explore these questions by critically reflecting upon the politics of two of the largest and most successful Left student organizations of recent times: the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). The panelists will engage these organizations by examining the various perspectives currently influencing them, and explore how these ideas affect their means and ends. This requires us to delve into their current politics, principles, and practice with relation to the history of Left student activism, as well as the history of the Left as a whole. We hope this panel will not only provide insight into the failures of the student Left, but also begin a serious discussion within these organizations and the Left at-large of what the revolutionary potential of such struggle can be.

The Limits of Anti-Ideology: A Critical Look at USAS

1. Introduction and History

Good afternoon. As Alex said in his introduction, I was an organizer with United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) for two and a half years before graduating last May. I will probably resume working with USAS again as I start graduate school in Chicago in the fall. What I’d like to do today is to give a critical assessment of USAS’ anti-ideological perspective. I will argue that it conceals a commitment to identity politics, and that that commitment is a limiting factor in USAS’ ability to develop a progressive and critical labor politics.

Before I launch into this argument, I think it will be useful to briefly review USAS’ history for those of you who may be less familiar with it. That history begins in the mid-1990’s, when students across the country became increasingly aware that apparel produced by big corporations like Nike was being made in sweatshop conditions, predominantly (though not exclusively) in the third world. This prompted students to explore the conditions under which university-logoed apparel was being produced. Not surprisingly, conditions in the collegiate apparel industry were no better than those in the apparel industry overall.

Realizing that students were strategically positioned to bring about changes in this small but visible sector of the industry, in the summer of 1997 a group of interns at UNITE! formed the Sweat-Free Campus campaign. This campaign demanded that universities adopt Codes of Conduct to regulate the behavior of university apparel licensees. The next year, in 1998, USAS was formed primarily as a coordinating structure between independent student groups; it immediately launched a campaign to force universities to adopt Codes of Conduct. The Collegiate Licensing Company responded by proposing that universities adopt weak Codes of Conduct, causing an outcry from USAS chapters, and a wave of actions across campuses that resulted in stronger Codes of Conduct being adopted at some large universities. In response to these actions, the Fair Labor Association was formed by the Clinton administration; it was composed entirely of apparel corporations and non-labor NGOs. Since this organization would obviously act as a rubber stamp for factory owners and the apparel brands, USAS moved to aid the creation of an independent body, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), whose purpose would be to investigate factories in violation of university Codes of Conduct.

Since then, weaknesses in the Code of Conduct system as originally conceived have prompted USAS to advocate a stronger system called the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP), whereby production of university apparel would be condensed into a few hundred factories, to be monitored by the WRC. These ‘designated suppliers’ would need to be in compliance with university Codes of Conduct before being allowed to produce for the collegiate apparel market; two additional demands are that factories respect workers’ rights to organize and pay a living wage. In recent times, USAS has also broadened its focus to include the Killer Coke campaign, as well as a living wage campaign for campus service workers. Even more recently, a campaign supporting the Employee Free Choice Act was unveiled.

However, despite these recent developments, USAS remains primarily focused on the Sweat Free Campus campaign. This is why a major setback to the Designated Suppliers Program in the fall of 2007 has inaugurated a period of flux in USAS, in which many things are being questioned in terms of organization and goals. This, then, is the context in which I hope my critique can help USAS clarify its thinking and move forward.

2. Critique of USAS’ Anti-Ideological Position

One of the central ideas USAS advocates is the idea that ideas don’t matter: campaigns that get the goods do. This position is stated explicitly in their “principles of unity,” where it is written: “We do not impose a single ideological position, practice, or approach; rather, we aim to support one another in a spirit of respect for difference, shared purpose and hope.” This is also a palpable feature of conferences, where any attempt to put forward issues of ideology or theory are routinely stonewalled. Furthermore, it is uncontroversial to say that USAS produces organizers who think that ideological debates are a waste of time, and that “organizing” is all that matters.

Let’s get clear on what this means: it doesn’t mean that USAS claims to have no principles at all. In fact, their “principles of unity” do contain political ideas. However, the point is that these ideas are stated so vaguely as to offer hardly any guidance; they amount to little more than Rorschach inkblots.

The trouble with the non-ideological or anti-ideological position is that it is incoherent. All social justice organizations are based on a certain set of ideas. Why? Well, presumably the reason for such an organization’s existence is the existence of a certain social problem that the individuals who form and join that organization would like to see addressed. At the moment of the founding, and in the re-approval of the organizational structure, goals and campaigns that occurs at conventions, a certain analysis of the problem is implicitly if not explicitly endorsed. This analysis of the problem is informed by, or is itself, social theory—that is, a theory of how society, or a certain compartment thereof, works. Therefore, we see that social justice organizations presuppose ideas, at the very least in the sense that they presuppose a theoretical analysis the problems they are out to solve. Beyond this, it should be clear that they also presuppose ideas in the sense that their proposed solutions are based on a theoretical understanding of how the problems CAN be solved.

Since the anti-ideological perspective is not a position on which one can build an organization, what, then, is the specific perspective that actually informs USAS organizationally? The “principles of unity” may be a set of loosely-related, vague ideas, but their unifying theme is undoubtedly postmodern identity politics. Again, this commitment is explicitly stated: “We struggle against racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of oppression within our society, within our organizations, and within ourselves.” In a little bit we will see the seriousness with which USAS takes this claim organizationally.

3. So What?

You might be asking yourselves: so what? Why is postmodern identity politics problematic? To answer this, we have to look at the role this politics plays in the organization. This role could be characterized as: (1) a perspective informing the analysis of the causes of the problem of sweatshops; (2) a perspective on how to effectively organize ourselves to address the problem; and (3) some other thing entirely.

It is pretty clear that identity politics does not inform the analysis of the problem. Simply stated, the problem of sweatshops is not, primarily, a problem of discrimination on the basis of identity. It is, at the very least, a problem of inequality and exploitation, although I would argue it isn’t even that. It is a phenomenon of the present stage of global capitalism: one that cannot be challenged without challenging the entire social structure. But leaving that aside, I think we could agree that sweatshops workers are not PRIMARILY victims of racism or sexism (even though most of them are in fact women of color); and they’re certainly not victims of “classism,” whatever that is. They are victims of neoliberal capitalism’s drive to accumulate wealth by finding the cheapest possible supply of labor. In the apparel industry, the rise in sweatshop production in the third world was a direct result of the phasing out a protectionist system of quotas called the Multi Fiber Agreement throughout the 1990s and early 00’s, following the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations.

So, if identity politics is not used by USAS as a way to get a clear understanding of the problem of sweatshops, then maybe its utility lies in helping students to think about how to organize themselves in order to effectively address said problem. I think this has a little bit more traction. If you’re familiar with USAS, you no doubt know that integral to the organization’s structure and to the structure of its conferences are what are called “anti-oppression training” and the “caucus system.” I won’t describe these at length because they are pretty much a staple of the Left today, but I think it is crucial to mention that about half the conference time at national conventions is devoted to anti-oppression and caucus time, and that the organizational structure includes representation of the Womyn/Gender Queer, Queer, People of Color and Working Class caucuses.

The justification for this structure that is given in the USAS’ “principles of unity” is, as we saw, that each individual, and particularly each American college student, harbors racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist etc attitudes, and is privileged by the unfair outcomes these attitudes create in society. These attitudes, it is further believed, plague our organizing efforts. Presumably, by fighting the “-isms” in ourselves, we become better able to fight them in society.

Ok, so what does this all have to do with sweatshop workers hundreds of miles away, whose primary problems are extremely low wages, extremely long working hours, physical and verbal abuse, and awful working conditions? Remember, this is the specific problem USAS constituted itself to address. From the perspective of these workers, all that matters is that we act as effective “allies”: namely, that we bend the arm of Nike by hitting them where it hurts (university licenses, market share, and public image) so that their efforts to organize are not undercut by capital flight. It is obvious that workers (and I have spoken with a few of them personally about this) are looking to us to play this specific role.

The question, then, is: Does anti-oppression make us any better at being good allies? I would argue that it doesn’t. This is plain: the kinds of tactics USAS employs in order to pressure universities and corporations (phone and letter campaigns, mock actions, non-violent direct action, etc) are not more effective when they are executed by people with a guilty conscience about their privilege, than when they are executed by people who give no thought to this. The consciousness raised by anti-oppression simply does not enter into the strategizing for campaigns, etc. Diverse groups such as my own at Purdue University—where the majority of members were in fact women and people of color—are not necessarily more effective allies than groups such as Indiana University’s, which was predominantly white and male during my period of involvement.

If it is unclear that anti-oppression makes us better allies to workers in the apparel industry, why is so much time spent on this stuff? Why hasn’t it been rejected organizationally despite challenges to it at recent national conferences? This isn’t very clear to me. I would suggest that perhaps the role of anti-oppression is to convince students that workers are more progressive than they themselves and their own organizations are—merely by virtue of being workers—and that therefore we ought to uncritically solidarize with their struggles. This attitude goes hand in hand with the idea that ideological debates are pointless, and that it is not our place to say—on the basis of some analysis or other of this society—what the appropriate responses ought to be.

This isn’t to say that there is much to be criticized in the organizing efforts of third world sweatshop workers. There have been a couple of sporadic cases I have become aware of, in which corrupt unions were doing things that are at best counterproductive. (One that comes to mind was a union in Kenya in which the leadership, composed entirely of a certain ethnic group, systematically excluded people from another ethnic group from leadership positions). But closer to home, a recent case highlights the problematic of USAS’s uncritical attitude.

Many of you may be aware of the unfolding fratricide between the UNITE! and HERE sides of UNITE! HERE, and of SEIU’s ambition to absorb either one or both of the sides once the dust settles. This is a case were we might expect a student movement primarily concerned with labor issues—and not only that, but also a large recruitment ground for these very unions—to have an open discussion and maybe even formulate a position. Instead, a contact in USAS’ inner circle informs me that a discussion of these issues was deliberately censured for over two weeks from the listservs of the organization, and that the top leadership are loath to take a side. In fact, only recently did an email with a few articles on the issue go out, the purpose of which seems to have been more to obfuscate than to educate.

4. Conclusions and Suggestions

I can’t go into any more detail here, but I hope my comments have shown the way the anti-ideological attitude serves as a limiting factor to the potential USAS has to champion an independent and progressive labor politics. Instead of doing this, the organization’s anti-ideological stance serves to maintain the unquestioned dominance of identity politics, to dubious ends as far the efficacy of the organization is concerned.

The recent period of flux in USAS, initiated by the DSP setback, is a good time for the organization to self-critique, and to cast away those forms of politics that do more to hinder its potential than to realize it. This question of potential should not be underestimated: consider that at least 5 former Purdue USAS organizers in the past 6 years are now with major unions. Hence, as a large recruitment ground for union organizers, USAS is also a potential source of renewal for an American labor movement that has been on the decline since the 1970s. But clearly, an uncritical workerist stance will not produce organizers capable of meeting this challenge.

If identity politics is abandoned, what is there to take its place? Well, prescribing is always harder than critiquing, of course, and I don’t know that there is a politics ready-made at present that can be taken over. But I can at least say that part of the challenge will be for USAS to foment an organizational culture capable of producing such a politics by seriously engaging theoretical debates and formulating political positions. Central to this, in my view, will be the inclusion of discussions on the nature of capitalism, imperialism and neoliberalism into its conference agendas.

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