united students against sweatshops

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Aug 20 18:01:25 MDT 2000


(I posted Tony's report to the Trotsky newsgroup, where it received
comments from John Lacny who is a anti-sweatshop activist.)

> comrades:
>
> as a quick follow-up -- the national convention of USAS is just
> wrapping up here in eugene, oregon -- the conference led to what
> appears (from the view of an outsider) to be a significant split in
> their organization (with chapters walking out of plenary sessions at
> about 4:30am & meeting separately to vote to dis-affiliate).

Jesus.  Extremely frustrating.  Probably not debilitating, though, if my
hunch is correct.


> USAS seems, at least from my naive canadian point of view, to be a
> relatively significant movement on the american campuses -- claiming
> chapters on 200 different campuses, with over 2000 activists on the
> campuses across the US.

It is.  Needless to say, the strength of the presence varies from campus
to campus.


> having attended a number of their plenary sessions over the last
> couple of days (many of which lasted many, many hours -- finishing in
> the wee-wee hours of the morning) -- the political nature seems to be
> squishy liberalism at the core (human rights violations take place
> "over there" somewhere in other countries)

I don't get this sense at all.  There might be a few people who are
attracted to anti-sweatshop activism because it's relatively easy to
show solidarity with people living thousands of miles away, rather than
with people working at the very university where you go to school.  In
fact, this has been a major reason why I have not tried to start a USAS
chapter on my own campus (there isn't one currently).  Nevertheless, I
would give people a lot more credit.

It's a known fact that in the Michigan meeting between USAS and some of
the players in the United Steel Workers happened a few months ago, it
was a lot of the USAS people who expressed reservations about the USWA's
anti-PNTR campaign.  USAS leaders have a much more developed
understanding of what international solidarity takes than does George
Becker, if you ask me.  There were some people in USAS who did come out
in favor of the campaign against PNTR, but it's my understanding that
the majority of the organization saw this major USWA push as a narrowly
protectionist diversion from the demands of real international
solidarity -- which is precisely what USAS has been trying to build.


> but it appears that the international socialist organization (ISO) has
> made work within USAS a high political priority (if the re-current
> stories i've heard from many, many campus delegates of ISO folks
> attempting take-overs of their local campus chapters hold any weight
> at all).

It's true.  I've heard people say that ISO is playing a role in USAS
roughly analogous to that played by PL in SDS.  They've tried a lot of
undemocratic stuff like packing conference calls and membership meetings
with their own members, etc.  Typical authoritarian and sectarian
attempts at manipulation.  The sad part is that, in their heart of
hearts, the ISO people really think that by doing what they're doing,
they think they're doing a better job at "building" USAS, and pushing it
in a more radical direction.  What's really going on is an ISO attempt
to make USAS say what they think on every jot and tittle of the
organization's program.  That's a sectarian mode of operation.


> the nature of the political split which occurred earlier this morning
> appears to be at the core a split between anarchists who oppose
> "structure" and "hierarchy" within the loose campus-based federation &
> folks who overly fetishize structure and process questions. there were
> certainly a good bulk of folks who resided in between these two
> seemingly polarized positions, but the leading arguments on either
> side of the split were put forward by the "anti-authoritarians" (their
> terminology) on the one-hand & "structuralists" (a term that i've
> heard floating around & used by folks on both sides of the rather odd
> debates) on the other hand.

I wonder about the relationship between the two sides in the split and
the outlook on race issues as described below?  I have a hunch, of
course. :)


> comrades on this list who have living memory of the split in the
> students' for a democratic society (SDS) in the late 60's would have
> gotten a great kick out of this past weekend's national conference ---
> much of the same tactics & methodology utilized in leading to the
> split, but in this case the politics were often entirely incoherent &
> completely undeveloped on either side. the only political arguments
> which were articulated were about structure & process.

With all due respect, I'm a little baffled with the definition of what
constitutes a "political" argument.  Were the "politics" that split SDS
really any more sophisticated?  How to interpret this or that phrase
from the Maoist playbook?  I don't think so.  It seems to me that
process is a VERY political question, especially when you get to the
question of caucuses for oppressed groups.  I could see how there would
be real political splits over the China issue, say, or even over the US
elections.  But from your short description here, it actually seems to
me that the split in USAS is a good deal more POLITICAL than the split
in SDS!


> the measurement of the squishy liberal aspect of the group was clear
> to me sometime after midnight last night following report-backs from
> minority/oppressed caucuses to the plenary (ie. people-of-colour
> caucus / womens' caucus / queer caucus) when some middle class white
> kid from the mid-west stood up & said that he felt that he was "being
> silenced" and that he felt that he "didn't have an identity" and that
> he felt that there should have been equal weight to a vegetarian's
> caucus so that he could have had a say in caucus report-backs. i
> watched nodding heads from at least 50 of the 200-or-so assembled
> delegates. of course, the most baffling thing about this is that
> nobody beat the crap out of him, which would have been the most
> appropriate response in my opinion...

Agreed on that point, save that I will take the "beat the crap out of
him" exhortation figuratively, because internal physical violence is
probably the last thing I'd want to see imported from the 1960s student
movement into today's.

Keep in mind, though, that there are bound to be some squishy-liberal
(or squishy-anarchist, which really amounts to the same thing) students
who get attracted to these groups.  They need to be developed
politically, and they need to start seeing the way the world works.  To
be sure, at some point, people like this are going to drop out if they
don't have the temperament required to really understand the
multi-tiered, complex, and intersecting nature of oppression.  But I
think a lot of them are capable of seeing it.

My guess is that the caucus structure and a lot of the procedural
proposals were introduced by the national leadership, or people in
leadership positions, most of whom are experienced activists and
leftists with an understanding that an organization needs to be
structured in a certain way to facilitate democracy, especially when it
comes to institutionalizing representation among oppressed people,
particularly people of color.  Many of the branches probably reacted to
this as some kind of check on their autonomy, and a lot of
semi-anarchist youth probably reacted instinctually against "hierarchy,"
but did so from the position of well-meaning white (and heavily male)
folk who don't realize that they are actually furthering institionalized
forms of oppression by not ceding some of their own power to a caucus
system designed to institutionalize representation for other sorts of
people.

Or perhaps the above paragraph is a wildly errant shot in the dark.  I
wasn't at the conference, and as I said, I'm not involved in USAS
currently.  But I wouldn't be surprised if that's how things played out
in general.  And my guess is that the ISO fell somewhere in between the
two positions -- or rather, that it stood OUTSIDE the two positions,
ultimately standing for its own positions above all else.

Tony is welcome to correct me if I'm wrong, as is anybody else who was
there.


> anyway: the past weekend has made me really wonder about the state of
> affairs in the existing american student movement...

(Chuckles.)  Don't we all.

Let me put it this way: do you know what the largest progressive student
group in the United States is?

Take a guess.

It's actually the Chicano group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de
Aztlan, if I'm correct).

Second on the list is undoubtedly the United States Student Association
(USSA), the nation's oldest student organization.  Back in the 1960s,
this was the National Student Association, the group whose leadership
was taking money from the CIA.  They were exposed during the Ramparts
revelations, and since then have basically veered far to the left.  This
group is the only voice for students on Capitol Hill, fighting for
financial aid, affirmative action, and other issues that concern access
to higher education.  USSA is consciously multiracial, with a strict
caucus system and representation system for women, students of color,
lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender students, and disabled students.  They
not only fight on student issues, but are broadly progressive: they're
an organizational member of Jobs with Justice, and their staff often
"graduates" to positions on JwJ's national staff.  Every year at their
congress they choose a number of issues to focus on for the year, one of
which is always financial aid, but the other issues vary.  Last year,
they lobbied for the Martinez Jobs Bill, which was intended as a major
public-works jobs-creation program.  This year, they've adopted not only
financial aid and a "Youth Vote" program, but they've also endorsed the
Black Radical Congress's call for "Education Not Incarceration," and
will be encouraging local activists to take on the prison-industrial
complex.

I say all this because it seems to me that United Students Against
Sweatshops (USAS -- don't confuse the two very similar acronyms!) has
received more attention than these other student groups largely due to
its racial and class composition.  To be sure, USAS is very strong at
traditionally activist campuses like UW-Madison, where USSA is also very
strong.  But some of its other high-profile success stories (and here I
refer to the big sit-ins) happened at places like Duke, Georgetown, and
the University of Pennsylvania.  Needless to say, students at campuses
like these always get more attention, no matter what they do.  And
additionally, USAS is heavily white, even though it does have a
substantial Asian minority (a phenomenon caused by two factors, as far
as I can see: [1] a substantial minority of Asian students is
radicalizing, just as a minority of white students are; and [2] the
issue of the sweatshop is a salient one in the countries that a lot of
these students [or at least their parents] come from).

So that's why I would shy away from judging the entire student movement
by USAS alone.  And by saying this I mean no disrespect to USAS at all
-- in fact, most of them would probably agree with me.

As a new organization within the student movement, USAS is working with
and being supported by the more established organizations.  In fact,
USAS has their national office (i.e., their one room) within the
national office of USSA.

It's also my hunch that USAS is going to survive and make a difference.
It has so many bright young activists that it's simply not likely to die
out.  One thing that's very impressive about them is their decision to
take the hard route when it comes to monitoring systems and codes of
conduct.  After all, a "squishy-liberal" organization would have taken
the easy route and decided to go with the Fair Labor Assocation (FLA),
the corporate-dominated NGO.  Instead, they've taken the initiative in
creating the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a monitoring system that
insists on independent, surprise inspections of facilities (rather than
the FLA, which allows corporations to "inspect" themselves!).

The WRC also places a premium on the right to organize as the key part
of its code of conduct.  So by creating the WRC, USAS has truly begun to
answer the question of how we really make international solidarity work,
rather than just talking about it.

At the Socialist Scholars Conference a few months back, I remember some
hack sectarian getting up during a workshop and asking Medea Benjamin
whether the anti-sweatshop campaign wasn't "really an economic
nationalist campaign," and whether we shouldn't instead be working to
"show solidarity with workers in other countries."  It was an idiotic
question from a member of an idiotic organization (in this case, the SWP
[US] -- he didn't say so explicitly, but I could tell from what he was
saying and by his preliminary identification of himself as "a
rank-and-file member of the UFCW").  No one gave a really clear answer,
but the answer was simple: yes, of course, that's exactly the point of
the anti-sweatshop movement.  It's just that through the WRC, USAS is
trying to find a way to show solidarity CONCRETELY with workers in other
countries, by instituting an independent monitoring system which will
aid them in organizing themselves.

Because of this fact alone, USAS deserves the support and admiration of
leftists of the older generation.  I wouldn't quite endorse the
statement of an anonymous older radical during the Seattle
demonstrations -- "they're smarter than us" -- but I would say that
there is a larger number of student radicals these days than you might
imagine who have been able to integrate the lessons of older radicals'
experiences.

I think that the core of USAS will survive this split.  And the local
organizations seem to have so much autonomy anyway that it's unlikely
they'll disappear anytime soon, although current practice may prove an
obstacle to further growth.  We'll wait and see, but please do remember
that creating something new is a long and painful process, and there
will be plenty of mistakes -- and not a small amount of outright
stupidity -- along the way.

John Lacny

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Louis Proyect
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