It’s Time to Fight Back!: USAS Summer Retreat 2011

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We came together as student organizers from all corners of the country for the 2011 USAS Summer Retreat, to plan how we’ll fight back against corporate greed to win economic justice during the coming school year. We arrived in DC, around seventy USAS activists fresh from organizing 13 nonviolent occupations and 76 student arrests on our campuses this spring over struggles for workers’ and students’ rights.

As a group that was mostly working class and mostly people of color, we were intently aware of how corporate-funded politicians and overpaid university presidents are exploiting “budget crises” to justify attacks on our communities, attacks on funding for education, attacks on undocumented workers and students, and attacks on workers’ right to have an organized voice. And we are ready to fight back!

A Renewed Movement to Take Back Our Economy

An amazing action-packed springtime blossomed starting in February, when the oldest USAS affiliate — University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Student Labor Action Coalition — mobilized thousands of undergrads to occupy the Wisconsin State Capitol to protest Governor Scott Walker’s extreme attack on public employees’ right to bargain for workplace justice.

In a sudden wave of passionate, militant student organizing, USASers immediately organized actions in 30 cities to show solidarity with Wisconsin workers and students. As right-wing attacks continued to rear their heads across the country, we stepped up the action in our own states and on our own campuses.

By the end of the school year, we had organized 13 occupations in university presidents’ offices, mobilizing hundreds of students to participate in civil disobedience for the first time. We stood on the shoulders of USAS activists who organized a wave of sit-ins in 2008 with over 50 arrests that paved the way for crucial anti-sweatshop victories.

We heard stories of this year’s “Spring Showdown” straight from the source, with a panel of USASers who led some of the most powerful actions. We learned that even as university administrators chose to make 76 arrests of USAS activists to try (unsuccessfully!) to shut down student voices, we won important victories for workers’ rights and students’ rights.

In New Jersey, Rutgers University USAS led a 2-day sit-in with other student allies to protest proposed tuition hikes, cuts to campus workers and affiliation with the Nike-sponsored (Un-)Fair Labor Association. The sit-in, plus a walk-out with over 600 students a week earlier, forced the university to agree to the lowest tuition increase in two decades: 1.6 percent, down from what could have been a 10 percent increase! (Rutgers USAS’ struggle with campus workers continues this school year!) University of Wisconsin SLAC’s sit-in helped to stifle the worst aspects of an aggressive effort by Chancellor Biddy Martin and Governor Walker to privatize and separate UW-Madison — they hired 11 lobbyists just to work on this effort! (Fun fact: Chancellor Martin quit and moved elsewhere after SLAC’s sit-in, as did Rutgers president Richard McCormick and U. Washington interim president Phyllis Wise, who fled to U. Illinois after shamefully arresting students at each of 3 back-to-back-to-back occupations!)

Ohio State University USAS, once they got out of jail from a sit-in protesting the Buckeye’s union-busting concessions contractor, worked with labor supporters state-wide to collect over a million signatures to secure a referendum to repeal anti-union Senate Bill 5. In May, Rite Aid warehouse workers had a major victory with USAS when they finally won their first contract after a 3-year struggle. All year, USAS activists organized solidarity actions at Rite Aid stores, bolstering the campaign by the West Coast ILWU as we made a coast-to-coast impact at the pharmacy corporation’s stores. As the saying goes, solidarity always wins!

Our Alliances Strengthen the Movement: MEChA and NUS

We also took time to celebrate the rich history of powerful work done together with two key allies: campus chapters of MEChA (el Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán), and the United Kingdom’s National Union of Students.

MEChA is the national student organization that fights for social justice, education access and cultural expression, for Latina/os and for everyone. MEChA shares USAS’s commitment to the collective liberation of all people, and both groups frequently team up on campus to form powerful coalitions for workers rights. For example, MEChA and USAS chapters led many of the most successful “Boot The Bell” campaigns that led to tomato farmworkers’ victory over Taco Bell. This year, National MEChA endorsed USAS’ Kick Out Sodexo campaign and MEChA groups took up the campaign on their own campuses. Gaby Guillén and Morgan Currier, two University of Washington students, shared an exciting blow-by-blow report on the MEChA-USAS alliance to kick out corporate food service giant Sodexo from their campus.

We also flipped on the webcam to connect with our allies “across the pond.” The UK’s National Union of Students (NUS) has been mobilizing thousands to demonstrations against tuition hikes and budget cuts. NUS is, in many ways, the most powerful student organization in the world — its affiliated student unions directly own and operate many buildings and services on campus, and have full control over many of the contracting decisions that university administrators control in the US. For example, through the University of London Union, students directly control millions of dollars of contracts and owns restaurants, bars, shops, a music venue, delis, and a gym on campus!

The outgoing Education Officer of the London School of Economics Students’ Union highlighted how the power of UK “students’ unions” comes from mirroring a trade union model rooted in organizing the rank-and-file, in contrast to the US “student government” model. In the last year, NUS has acted in solidarity with USAS to take on global corporations. This April, UK student unions unanimously approved joining the Worker Rights Consortium, affiliating 84 UK campuses’ student unions to the anti-sweatshop monitor created by USAS activists a decade ago. NUS has also teamed up with USAS to rein in some of the largest corporate labor rights abusers that contract with US and UK universities. In June, the ULU — the largest students’ union in Europe — voted unanimously to boycott Sodexo until the outsourcing giant accepts the demands of its workers fighting for justice in three countries, and a nationwide UK university boycott against Sodexo has been growing and growing!

“Can Your Hear Us Now?”

We talked out the year’s plans amidst piles of picket signs from the biggest strike in 4 years. Just days after 45,000 Verizon workers went on strike, we proudly hosted the retreat at the headquarters of our long-time allies at the Communications Workers of America! Verizon is demanding outrageous concessions from workers that would total $20,000 per family, even as they have paid top executives $258 million over the last 4 years.

As USASers across the country joined the picket lines at Verizon Wireless stores, we hit three stores in DC all at once, with two creative “flash mobs” that threw managers for a loop: We entered stores one by one on our cell phones, staging fake conversations about the strike. We got louder and louder until we were finally all chanting in unison, “Can you hear us now?!” before marching out to join workers on the picket lines. (Watch the video!)

At one store, managers literally detained students inside the store, until the cops showed up to remind Verizon that you can’t detain people just because they speak out for worker justice!

VIDEO: “Can You Hear Us Now?” USAS Activists’ Flash Mob at Verizon
TAKE ACTION: Pledge your support to Verizon workers, organize a leafletting action at a local Verizon Wireless store with this leaflet, or find actions already planned near you.

How we’ll Fight Back Stronger and Bigger: Boot Camps + National Conference in … Madison, Wisconsin!

While we celebrated this spring’s wave of student action (check out this video on spring USAS actions), we also knew we needed to build our movement bigger next year if we want to beat powerful corporations and their pet politicians and university administrators!

We decided to go back to our regions and sit down with other local campus groups that are committed to fight back against corporate greed and right-wing attacks in all the ways they hurt our communities. Together, we will organize a series of high-intensity Organizer Boot Camps, led by … students of course! We will bring together students who led huge recent mobilizations (think Wisconsin Capitol occupation) together with local student activists, new and old. If we want to build a movement strong enough to beat corporate greed and win social justice, we need some fierce training — we’ll drill ourselves hard on the basics, push ourselves out of our comfort zones and up to the next level! Get involved – email email hidden; JavaScript is required.

Also, we voted on the location for the 2012 USAS National Conference. Several affiliates competed for the chance to host, and the vote was close, but the conference will be at ground zero for the fight back against the nationwide attack on workers’ rights… Madison, Wisconsin! The conference will fall exactly a year after SLAC and labor unions occupied the state capitol building, so expect a serious party and huge action. Plus, we’ll be celebrating 15 years of USAS! Look out for the announcement of conference dates very soon.

Thank you to our wonderful supporters; Welcome to our new leadership!

This retreat was crucial for the student movement, but it wouldn’t have been possible without our allies showing their love. Again, thank you to the Communications Workers of America, who opened their headquarters for the retreat itself.

We also want to also extend our most sincere thanks to the United Steelworkers for hosting our leadership training, to Avodah for sharing their Columbia Heights house to allow us to rest and relax between long days of meetings, and to St. Stephen’s church for opening your doors to those of us who came to town early to prep the retreat.

Finally, a huge welcome and congratulations is due to all of the new 2011-2012 Coordinating Committee members, Caucus Co-Chairs, Board Reps to the Worker Rights Consortium and Regional Organizers!