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Why labor and campus organizing are not a zero sum game

Popular left magazines have recently published articles that pit campus organizing against labor organizing. The broad stroke thinking by Amber A’Lee Frost in The Baffler and Freddie DeBoer in Jacobin suggests campus politics isn’t going to win material gains and that serious leftists should wage strategic labor battles as opposed to organizing students. While DeBoer does concede that organizing “absolutely should” happen on campus, he lists the pitfalls of student organizing — summer vacation, graduation, how busy students are and their need to get jobs, among other problems — to argue that campus organizing “isn’t going to work” as a movement’s primary organizing strategy. Frost, on the other hand, warns of rhetorical battles without demands that lack strategy and power. Her piece, titled “All Worked Up and Nowhere to Go,” paints a picture of academic writer-types bickering on Twitter and showing up to rallies that raise morale “but little else.”

This approach marks a stark contrast to that of the radical right, which — over the last generation — has weaponized campuses to serve their ideological agenda, dismantling public education using very effective organizing techniques. It’s no doubt important to understand the drawbacks of campus organizing and invest resources in organizing and unionizing staff, faculty and students, as Frost and DeBoer recommend. But instead of framing campus organizing as a zero sum game, where the organization of students and workers are in direct conflict, why don’t we ask: How can campus organizing build a stronger, more strategic movement not only at universities but beyond?

To attempt to answer that question, it is worth noting that public education is both a public good and — at its best — a democratic institution that is the result of movement victories. As funding gets cut and tuition rises, the idealistic notion that universities can help students — or our country — get ahead withers away and everyone is at a loss for it. Even if, as DeBoer notes, campuses only reach about 7 percent of the population, someone is still going to need to defend higher education and organize to make it better. For better or worse, that will likely fall on the shoulders of students, as it has in Quebec or at Cooper Union. Furthermore, the power universities hold as both landowners and employers is also significant and it cannot be understated that when employees organize that helps students, and when students organize that helps employees.

The Koch brothers clearly understand the power that exists on campus, and that is why they have invested so thoroughly in challenging it. Their massive donor network of billionaires, religious fanatics and others have waged a whole host of proxy wars — over safe spaces, free speech, climate denial and academic freedom — not only to slant science and boost fascists, but perhaps most importantly, to do away with public education, which they believe is a threat to their future profits. But if they can’t dismantle it completely, taking it over and starving it of dissent will do.

One Koch-affiliated historian, Leonard Liggio, has cited the success of the Nazi model of campus organizing as critical to building the “National Socialist Party” and taking over the German state. The Kochs and their partners have also funded academic centers, curriculum, organizations, fellowship programs and individual professors in the hopes that the academy will then better serve their agenda. And it’s working. One such professor appointed to a Koch-funded “academic center,” Russell Sobel, wrote a book called “Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It,” in which he argued that safety and environmental standards hurt workers. According to Jane Mayer, in her book Dark Money, it became the basis for state policy making in West Virginia. “Sobel was briefing West Virginia’s governor and cabinet, as well as a joint session of the Senate and the House Finance Committees,” Mayer writes. “The state Republican Party chairman declared Sobel’s anti-regulatory book the blueprint for its party platform.”

But in addition to using the academy to influence policy, they have also used it to build power. As Frost noted, the left has become “single-mindedly obsessed with purifying our own ranks and weeding out the problematic among us,” while the right is becoming “bigger and stronger.” A new report from Generation Progress, the campus wing of the Center for American Progress, notes that, in 2014, conservative youth groups outspent progressive ones three to one. They have built infrastructure on campuses and recruited students into their organizations, creating ties that not only extend well beyond their four years on campus, but also feed directly into a pipeline designed to create Tea Party congressmen and industry lobbyists.

A deeper understanding of the strategy, infrastructure, and intention of how the right has approached campus organizing, will better position the left to fight back and win. We must not pit campus organizing and labor against one another, but rather understand how they are related and how they are different.

Students have helped build unions on their campuses; they’ve fought tuition hikes, sweatshops, racism and fossil fuel investment. Writing off students won’t do. Instead, students will have to continue to defend this critical public good. They will need to see labor organizing on campus and the fight for public education as complementary rather than in opposition with one another. Groups that embrace both labor and student issues, as well as have a presence on campuses and in “real world” — like The Movement for Black Lives or the Democratic Socialists of America — will be critical in the years ahead.

At the University of Tennessee, for example, student organizers with the Young Democratic Socialists have been working with United Campus Workers to thwart outsourcing and privatization on their campus. According to DSA national youth organizer Ryan Mosgrove, “No other student group was organizing around the issue of privatization. In fact, no other organization was actively engaged in any student-labor solidarity campaign.”

We must continue to encourage, foster and build power on campus. When students show solidarity with labor and vice versa, our movements will win.