Student Activism and the Global Economy

Political activism has returned to many college campuses. Though less sweeping and hardly as disruptive as the anti-war politics of the late sixties, today's student movements offer significant prospects of educational and economic reform. Their efforts have addressed both internal academic governance and relations with the outside world. In this column I will focus on relations between the academy and the larger economic order, and I will consider internal governance in a subsequent column.

This generation of students may show little interest in building a "participatory democracy" or in radically transforming America's military role in the world. Nonetheless, many do insist that the schools they attend practice the humane values those colleges profess. Last year, students at such elite institutions as Duke University demanded that clothing bearing the college insignia not be produced by child labor or in low wage, sweat shop conditions. These campaigns have contributed to a significant social struggle and afforded many students a greater understanding of the challenges posed by corporate globalism and the role of organized labor in resisting corporate exploitation. .

Here in Maine, students at College of the Atlantic became the first in the nation to pass a policy requiring the purchase of coffee stamped with the ''fair trade'' seal of approval. Students insisted that coffee purchased by the college come from firms that ensured their workers received a living wage, regardless of the price paid by the college. Rob Fish, a senior at the College, argued that "The college has a responsibility to use its purchasing power to further the human ecological ideas it espouses,'' (Bangor Daily News, March 18, 2000.)

Most recently, students from all over the country, including six Maine colleges, assembled in Washington to protest the role the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund play in buttressing corporate globalism. Both institutions have diverted taxpayer money to corporate megaprojects and financier bailouts while imposing harsh wage standards and restrictive government spending limits on developing nations. In the process, wages and public capital formation world wide are driven down. The short-term interests of multinational firms and currency speculators are served, but the race to the bottom in wages, social services, and environmental standards depresses consumer demand and long term economic development.

Students at several colleges and universities have also forced multinational clothing manufacturers to disclose the location of their plants and to make those facilities open to inspections. Other students have worked with union activists in campaigns to unite workers across borders in efforts both to organize factories and to expose violations of domestic labor and environmental laws. L. A Kauffman, a historian of the New Left, commented recently in AlterNet that this generation of student activists "are finding new common ground, from the increasingly multiethnic and multi-generational campaigns against police brutality and the prison industrial complex, to the new collaborations between organized labor and immigrant groups to secure amnesty for the undocumented."

Student efforts to reform corporate labor practices and the international financial system are both politically and educationally significant. Students gain an understanding of the dynamics of corporate globalism and the practical problems involved in building cross border coalitions. They are also contributing to a process that can reduce tensions and suspicions between labor in the "developing world" and workers in the industrialized West. During the protests late last year in Seattle, mainstream media endlessly argued that workers in developing nations rejected the idea of international labor standards as one more protectionist ploy labor by well paid workers in the West.

Suspicions certainly abound, and US industrial unions do have a long history of protectionism. Nonetheless, claims that all workers in developing nations reject any form of labor standards were made without attempting to speak directly to those workers, whose interests are often poorly represented by their own governments. Students especially have an interest in gaining direct information regarding such topics. Both students and workers everywhere clearly do share an interest in 1) the right to organize and 2) access to information about plant locations, potentially dangerous technologies, and productivity levels.

Students interested in gaining a greater understanding of the dynamics of the global economy can naturally contribute both to pressure for greater access to information and to the process of building common frameworks for cross border labor cooperation. Ultimately, when workers everywhere share certain basic information and enjoy the right to organize, flexible wage standards reflecting each nation's productive capacity can be enacted and enforced. A student movement that contributes to such a process not only enhances its educational experience, it also helps build a more enduring democratic politics.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via e mail at:

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