Collaboration through Education: Uniting Students with Unionized Workers

By Caleb Diehl

Sent back to minimum wage jobs at Starbucks for the summer, and trained in econometrics during the fall, working college students inhabit contradictory class locations. To pay for textbooks on obscure literary terms, students toil at Wal-Marts and Safeways, joking with coworkers while preparing to rise above them. While parents might cover the cost of tuition, most of these students generate very little real income, often able to work only around ten hours each week while classes are in session. Some split their time between a minimum wage job, sweating next to the line cooks, and an unpaid internship at a prestigious firm, where they network with elites. In a time of polarized class divisions, where capitalists in many cases seem increasingly out-of-touch with working-class problems, we can’t let students, who might become the next generation of elites, forget their first jobs where they forged ties with coworkers. 

At the same time, unions should look for ways to improve their members’ access to education. As Sam Gindin argues in Rethinking Unions, Registering Socialism, “a unionism with a class sensibility would prioritize making their union halls into social spaces for laid-off members—places to stay in touch with coworkers, get information and support in accessing social rights, see films, participate in educationals and mobilize for jobs.”  In addition to laid-off members, I would include students, who exist in a similar liminal space—not fully workers but not yet capitalists. With proper support, students could furnish unions with relevant films, articles and information for union members to discuss. To fully integrate unions into communities and students into unions we must consider how working students in contradictory class locations can help the working-class rise above oppression.

For students and union organizers to come together, they must see shared values and goals. Students stretched between jobs, internships, club meetings and schoolwork long for free time. Gindin argues that workers also need free time to develop ideas, strategize and dream. Students clamor for lower tuition, and workers for higher wages. Both students and workers in unions also question authority. Students wonder why professors load them up with busywork, while workers grumble about the trivial tasks the manager delegates to them. As for goals, each shares the fundamental human goal: to be recognized and valued for contributions to society. Workers seek a wage and working conditions that will prompt them to take pride in being a machinist, waiter or cook. Working students strive for grades that will affirm their right to a voice in academia, just as workers cry for a voice in management. When workers and working students meet together behind a fast food or café counter, they often form personal ties, each recognizing that the hard work of the other should lead to success. When systems of authority block that success, each gets angry. It seems natural then, that when deciding what to do about such a common injustice, workers and students should act together.

One way to develop workers’ and students’ understanding of a shared class would be to bring union members to college, where they can learn alongside students. In the classroom, unionized workers would discover a second café counter—another place to form social bonds. Colleges could offer free classes, or at least allow the public to audit classes for free, with few stipulations. Unions could contribute by requiring, in addition to paying dues, that each member attend one class relevant to the union’s purpose at a local college. Although this takes time out of a worker’s day, it is no more intrusive than exacting dues from a worker who is paid by the hour. It goes further, even, toward the union’s cause if a worker feels more loyal to the union after learning about its history or strategies. Workers would also stand to benefit from exposure to the opposite dynamic—a dried-out lecture taught by a staunch elitist who degrades Union involvement by neglecting history and focusing only on its disruptions. Workers at the ground level would see that the professor’s statements don’t align with their everyday experience nor what the Union leadership tells them.

Unions could even work with the college to develop a sort of curriculum for workers, selecting courses in philosophy, ethics, economics, sociology, and history. Workers who have not completed a high school education could still benefit from the program by auditing classes and listening to discussions. In these classes, students will benefit by grounding academic discussions and lectures in the stories of living people, told in person. By talking with workers, students will understand the pressures of the factory floor and tie those challenges to concrete images—they might meet a worker who mentions splitting time between his kids and overtime shifts. Through each exchange, worker and student will meld academic insights and the gripping reality of personal experience.

Likewise, students could venture into the worker’s environment. Colleges might consider offering a class like Lewis & Clark’s Inside-Out program, in which history students join prisoners to hear the professor give lessons inside a correctional facility. Instead of prison (or maybe in addition to), the students could bring class to the union hall. A union could work to establish an educational space where college students and unionized workers would meet together to discuss social justice. Readings would draw from the memoirs of union leaders and excerpts from histories of the labor movement. Lectures could include not only professors, but union leaders who deliver reports on workplace conditions and struggles against management. Students would contribute the theoretical frameworks they’ve learned in classes to help unions solve practical problems. The union would augment students’ grasp of socioeconomic problems by pointing to the immediate challenges they face. Before students complete a business administration or economics program, they would tie themselves to laborers through empathy. Before becoming CEOs and crushing lives, Inside-Out students would understand the meaning of solidarity. They might collaborate with unions on fundraising campaigns or stand on picket lines. The professor could even require students to attend a certain number of regular union meetings or protests. That way, when it comes time to pick sides in a labor-management dispute, the sides may be fuzzier and the dispute more nuanced.

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