Archive for the ‘Student Activism’ Category

Removing the Burden of Student Loans

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Undeterred by its eviction from public parks in numerous cities, the Occupy movement is looking to other venues, among them college campuses.

Occupying universities is not just a matter of finding new encampment sites. It is also a means of asserting the connection between the current protests and the student activism of the 1960s, which in many ways paved the way for the current upheaval.

Those historical links have been in full view in Berkeley, where Occupy forces have been struggling to maintain an encampment at the University of California on the very spot where the Free Speech Movement was born nearly a half century ago. The call by that movement’s leader, Mario Savio, for students to throw their “bodies upon the gears” of the capitalist/military machine is echoed in the speeches in today’s Occupy general assemblies.

Berkeley also serves as a reminder that the universities are not that far removed from Wall Street. A 1998 agreement by UC-Berkeley to put its biotechnology research under the control of drug company Novartis (later Syngenta) was a key event in the corporatization of academia and was prominently featured in Jennifer Washburn’s 2005 book University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

But perhaps the most compelling reason for Occupy efforts on college campuses is that they are the scene of the crime for the abuse that perhaps more than any other animates the current movement: the burden of student debt.

For many young Occupiers, who have never had a chance to take out a home mortgage on which to be foreclosed, their main relationship to Wall Street is through what they owe banks on the loans they amassed for their education. It is thus no surprise that some of the more common Occupy protest signs are those that say something like: “I have $80,000 in student loan debt. How can I ever pay that back?”

Occupiers are starting to move from simply bemoaning their student loans to rejecting the idea that those obligations have to be met. We’re seeing the emergence of a movement for student loan debt abolition.

To put this movement in context, it’s helpful to recall the modern history of higher education in the United States. Once the province of the upper class, colleges were transformed in the post-World War II era into a system for preparing a workforce that was becoming increasingly white-collar. The GI Bill and later the candidly named National Defense Student Loans were not social programs as much as they were indirect training subsidies for the private sector. The Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (later renamed Pell Grants) created in the 1970s brought young people from the country’s poorest families into the training system.

It was precisely this sense that they were being processed for an industrial machine that motivated many of the student protesters of the 1960s. As with many of today’s Occupiers, they ended up questioning the entire way of life that had been programmed for them.

Those challenges eventually ebbed, and the powers that be then pulled a cruel trick on young people. Once a college education had become all but essential for survival in society, students were forced to start shouldering much more of its cost. During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration slashed federal grant programs, compelling students to make up the difference through borrowing. As early as 1986, a Congressional report was warning that student loans were “overburdening a generation.”

Over the past 25 years, that burden has become increasingly onerous. Both Republican and Democratic Administrations exacerbated the problem by cracking down on borrowers who could not keep up with their payments, while at the same time giving the profit-maximizing private sector greater control over the system. That control was intensified by the privatization of the Student Loan Marketing Association (Sallie Mae) in the late 1990s and by the refusal of Congress for years to heed calls to get private banks out of the student loan business.

It was not until March 2010 that Congress, at the urging of the Obama Administration, eliminated the private parasites and converted billions in bank subsidies into funds for the expansion of the Pell Grant program. This was a remarkable step that will reduce future debt burdens, but by the time it occurred a great deal of damage had already been done.

During the past two decades, student loan debt has skyrocketed. Last year new loans surpassed $100 billion for the first time, and total loans outstanding are soon expected to exceed $1 trillion. According to the College Board, the typical recipient of a bachelor’s degree now owes $22,000 upon graduation. These numbers are all the more daunting in light of the dismal job prospects for graduates, millions of whom are unemployed or underemployed.

Given this history, young people are justified in viewing their student debts as akin to the unsustainable mortgages foisted on low-income home buyers by predatory lenders. President Obama recently announced some administrative adjustments to student loan obligations, but that will make only a small dent in the problem.

Even before the Occupy movement began, there was talk of a student loan debt abolition movement. Much of this talk was inspired by the writings of George Caffentzis, including a widely circulated article in the journal Reclamations. Caffentzis acknowledges the challenges to such a movement stemming from the fact that student loans are not repayable while borrowers are still in school: “Student loans are time bombs, constructed to detonate when the debtor is away from campus and the collectivity college provides is left behind.”

The advent of the Occupy movement is creating a new collectivity and a new way of thinking that addresses the call by Caffentzis for a “political house cleaning to dispel the smell of sanctity and rationality surrounding debt repayment regardless of the conditions in which it has been contracted and the ability of the debtor to do so.” Occupiers are also apt to be more receptive to Caffentzis’s argument that student debt should be seen not as consumer debt but in the context of education as an adjunct to the labor market.

A decade ago, many U.S. activists were building a Jubilee campaign for third world debt cancellation. We now need a similar effort here at home to liberate young people from the consequences of an educational financing system that has gone terribly wrong.

Getting Corporations to Do the Right Thing

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

pinklidI admit it—the Dirt Diggers Digest is guilty of focusing on the bad news about corporate misdeeds. So in this post I will write about something positive: activist groups that are succeeding in changing corporate behavior for the better.

The occasion for this shift in emphasis is the recent announcement of the winners of the BENNY awards, which are given out by the Business Ethics Network. BEN is an association of organizations and individuals involved in corporate campaigns that seek to pressure companies to end injurious practices relating to the environment, public health and the workplace. (Full disclosure: I have served on BEN’s advisory committee.)

Since 2005 BEN has been giving awards celebrating outstanding victories. During the past few years it has also honored groups that are making progress toward such victories and given individual achievement awards to veteran campaigners.

Each time attend the awards ceremony and hear the descriptions of the campaigns, I find my skeptical shell melting away in a wave of optimism about the prospects for undoing corporate harm. This year was no different.

There was a tie for 1st place in the main BENNY award between the Campaign for Fair Food and Think Before You Pink: “Yoplait—Put A Lid On It!”

The Campaign—led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and supported by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and others in the Alliance for Fair Food—has made great strides in improving the working conditions of immigrant farmworkers in southern Florida. The campaign has won a string of victories by going around the growers who are the direct employers of the workers and pressuring their major customers (fast food giants, supermarket chains, and major food service companies) to pay more for the produce with the understanding that the difference will go toward higher wages.

Think Before You Pink is a campaign led by Breast Cancer Action that has taken a critical approach toward the growing corporate practice of putting pink ribbons on their products to raise awareness of breast cancer. The campaign started out examining whether those companies are contributing a significant portion of the purchase price toward legitimate cancer research. More recently, it has challenged pink-ribbon companies that make products that have been linked to breast cancer (the campaign calls it “pinkwashing”).

One of its recent targets was Eli Lilly, which sells drugs meant to reduce the risk of breast cancer while at the same time distributing rGBH, an artificial growth hormone used by dairies that is a suspected carcinogen. Earlier this year, the Think Before You Pink campaign got General Mills to stop using rBGH in its Yoplait yogurt, which has extensively used pink-ribbon marketing.

BEN gave its first-place Path to Victory award to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, which is seeking to reduce use of the climate-destroying black fuel through efforts such as organizing students at campuses which depend on coal-generated electricity.  The campaign, which is targeting some schools smack in the middle of coal country, has released a tongue-in-cheek online video with the tagline “Coal is Too Dirty Even for College.”

The Individual Achievement Award went to Sister Pat Daly, a veteran shareholder activist who heads the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, an alliance of Roman Catholic groups in the New York City metropolitan area. She is best known as one of the founders of Campaign ExxonMobil, which pioneered the effort to get the giant oil company to take a less irresponsible position on climate change.

At the BEN awards ceremony, Sister Pat also described facing down former General Electric CEO Jack Welch at a company board meeting. For years, she and other activists had been pressing GE to accept responsibility for cleaning up the PCB contamination it had caused in New York’s Hudson River. And for years the company resisted. Welch’s successor Jeff Immelt eventually relented, and in May 2009 a clean-up effort financed by GE finally began. Sister Pat’s role in that victory certainly deserved to be honored.

Whether over the course of months or decades, the kinds of campaigns celebrated by the BENNY Awards show that corporations can be made to do the right thing.

Sweatshops on Trial in North Carolina

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

In April, I wrote about the efforts of my son Thomas and other students at the University of North Carolina to get UNC’s administration to endorse the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP), an initiative that seeks to improve the abysmal working conditions of employees at companies that produce university logo apparel—a big business for schools such as Carolina.

After pressing the matter for many months without getting a response, UNC student activists launched a sit-in this spring at the building containing the office of Chancellor James Moeser. The hope was that Moeser, who was planning to leave UNC, would resolve the DSP issue before departing. The administration tolerated the occupation (with certain ground rules) but dragged its feet on the supplier issue.  Finally, on May 2, after the sit-in had continued for 16 days, Moeser announced he would not act on the DSP. This prompted students to occupy his personal office. After police arrived and arrested one activist, most of the protesters left. Those who remained, including Thomas, were eventually arrested and charged with “failure to disperse.” Salma Mirza, the only one who went limp when taken into custody, was also charged with resisting arrest.

Yesterday, the five anti-sweatshop activists had their day in court in Chapel Hill. The charges, all misdemeanors, were heard in Orange County District Court right across from campus on Franklin Street, the main student shopping strip and the place where UNC fans celebrate major basketball victories. District Court normally deals with mundane matters such as traffic violations, so it caused a stir when the five defendants, all wearing blue t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Justice for All Workers,” showed up with their pro bono legal team—led by veteran civil rights lawyer Al McSurely—and supporters who filled the gallery.

The defendants’ plea of not guilty was followed by a three-hour trial presided over by Judge Pat Devine without a jury. The prosecution’s case consisted of the testimony of four police officers and a video of the arrests. As his first defense witness, McSurely called on Mirza, who started to give a detailed description of the sweatshop problem and the campaign to get universities to sign on to the DSP (around 45 have done so). When the prosecution objected, Judge Devine refused to rule the background testimony irrelevant but said that no more than five minutes could be devoted to it. In doing so, the judge made it clear she was taking it for granted that the students were justified in arguing that supplier factories were abusive and that the UNC administration was complicit. The administration, though not a party to the case and not represented at the trial, was in effect being found guilty of enabling worker exploitation.

McSurely’s other objective was to have the charges against the five students dismissed. He sought to do this in several ways: he argued that the exact charge of “failure to disperse” was inappropriate in the circumstances; he elicited testimony from the students that they had never heard a final warning that they would be subject to arrest if they did not leave the chancellor’s office; he had Linda Gomaa, the first to be arrested, testify that she was taken into custody before any kind of warning was given; and he argued that Mirza’s behavior did not constitute resisting arrest.

McSurely also presented a necessity defense, arguing that even if the students technically broke the law, they should be found not guilty because their actions were in pursuit of a higher good. This was buttressed, for example, by the testimony of defendant Tim Stallmann that the university had previously improved the working conditions of the campus housekeeping staff after students staged protests and engaged in civil disobedience.

Judge Devine did not accept any of those arguments. She concluded that the defendants knew they were crossing a line when they moved the sit-in to the the chancellor’s office; that the police adequately warned the students they would be arrested if they didn’t leave the premises; and that Mirza’s behavior constituted resisting arrest. She also rejected the necessity defense, agreeing with the prosecutor that there was insufficient “nexus” between the actions of the students and the ending of worker exploitation.

The judge, however, made it clear she had enormous respect for the five students, each of whom had been called by McSurely to testify about their commitment to social and economic justice. Sarah Hirsch, for example, described her work with Witness for Peace, and Thomas mentioned that he had just completed a ten-week program with a non-profit called Bike and Build, during which he and others cycled across the country and worked on Habit for Humanity-type housing projects along the way.

After the prosecutor indicated the state was not seeking harsh penalties, Judge Devine in effect imposed no sentences at all. Instead, she entered  a “prayer for judgment continued,” a procedure—unique to North and South Carolina, it seems—in which there is a finding of guilt but no formal conviction is entered on the defendant’s record.

All parties got what they wanted. The prosecutor got a finding of guilt, the police were vindicated in their actions, and the students got an opportunity to highlight the sweatshop issue in court and ended up with the mildest possible adverse ruling. The only real loser was the UNC administration, whose intransigence on the DSP issue emerged from the trial looking even more unreasonable.