Students and Workers Face Shared Crisis

05/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sarita Gupta Executive Director, Jobs With Justice and Co-Director, Caring Across Generations

On March 4th, students and workers around the country took to the streets to demonstrate against statewide budget cuts that would make it more difficult for students to go to college and potentially lay off thousands of workers in the public sector.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported:

The cuts enacted in at least 45 states plus the District of Columbia in 2008 and 2009 occurred in all major areas of state services, including health care (29 states), services to the elderly and disabled (24 states and the District of Columbia), K-12 education (29 states and the District of Columbia), higher education (39 states), and other areas. States made these cuts because revenues from income taxes, sales taxes, and other revenue sources used to pay for these services declined due to the recession.

Students are not only finding it harder to afford an education, it is even harder to find a job once they graduate. Meanwhile, campus and public sector workers are losing jobs and those that remain are facing cuts in their benefits. From California to Massachusetts, students expressed frustration with an economic crisis that has hit the country hard -- in some instances taking specific demands to their university administrations regarding livable wages and the right for workers to organize.

The student-labor solidarity exemplified on March 4th was in many ways a continuation of the historically intricate relationship between access to education and workers' rights. Although you would be hard-pressed to find it in any history book, labor unions were at the forefront in pushing for a free public education so their children could go to school.

Union organizing and child labor reform were often intertwined, and common initiatives were conducted by organizations led by working women and middle class consumers, such as state Consumers' Leagues and Working Women's Societies...The National Child Labor Committee's work to end child labor was combined with efforts to provide free, compulsory education for all children, and culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which set federal standards for child labor.

So it does not come as a surprise that on March 4th, students and members of AFSCME 3299 organized a sit-in at the University of California-Irvine to protest lay-offs and campus privatization. Nor is it shocking that students and workers at Eckerd College in Florida included a demand to create free tuition for children of campus workers in addition to a living wage and other issues, or that Temple students held a silent march in support of the nurses fighting for a fair contract with Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals.

Despite the mass attention students received on March 4th, the struggle did not end the next day. In fact, at several schools used March 4th to give campus administrations and state officials a deadline to stop attempting to solve the economic crisis on the backs of students and workers -- a deadline they intend to follow up on.

March 31st launches the annual National Student-Labor Week of Action where students and workers will take action for dignity, support, and the ability to learn and work in a climate that values their presence. Placed between the birthday of Cesar Chavez (March 31) and the anniversary of Dr. King's assassination (April 4), this week of action continues the social and economic justice traditions of two heroes by highlighting workers' right to organize and collectively bargain with employers, and the integral connection this has with access to education.

Being connected to a national network of student/labor activists via the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) has helped raise their campaign to a national level. The students at Eckerd College were able to convince others throughout the entire SLAP network to join local parents in calling in to their university administration on March 4th to support their goals of winning a living wage. The national outpouring of solidarity to this small college moved campus officials to more aggressively pursue a resolution with students and workers there through the creation of a grievance process, free tuition for classes at Eckerd, free lunches, and a slight wage increase.

This year, state budget cuts and a national economic crisis have reminded us that unity between students and workers is imperative to build a sustainable economy that works for all of us. After years of building national infrastructure for student/labor activists through SLAP, a new generation of students and workers are organized and united for this fight.

For more information on the National Student-Labor Week of Action, visit

The Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) is a joint initiative of Jobs with Justice and the United States Student Association that engages student organizations in economic justice campaigns. JwJ coalitions around the country house local SLAPs that connect students from multiple campuses. SLAP supports the growing student movement for economic justice by making links between campus and community organizing, providing skills training to build lasting student organizations, and developing campaigns that win concrete victories for working families.