The last sleeping bag vanished from Beinecke Plaza after a 16-day camp out last spring, but the failure of last year’s Students Against Sweatshops protests did not spell an end to campus activism.
Despite frustration among campus activists in their attempts to mobilize students and University administrators, the 2000-2001 academic year saw the emergence of an undergraduate student union whose members are upset with what they say is the administration’s refusal to listen. In addition, students involved with Dwight Hall, the umbrella organization for Yale community service groups, have been hard at work over the last four years trying to bring together the University’s diverse factions of community-related organizations.
This recent activity is expected to culminate in a large student activist movement this fall supporting the upcoming labor negotiations of Locals 34 and 35, Yale’s two recognized unions.
Campus activism reached a high point last year with a bevy of rallies, most notably the Students Against Sweatshops stand on Beinecke Plaza last April. But many now say rallies, while visible, do not always lead to tangible results.
Jess Champagne ’01, SAS member and co-founder of Jews for Justice, said the lesson learned by many activists following the SAS demonstrations was that the Yale administration is often unreceptive to students’ concerns, no matter how widespread the student support.
Last year, students camped on Beinecke Plaza to protest Yale’s affiliation with the Fair Labor Association, which they said was too closely allied with the interests of corporations, and the University’s refusal to join the Worker’s Rights Consortium, which activists claimed would better protect the rights of corporations’ international factory workers. The major concession granted to the SAS protesters was a promise to disclose the locations of factories, but Yale President Richard Levin has yet to make that information public.
“The administration ignored both morality and student voices,” Champagne said.
Organizers have also found difficulty maintaining student interest on campus. Former Social Justice Network coordinator Jacob Remes ’02 said support for the SAS protesters had been “broad but very shallow” that by this past fall students had largely forgotten about last year’s issues. Remes is a staff columnist for the Yale Daily News.
Remes added that groups need to develop loyal support bases willing to address long-term issues rather than only support current rallies.
“We need deeper organization, which is really hard given that we are a very transient population,” Remes said.
Moving in the right direction
The growing frustration with the Yale administration and the need to reach out to the student population has led to the formation of groups like the nascent undergraduate student union called United Students at Yale. The group will focus on student issues, including financial aid reform and the improvement of Yale’s mental health support.
“The Undergraduate Student Union has huge potential,” Champagne said. “It’s a really exciting development.”
Yale has also seen increased activity from Dwight Hall in the past four years. Students involved with the group have been attempting to facilitate greater levels of interaction between organizations such as the advocacy-oriented Social Justice Network and direct community service groups like Yale Hunger, Homelessness Action Project and Queer-Straight Alliance.
“[Dwight Hall] has made incredible strides,” said Johnny Scafidi ’01, member of Interfaith Alliance for Justice. “It’s become an institution. It’s not just a place where a bunch of groups do a bunch of good things.”
The 1998 establishment of the Education Network, the first group to coordinate the efforts of Yale students helping local schools, led to more successful networking among disparate Dwight Hall groups.
The Student Coalition for Diversity and the Tenure Action Coalition came together two years ago to push for greater diversity in the faculty. The Coalition on Financial Aid Reform saw success when the administration approved need-blind admissions for international students last fall.
The future of Yale activism
The Class of 2001 came to Yale in the wake of union strikes in the spring of 1996. The period of relative labor peace following these strikes allowed activists to focus on other issues.
But the contract hammered out then by Yale and Locals 34 and 35 expires in January, and unions are preparing for negotiations this fall. This time, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and Yale-New Haven Hospital workers will be added to the turbulent mix.
The issues surrounding negotiations are expected to be a major focus of campus activists next year.
“It’s going to snowball, and it’s going to be huge,” Remes said.