We’re awful slow grabbing one of the best organizing opportunities in America.

by Hamilton Nolan, How Things Work

“Campus politics” is a phrase and a concept that has always made me roll my eyes. In general, colleges and universities serve as sweet, deadly traps for politically-minded activists. Each year many thousands of young people are politically radicalized on college campuses, but the campuses themselves can also function as isolating sponges that can soak up all of that activism without allowing it to trickle out into the real world, where it would actually matter. The extent to which college students and professors— one of the most leftist demographics in America— focus their political action on colleges themselves is also the extent to which they have been unwittingly marginalized by the forces they oppose.

As I said: in general. An exception to this rule, I think, is labor organizing. In the national political arena, colleges are stereotyped as youthful and elitist backwaters that are easy to ignore—but in the labor arena, colleges are the backbone of an industry, Higher Ed, that is culturally and economically influential and profitable and wracked by the same sorts of inequalities that plague many other industries. Unions in higher ed are just as important as unions anywhere else. If you want to have a political protest you should leave campus. But if you want to form a union, organizing your cohort of grad workers or adjunct professors or dining hall workers is a very worthy use of your time.

college basketball players stand in a huddle on the court

Higher Ed has been, for a number of years, the single most active industry in terms of American union drives. New union filings encompassing thousands or even tens of thousands of grad workers and other academic workers have become routine, while filings that large in any other industry are still relatively rare. There is a shallow analysis of this boom in campus organizing that says: These grad students are watering down the REAL labor movement which is factory workers in hard hats, and now unions are a white collar thing, and something about woke kids. This fits nicely with the equally shallow analysis about how the Republican Party is becoming the “party of the working class.” These are both very stupid ideas.

Firstly, union density has been declining for decades, and stands today at 10% overall and 6% in the private sector. Any new union is good. There is no detrimental new union organizing in America, period. If ten million grad student workers want to unionize, fucking god bless them. Organized labor needs all the help it can get. Organized labor is a thirsty man in the desert. We don’t need champagne. We will happily drink piss. Not that campus unions are piss, but you get the point. We are in a survival situation.

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