Response to Jeffrey C. Isaac

Response to Jeffrey C. Isaac

As a journalist who has written—and thought—a great deal about the student antisweatshop movement, I agree with Jeffrey C. Isaac that United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has done an excellent job of achieving modest yet significant reformist victories. I agree, too, that part of USAS’s strength lies in its ability to stay focused on specific and achievable goals and to, at times, negotiate with corporations—whether their own universities or the likes of Nike and Reebok. Yet I disagree profoundly with Isaac’s assumption that such a strategic approach contradicts activists’ anticorporate or even anticapitalist ideals. I also disagree with his blanket dismissal of the possibilities for anticorporate, or even anticapitalist, resistance.

The left often agonizes over the choice between pragmatism versus utopianism. The “reformists” will argue that what’s important is making “real” change in the present, rejecting any larger vision as “pie-in-the-sky” irresponsibility, while the “revolutionaries” may reject all present compromise in favor of theorizing about a better future, for which the correct historical conditions are always, somehow, yet to arrive. It’s a dumb standoff; reformers need militants to scare the powerful into concessions, as the recent experience of the Fair Labor Association and USAS at Kuk Dong shows. But reformers and militants can also be the same people. USAS’s work—like that of many other past activists— consistently suggests the possibility that social movements can exist beyond, or completely outside, this binary. Sometimes radicals make the best reformists, and vice versa.

Isaac characterizes the Worker Rights Coalition’s pressure on companies—and students’ negotiations with the corporate university—as compromises that belie USAS activists’ radical rhetoric and somehow suggest the impossibility of fighting corporations in this new, magical, omni-corporate era. This reveals fundamental misunderstandings, both about student protest and about labor activism. Since its twelfth-century beginnings, student protest has, as Andrew Ross points out in a recent essay in the Village Voice, been an intra-elite struggle. Within unequal societies, student activists, no matter how radical they may be, use their own elite status to influence other elites (school administrators, CEOs, national governments). By using student power to influence the corporate university, students do not endorse corporatism, anymore than past protests—or the recent living-wage sit-in at Harvard—endorsed elitism or inequality when they made use of activists’ elite status. Demanding better behavior from the corporate U is simply students’ newest way of making political use of their own class power.

If negotiating with elites is what students do, it’s also what labor activists do, whatever their political ideologies. The campus antisweatshop movement was launched i...