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Where We Stand, On Campus, May/June 2012

Randi Weingarten, AFT President

Reaching out to the Community to
build a social movement

RANDI WEINGARTEN, AFT President


A few weeks ago, I took to the streets of Washington, D.C., with about 300 college students from across the country. We marched on Sallie Mae to speak out against the huge debt burden students are being forced to carry and the refusal of Sallie Mae—or any bank—to provide real relief in these hard economic times.

Three dozen of these young and courageous activists were arrested after Sallie Mae officials refused to meet with them. At the rally, I told the students that America's educators had their backs. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them on the street outside Sallie Mae, and we helped post bail for those who were taken away to jail.

The students I met have a keen understanding of what is happening to them. They know that student debt will hit $1 trillion in 2012—that's more than Americans owe on credit cards. They know that the average student graduates with $25,000 in debt, and that one out of every five students defaults on his or her loans, which banks refuse to renegotiate.

These students know that Sallie Mae, the largest profiteer on student loans, holds $172 billion in loans for more than 10 million customers. They also know there have been devastating cuts to federal Pell Grants and TRIO programs that provide vital support to low-income and minority students. On top of all that, they know they will soon enter a job market in one of the worst economic periods in history.

Most important, these students understand why all of this matters—not just to them, but to us all. Education and economic opportunity are inextricably linked. And we can't build a strong higher education system in the United States unless our colleges, universities and community colleges are affordable and accessible to all.

As in social movements of the past—civil rights, the Great Society or anti-Vietnam War—America's college and university students have become a key part of the swelling tide of community activists fighting for economic and social justice. In April, I marched with another group of college students, this time at Alabama State University. We joined with hundreds of other walkers for the last leg of a five-day Selma-to-Montgomery march. Those students spoke out against extreme laws legislators are passing in many states to limit voting rights and worker rights and to attack immigrants. (You can read more about the march on page 12 of On Campus, May/June 2012.)

Their passion was not surprising. More often than not, it is a core group of student activists who organize the first protest, build support through social media and draw attention to important issues through their well-coordinated actions. That was the case in Wisconsin, where young people, led by AFT members, were the backbone of the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol building to protest Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting bill.

The AFT has long recognized the need to build strong ties with the communities in which our members live and work. When union density was 30 percent, we were the community. Between 1973 and 2007, union membership in the private sector dropped from more than 34 percent to 8 percent. Predictably, wage inequality in the private sector increased by more than 40 percent during that same period. Labor cannot exist as an island. We must fight for a quality agenda that unites both the people we represent and those we serve.

As part of this work, we are committed to building stronger ties with the communities of student activists, such as the United States Student Association, which organized the recent Sallie Mae rally I attended. Moreover, we need to develop true partnerships focused on the shared goals of improving the quality of and access to public education, rebuilding the middle class, and promoting a strong and vibrant democracy. These can't be one-time, one-issue relationships. They can't be about winning a single battle, achieving a single goal. Rather, they need to be deep, sustainable and lasting connections. The AFT Higher Education program and policy council took a significant step in that direction by devoting its annual issues conference to training leaders for community engagement. (See the story on page 10 of On Campus, May/June 2012.)

The AFT has a strong track record of working with national student organizations and encouraging our local affiliates, especially those representing faculty and graduate employees, to connect with campus movements. It is time we make that involvement more systemic and strategic. Of the hundreds of students at the student-debt rally I attended, Megan Foronda, a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Barbara, put it best: "I'm willing to get arrested today because this doesn't affect just me, but my generation."

Megan and students like her aren't afraid to speak truth to power. But they cannot go it alone. Nor can we.