A Sleeping Class

Young Americans fight for every cause but their own. Wake up, already.

The Young Workers Project at Berkeley's Labor Center notes that McDonald's is the nation's largest youth employer, and that young workers aged 16 to 24 are both the most likely to be in poverty and the least likely to be unionized.

So, OK, maybe the community-college kids are just too tired. Where's everybody else? Young people who are not climbing up out of poverty, but who are still feeling the sting of Bush syndrome—high tuition, big debt, no jobs, no health insurance, no housing—haven't exactly been building a movement of their own. We're plenty active in everyone else's, but we've been conditioned not to see our personal financial problems as political.

Leslie Cagan, of the major anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice, says her steering committee reserves a fifth of its slots for students and people under 25, just as it reserves space for people of color and sexual minorities. "If there's not a strong involvement with young people, that weakens the whole movement," she says. "We take them very, very seriously."

illustration: Viktor koen

Yet Cagan suspects that pragmatic causes like education funding and health insurance make the official agenda but get short shrift because of the left's skittishness about class issues. "I don't think our movement pays enough attention to class," she says. "It's an unmentionable in our society in general. And people who are activists have a lot of other demands on their time and attention."

Young progressives tend to be compelled toward global causes, away from what they might see as narrow self-interest. Each year, for example, Mother Jones magazine honors the top 10 activist campuses in the nation. From 2001 to 2003, the list featured campaigns involving free speech, the war in Iraq, AIDS, the drug war, and a living wage. Completely absent were issues like loan rates, debt burden, health insurance, and the dearth of entry-level jobs. No one's getting 30,000 people to march down Broadway to restore cuts in Pell grants, or to force the creation of affordable urban housing for young families.

David Weinberg works at Hunter College for the New York Public Interest Research Group, which mobilizes students on issues they select themselves, from tuition hikes to lead poisoning. "In my experience, while it's fairly easy to get a lot of students doing something around higher education," he says, "students who make more of a commitment . . . have a tendency to want to work on campaigns beyond the very personal."

Hunter College also happened to be the site of the national Campus Antiwar Network's April conference. Vassar student Emily Goldstein, a member of the network's national coordinating committee, says protesting global war was the biggest, most important cause she could devote herself to. "We are part of a student movement, but we are also part of a much larger movement," she says. "Mostly I just think of myself as a person standing up against something that I believe is incredibly wrong." Goldstein says economic activism is "limited" on her small, elite campus. This is true even though tuition at Vassar is among the highest in the nation at $29,095, and half her classmates are on financial aid, graduating with an average debt of $18,729. Goldstein faces an uncertain job market, but she's more interested in army recruitment on campus and the abuse of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Which is all fine and admirable, but the fact remains that the social safety net in this country, now in tatters, was built through enlightened self-interest, by workers and women and retirees, not by people fighting for causes a world away. If young people don't march on their own behalf, who will march for them?

Students get this in London, where 31,000 rallied last October against changes in school fees. In both the U.K. and Canada, public-university unions have been a formidable lobbying force for decades. The Canadian Federation of Students represents 450,000 people; the U.K.'s National Union of Students, 5 million. These groups deal with issues like diversity and date rape along with tuition, housing, health care, debt, and jobs. They win battles for their constituencies, keeping young people on the social welfare agenda. Throughout the 1990s, the CFS has won extended tuition freezes and even tuition cuts in several Canadian provinces.

The United States Student Association, the nation's oldest and largest student organization, by contrast, has a few hundred thousand members. It lobbies for increases in federal aid and better access to higher education. Yet its clout is dwarfed by that of the big student loan companies—it spent $20,000 on lobbying in 2000, as opposed to $1.5 million spent by Sallie Mae.

Without a unified voice, individual protests can do little more than make splashes. For the past two years, 8,000 to 10,000 students at California's community colleges have marched to Sacramento to protest a 120 percent rise in fees and budget cuts in the hundreds of millions. New York's CUNY schools, led by SLAM! and other groups, have seen similar, though smaller, protests recently, including a 565-mile march across the state last year. "I think that community-college students are finally standing up for themselves," says Scott Lay, an organizer with the Community College League of California. "When I was a student activist [in the 1990s], we were lucky to get 500 to a rally." Yet these protests are still sporadic, still based on acute threats rather than a widespread understanding of young people's interests. Without stronger institutions, this little wave of youth energy will crest and disappear, as have many before it.

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