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Student Activists and Organized Labor

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Part of the Historical Studies in Education book series (HSE)


This chapter examines the history of student activism in relation to labor unions in the twentieth century, focusing on traditional institutions of higher education. The chapter begins with student strikebreaking activities in the early twentieth century. It then considers the first mass student movement in the 1930s, which included significant labor-related activity, before turning to student activists in the 1960s and their conflicted relationships with organized labor. Concluding with a discussion of students’ re-engagement with organized labor in the late twentieth century, the chapter considers how engagement with or against labor allowed students to wrestle with their place in the economic and social order, and emphasizes that students were most supportive of labor unions when they viewed them as part of broader efforts for equity and change.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-75614-1_8
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  1. 1.

    Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, “How Students Play a Supporting Role in Campus Labor Movements,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21, 1916,; Lee Gardner, “How the Harvard Strike Fits into the Equality Conversation,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 19, 2016,; Kelsey O’Connor, “Strike Avoided,” Ithaca Voice, March 27, 2017,; Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, “As Long Island U.’s Faculty Lockout Nears 2 Weeks, Both Sides Dig In,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 14, 2016,

  2. 2.

    Labor colleges and workers’ education programs are excluded from this chapter due to space considerations.

  3. 3.

    Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).

  4. 4.

    Stephen H. Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker: College Youth and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of Social History 28, no. 2 (1994): 331–49.

  5. 5.

    Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker,” 340–41; Liz Rohan, “‘The Worker Must Have Bread, but She Must Have Roses, Too’: The Education Programs of the Women’s Trade Union League, 1908–26,” in The Education Work of Women’s Organizations, 1890–1960, eds. Anne Meis Knupfer and Christine Woyshner (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 121–40.

  6. 6.

    Max Horn, The Intercollegiate Socialist Society, 1905–1921: Origins of the Modern American Student Movement (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1979), 100–08; Philip G. Altbach, Student Politics in America: A Historical Analysis (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1974), 21–28.

  7. 7.

    Horn, The Intercollegiate Socialist Society, 103.

  8. 8.

    Altbach, Student Politics, 25; “Socialists Propose that Working Students Organize,” Michigan Daily, February, 21, 1913; “Working Men in University to Form Union,” Michigan Daily, February 25, 1913; “Rumor Spreads that the Price of Board May Soon Advance,” Michigan Daily, July 15, 1913; “Boarding Houses Give Square Deal,” Michigan Daily, November 5, 1913; “Working Students to Hold Meeting,” Michigan Daily, November 6, 1913; “Waiters are to Gather Tonight,” Michigan Daily, November 7, 1913; Frank Bohn, “A University Hunger Strike,” The Masses, May 1914, 10; “Rah-Rah Scabs,” The Industrial Worker, March 7, 1912.

  9. 9.

    Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Volume VIII: Postwar Struggles, 1918–1920 (New York: International Publishers, 1980), 98.

  10. 10.

    Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker,” 339–43; Stephen H. Norwood, Labor’s Flaming Youth: Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1878–1923 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 189–92.

  11. 11.

    Norwood, Labor’s Flaming Youth, 189–92; Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker.”

  12. 12.

    Altbach, Student Politics, 42–45; Robert Cohen, When the Old Left was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Student Movement, 1929–1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 76; Students in Revolt: The Story of the Intercollegiate League for Industrial Democracy (New York: League for Industrial Democracy, 1933), 7; Deborah Sue Elkin, “Labor and the Left: The Limits of Acceptable Dissent at Yale University, 1920s to 1950s” (PhD diss., Yale University, 1995), Proquest (9613972), 15–32; Kenneth Meiklejohn and Peter Nehemkis, Southern Labor in Revolt (New York: Intercollegiate Student Council of the League for Industrial Democracy, 1930).

  13. 13.

    David P. Setran, The College “Y”: Student Religion in the Era of Secularization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 229–30; C. Howard Hopkins, History of the YMCA in North America (New York: Association Press, 1951), 644.

  14. 14.

    Mary Fredrickson, “Citizens for Democracy: The Industrial Programs of the YWCA,” in Sisterhood and Solidarity: Workers Education for Women, 1914–1984, eds. Joyce L. Kornbluh and Mary Frederickson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 83, 99–100; Rita Heller, “Blue Collars and Bluestockings: The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Workers,” in Sisterhood and Solidarity, eds. Kornbluh and Fredrickson, 122–27.

  15. 15.

    Altbach, Student Politics, 32–39.

  16. 16.

    Paula S. Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 328, 329.

  17. 17.

    Altbach, Student Politics; Cohen, When the Old Left; David O. Levine, The American College and the Culture of Aspiration, 1915–1940 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

  18. 18.

    Marvin Bressler and Judith Higgins, “The Political Left on Campus and in Society: The Active Decade. Final Report” (Washington, DC: Office of Education Bureau of Research, 1972), 56.

  19. 19.

    Cohen, When the Old Left, 17–18, 44–55.

  20. 20.

    Cohen, When the Old Left, 22–25, 188–201; Student Advocate, Volumes 1–3 (New York: Greenwood Reprint Corporation, 1968).

  21. 21.

    “College Youths Lead Strikers in Ohio Rioting,” Washington Post, June 1, 1935.

  22. 22.

    “University Sweatshops,” Student Advocate, February 1936, 5–6.

  23. 23.

    Budd Shulberg, “Dartmouth Rejects the Academic Mind,” Student Advocate, April 1936, 13, 30.

  24. 24.

    Elkin, “Labor and the Left”; Sydney Fine, Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936–1937 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 205, 219.

  25. 25.

    “Past,” Student Worker 1, no. 1 (December 15, 1936), 1, ACLU Archives, The Roger Baldwin Years (Wilmington, DW: Scholarly Resources, 1995), microfilm, reel 141, v. 962; “Why SWF?” (Ann Arbor: Student’s Workers Federation, 1937), 1, ACLU Archives, reel 141, v. 962.

  26. 26.

    Ed Magdol and Joseph Bernstein, “Student Workers Organize,” Student Advocate, May 1937: 17–18; Cohen, When the Old Left, 203–04.

  27. 27.

    Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker,” 344; Douglas W. Sprague, “Student Strikebreakers: The 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike and the SS Mariposa,” The Mariner’s Mirror 102, no. 2 (2016): 218–21; Madison Kuhn, Michigan State: The First Hundred Years, 1855–1955 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1955), 395–96.

  28. 28.

    “Council Asks Trial of Student Waiting; But Sees Increased Dining Hall Efficiency as Main Goal,” Harvard Crimson, September 23, 1940; “Unions Object to Putting Student Waiters in Jobs,” Harvard Crimson, January 26, 1940; “Memories of the Harvard-Union Arguments Aroused by Yale’s Struggle with CIO,” Harvard Crimson, October 10, 1941.

  29. 29.

    Nella Van Dyke, “Crossing Movement Boundaries: Factors the Facilitate Coalition Protest by American College Students, 1930–1990,” Social Problems 50, no. 2 (2003): 226–50; Elkin, “Labor and the Left,” 230–56.

  30. 30.

    Phillip G. Altbach, “The National Student Association in the Fifties: Flawed Conscience of the Silent Generation,” Youth & Society 5, no. 2 (1973): 184–21; “Dust off Your Dreams: The Story of the American Youth for Democracy” (New York: American Youth for Democracy, 1945), 17.

  31. 31.

    “MYDA Food Plan Awaits Approval,” Michigan Daily, January 11, 1947; “Fights for Rights of Labor,” Michigan Daily, April 18, 1947; Altbach, Student Politics, 132–76; Ellen W. Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 93.

  32. 32.

    Peter B. Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 5.

  33. 33.

    Levy, The New Left; Christopher Phelps, “Port Huron at Fifty: The New Left and Labor: An Interview with Kim Moody,” Labor: Studies in the Working Class Histories of the Americas 9, no. 2 (2012): 25–40.

  34. 34.

    David Barber, A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why it Failed (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008); Leigh David Benin, The New Labor Radicalism and New York City’s Garment Industry: Progressive Labor Insurgents in the 1960s (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000); Fred Gordon, “Build The Campus Worker-Student Alliance,” New Left Notes, September 20, 1969.

  35. 35.

    Michael Flug, “Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960: The Case of the Maryland Freedom Union,” Labor History 31, no. 3 (1990): 322–46; Lauren Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Levy, The New Left, 128–36.

  36. 36.

    Gregg L. Michel, Struggle for a Better South: The Southern Student Organizing Committee, 1964–1969 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 153–60.

  37. 37.

    Levy, The New Left; Richard Griswold del Castillo and Richard A. Garcia, César Chávez, A Triumph of Spirit (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 47–58.

  38. 38.

    Jennifer Pittman, “Honoring the Legacy of César E. Chávez on Campus,” March 27, 2017,

  39. 39.

    Robin D. G. Kelley, “The Proletariat Goes to College,” Social Text 49 (1996): 37–42; Manning Marable, “Dan Georgakas on the Successes and Failures of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM),” Souls 2, no. 2, 18–26; Dan Gergakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (New York: St. Marten’s Press, 1975); John A. Andrew, The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics (Rutgers University Press, 1997), 144.

  40. 40.

    Kelley, “The Proletariat,” 39–40; Karen Sacks and Karen Brodkin, Caring by the Hour: Women, Work, and Organizing at Duke Medical Center (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); William A. Link, William Friday: Power, Purpose, and American Higher Education (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 142–58; Joy Ann Williamson, Black Power on Campus: The University of Illinois, 1965–1975 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 95.

  41. 41.

    Andrew Barlow, “The Student Movement of the 1960s and the Politics of Race,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 19, no. 3 (1991): 1–22, quotation on 14.

  42. 42.

    Robert A. Rhoads, Freedom’s Web: Student Activism in an Age of Cultural Diversity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1998); Philip G. Altbach and Robert Cohen, “American Student Activism: The Post-Sixties Transformation,” Journal of Higher Education 61, no. 1 (1990): 32–49.

  43. 43.

    Molly Ladd-Taylor, “Women Workers and the Yale Strike,” Feminist Studies 11, no 3 (1985): 465–90, quotation on 481.

  44. 44.

    Toni Golpin, Gary Isaac, Dan Letwin, and Jack McKivigan, On Strike for Respect: The Clerical & Technical Workers’ Strike at Yale University (1984–1985) (Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1988), 56–57; Sharon Kurtz, Workplace Justice: Organizing Multi-Identity Movements (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

  45. 45.

    Kathy M. Newman, “Poor, Hungry, and Desperate? Or Privileged, Histrionic, and Demanding?” Social Text 49 (1996): 98–131.

  46. 46.

    Steven K. Ashby and C.J. Hawking, Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2009), 106–07; Richard Applebaum and Peter Dreier, “The Campus Anti-Sweatshop Movement,” The American Prospect 46 (March 1999): 71–78; Liza Featherstone and the United Students Against Sweatshops, Students Against Sweatshops (New York: Verso, 2002); Nella Van Dyke, Marc Dixon, and Helen Carlon, “Manufactured Dissent: Labor Revitalization, Union Summer, and Student Protest,” Social Forces 86, no. 1 (2007): 193–214.

  47. 47.

    Jess Walsh, “Living Wage Campaigns Storm the Ivory Tower: Low Wage Workers on Campus,” New Labor Forum 6 (2000): 80–89; Robert D. Wilton and Cynthia Crawford, “Toward an Understanding of the Spatiality of Social Movements: Labor Organizing at a Private University in Los Angeles,” Social Problems 49, no. 3 (2002): 374–94.

  48. 48.

    Kurtz, Workplace Justice.

  49. 49.

    Erik Ludwig, “Closing in on the ‘Plantation’: Coalition Building and the Role of Black Women’s Grievances in Duke University Labor Disputes, 1965–1968,” Feminist Studies 25, no. 1 (1999): 79–94.

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Correspondence to Timothy Reese Cain .

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Cain, T.R. (2018). Student Activists and Organized Labor. In: Ogren, C., VanOverbeke, M. (eds) Rethinking Campus Life. Historical Studies in Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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