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In the summer of 1942 a small group of German students began to speak out against the Nazi regime. Because any criticism of the government was illegal, they distributed their writings anonymously and in secret. Calling themselves the White Rose, they tucked leaflets into phone books, mailed them to randomly chosen recipients, and left them to be found in public places, particularly on high school and college campuses. They produced six pamphlets in all, printing several thousand copies of each.

On February 18, 1943, siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl took a suitcase full of their latest leaflet to the University of Munich, where they were both enrolled — unlike those which had gone before, this leaflet was written specifically for a student audience. Two excerpts:

“Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorise us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning.

“The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, and atone, smash its tormentors, and set up a new Europe of the spirit. Students! The German people look to us. As in 1813 the people expected us to shake off the Napoleonic yoke, so in 1943 they look to us to break the National Socialist terror through the power of the spirit.”

Acting quickly during classes, Hans and Sophie left stacks of pamphlets in corridors for their fellow students to find. As one class session was nearing an end they realized they had a few copies left, and climbed to the top of the building they were in. Leaning over the balcony of a floor-to-ceiling atrium, Sophie threw the remaining copies out into the air, leaving them to float to the lobby below.

For the first time in Hans and Sophie’s eight month campaign they had been observed. A college custodian saw them, and reported them to the Gestapo. They were arrested that afternoon, and tried four days later. At the conclusion of their trial, which lasted just a few hours, they were allowed to visit briefly with their parents and then beheaded.

Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friend and comrade Christophe Probst were executed seventy years ago today.

In all, seven members of the White Rose were executed by the Nazis, and more than a dozen others were imprisoned for their activities. Seven members of a Hamburg student resistance group who were inspired by the White Rose died in Nazi jails.

Note: Two years ago I wrote some thoughts on the lessons the White Rose offers for youth organizers today. They can be found here.

“Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, an early-70s essay by New York student activist Ray Glass, has enjoyed a boomlet of attention in recent months. A couple of people put the text up online, and it’s been getting passed around quite a bit — I keep seeing it pop up on Facebook and Twitter and various blogs.

Ray Glass was one of the founders of SASU, the system-wide student association for the State University of New York. He was the engine behind SASU’s successful campaign to get an elected student representative on the SUNY board of trustees (and on those of all the SUNY campuses), and was completing a stint as the organization’s legislative director when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver in Albany in 1975.

When I joined SASU in the late 1980s the group’s annual organizing conference bore his name, and “Are Student Governments Obsolete?” was one of our touchstone documents — a passionate, broad-ranging critique of university governance, student government, and campus organizing as they had existed fifteen years earlier. In it, Glass argued that voluntary student unions, “dependent in all respects on students and independent of all other people, agencies or forces,” are the path to true student power, an argument with a powerful allure for anyone who, like those of us who worked in SASU, had spent years struggling in student governments compromised by their institutional relationship with the university.

Student unionism is today experiencing a rebirth of interest as our contemporary wave of campus activism grows, matures, and begins to ponder next steps. It is that phenomenon that has spurred the Ray Glass mini-revival, and that element of his work that has drawn the most attention.

But there is a strange paradox here. Ray Glass helped build SASU from a perch in student government, serving as student association president at SUNY Binghamton while he did much of the early organizing that brought the statewide group into being. The SASU that he and his peers constructed wasn’t a voluntary union of individuals but a confederation of student governments, and it was the power of that confederation that enabled SASU to win SUNY students’ first ever direct role in university governance — a victory to which Glass devoted years of his life. And neither was SASU funded by individual memberships, as Glass advocated in the essay. At the time SASU drew revenue from those same student governments, and later it would be supported through binding campus referenda.

This seeming contradiction puzzled me when I first encountered “Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, and the essay offered no guidance as to how to resolve it. An editorial note on the first page of the typed version we all endlessly photocopied said that Glass had written it while serving as SASU’s legislative director, but SASU was — bizarrely, it seemed to me — mentioned nowhere in the document. (My hunch now is that the piece may have been written earlier, but I’ve never found anything to confirm that theory.)

For nearly twenty years the unfolding story of SASU, the organization to which Ray Glass devoted the entirety of his adult life, stood at odds with the thrust of his best-known written work. In the years after his death the organization continued to grow, emerging as the nation’s strongest and most successful statewide student association — winning victories on tuition, governance, and student rights issues, building stronger and more independent student governments across the SUNY system, and helping to transform the United States Student Association into a more activist, progressive, effective force nationally. The collapse of SASU in the 1990s left a void in American student organizing that is still felt today.

So how are we to reconcile these facts?

To start with, much of Glass’s critique stands even if we demur from his conclusions about organizational models. His criticism of student government is acute and lacerating, and many of his arguments about the nature of real student power are cogent and convincing. If student government has more potential than he recognized, it is in part because his generation of activists, and those whom he and his peers influenced, fought like hell to make those institutions into something more worthy than they’d been before.

It’s also, I think, worthwhile to interrogate the specifics of Glass’s argument in favor of voluntary dues. He envisioned the student union as a direct analogue to the labor union, with collective bargaining standing as its central task and responsibility. Voluntary dues were crucial to this project, he wrote, because “the mandatory dues which labor unions charge have probably done more to facilitate their entrenchment, removal from rank and file, and conservative policies than any other factor.”

Reading that sentence today, one is struck by its datedness. Where Glass wrote of labor unions as an “entrenched … conservative” force in the workplace, today nearly all observers — including those unions’ radical critics — would argue something close to the opposite, on one or both counts. Indeed, our era’s legal and organizing struggles around so-called “right to work” laws proceed from a mirror-image premise from Glass’s — nowadays, right-to-work’s voluntary dues schemes are understood by supporters and opponents alike as a mechanism for union-busting.

Consider the following, from a December interview with labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein on the right-to-work struggle:

“Solidarity isn’t a purely altruistic concept. Unions have to be a combat organization, ready to fight the boss. That means there is an element of coercion involved. It’s like taxes. The price of civilization is taxes. The price of unionism is solidarity. And, yes, that does involve coercing people to contribute to the union. Unions are not like the NRA or the Sierra Club, they’re not purely voluntary organizations. They were given a slice of state authority in order to solve the problem of industrial violence. … [Unions] need money, staff. They’re the ones hustling for votes. That’s where the battlefield is being fought. And the money to do that comes from dues. When you don’t have that, unions shrink.”

There are obvious critiques of this perspective to be offered. But its core message is hard to dispute, and its applicability to the student unionism movement as Ray Glass conceptualized it seems clear.

Students like Ray Glass fought hard to build to gain access to mandatory funding mechanisms for student activist organizations, and their successors are fighting hard to keep them, and expand them, today. (As I write this, the Arizona Students Association has seen their democratically-approved student fee funds frozen by the university in a dispute over ASA’s pro-student organizing activities. The fate of the ASA may well hang in the balance.)

If you believe — as Ray Glass wrote, and as I agree — that every American campus should have a student union “which so overwhelmingly speaks for students that it becomes recognized by the university as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for students on all matters affecting the students of that university as students,” then the events of the last four decades suggest that you have to entertain the idea that building a robust, democratic mechanism for implementing mandatory dues schemes is a valid, even essential, organizing goal. And if that’s your goal, you have to at least contemplate the possibility that student government organizing may be the path most likely to get you there.

If reading Ray Glass is the first step in building student unionism in our century, arguing with him may well be the second.

The things she knew, let her forget again –
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.

Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the needless, tuneless songs to sing;
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.

Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.

Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.

–Dorothy Parker, 1928

University of Rhode Island labor historian Erik Loomis has garnered a lot of conservative attention in the last few days.

After the Newtown shootings, Loomis tweeted that he wanted “Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.” (LaPierre is the head of the NRA.) Though this statement was obviously metaphorical, some high-profile conservatives pounced on it, and gave it a lot of attention. Loomis has since been visited by the police and called in for a meeting with his dean. You can find the whole story — along with an ever-growing list of Loomis’s academic supporters — here.

The whole thing would be silly if it weren’t potentially so damaging to Loomis’s career.

How silly? Well, there’s this, for starters. Robert Stacy McCain has been one of the more vocal conservative bloggers on the Loomis beat. As part of his campaign, he invited someone named “Badger Pundit” to guest post about Loomis’s dissertation — a history of union organizing among loggers in the Pacific Northwest.

That post wound up giving prominent play to a few paragraphs in which Loomis discussed homosexuality among early 20th century loggers. Unsure what to make of the discussion, but eager to pass it along, Badger Pundit quoted liberally from the brief passage, linked to the Monty Python “Lumberjack Song,” then tossed in an aside about how reading the material left him feeling like “I needed a shower.”

Classy.

But not as classy as commenter Danby, who opined that given the sleeping arrangements in logging camps of the era, any “homosexuals” among the loggers “would soon be found out and beaten with axe handles within an inch of their worthless lives.”

That comment has at the time of this writing received nine upvotes and just one  lonely downvote. It’s also attracted a reply from Badger Pundit himself, who called it “fascinating,” “a great read,” and “a real contribution to the understanding of U.S. history.”

To recap: Calling for a political enemy’s “head on a stick” is a firing offense. Imagining gays “beaten with axe handles within an inch of their worthless lives” is just good writing.

Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton helped establish the Chicago Panthers as an organization providing community services for the poor and brokered a treaty between the street gangs of the city — all before his twenty-first birthday.

Hampton was murdered by police on this date in 1969, shot down in his bed as he slept with his heavily pregnant girlfriend beside him.

Here’s Hampton, just weeks before he died, responding to the Days of Rage, a Weatherman riot in his hometown of Chicago.

“We believe that the Weatherman action is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic. It’s chauvinistic, it’s Custeristic. And that’s the bad part about it. It’s Custeristic in that its leaders take people into situations where the people can be massacred — and they call that a revolution. It’s nothing but child’s play, it’s folly. We think these people may be sincere but they’re misguided. They’re muddleheads and they’re scatterbrains.”

Video:

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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