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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Sep 10, 2014, 1:56 pm

Student Labor Activists Renew Spirit of 1964 Freedom Summer

BY Bruce Vail

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Students felt the impact of OUR Walmart during the "Summer of Respect" program. (Neon Tommy / Flickr / Creative Commons)  

In 1964, the Freedom Summer campaign for voting rights in Mississippi appealed to college students to confront one of the great social justice issues of the age. Fifty years later, labor activists challenging the corporate power of Walmart called on the same spirit to lead a small group of students off campuses and into the fight for economic justice on behalf of the giant company’s low-paid workers. Organizers of the effort, dubbed the “Summer for Respect” hope the program will help inspire a new generation of student labor activism and deepen the links between labor unions and academia.

Adam Reich, the Columbia University professor who led this summer’s student-labor initiative, says the Summer for Respect differed from the historic 1964 effort in a number of ways. The program took 20 undergraduate students from several different colleges and inserted them into active OUR Walmart campaigns in different parts of the country. Student participated in daily organizing efforts, but one of the program’s primary goals was to combine students’ campaign work with the academic goal of documenting the lives of the Walmart workers, and spreading that information to a wider audience. The  students compiled an oral history archive and related materials for use by other workers, activists, students, and historians, explains Reich.

The program was first conceived of during informal conversations between Reich (son of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich) and OUR Walmart Field Director Andrea Dehlendorf, the 33-year-old college professor tells In These Times. They wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer with a similar program for students today, and they felt that the 1960s drive for voting rights bore parallels with modern drives for labor-organizing rights for low-wage workers disenfranchised by the legal system. Reich and Dehlendorf drew up plans for a pilot program, hoping that, if successful, the program would be continued and expanded in the future.

Funded jointly by Columbia University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics and OUR Walmart, the Summer of Respect placed four students each in five separate locations of the national campaign. The students went first to New York City for a one-week orientation and training session, and then spread out for eight weeks at campaign locations in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Cincinnati-Dayton and central Florida. There they divided their time between campaign work alongside workers and activists, and the academic work of compiling an extensive oral history archive. 

“The summer was pretty transformative for me,” says Kendra Cornejo, a history and ethnic studies student at Brown University. “It was inspiring, it was empowering,” she tells Working In These Times, because the daily contact with Walmart workers and campaigners opened her eyes to a very different world from the privileged Brown campus.

“When I got to central Florida—Tampa and Orlando mostly—I was really amazed by the people I met there,” she explains. “Sometimes you think of activism as something that students do, but this campaign had all kinds of people—mothers and fathers, people of all races. It’s inspiring to see the commitment that is there to positive change.” The experience has led her to re-evaluate her career goals; she would now like to enter the fields of community or labor organizing when she completes college.

Central to her experience over the summer was the strong personal bond Carnejo formed with Leslie Garcia, a 13-year Walmart veteran who became a friend, as well as the subject of one of the oral history interviews. “Kendra is just awesome. I’m a very conservative person, but with her I felt like I knew her for years. I was able to speak to her freely, almost confidentially,” Garcia says. “I told her things I haven’t told my own kids.”

The oral history interviews centered on her experience with Walmart but also included her workplace experiences with other employers, as well as her broader cultural experiences, explains Garcia. Her long tenure at Walmart ended badly last year, she says, when she was demoted and punished for taking time off to attend to family medical problems.

“[Walmart managers] are real hard-asses, and it’s just not right,” to treat workers so callously, she says. Because managers intimidate workers with the constant threat of replacement, “a lot of the associates (employees) are afraid to speak up.” Once she left Walmart, Garcia felt she was in a unique position to became active in OUR Walmart, and speak up for the silenced workers.

Though more than half the students came from Brown, Columbia, or other elite universities, the Summer of Respect was not exclusively an Ivy League program. Other interns were recruited through the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute and the University of California-Los Angeles Labor Center, and all of the internships were paid positions. If the program is continued in the future, the directors intend to recruit from a wider variety of sources, Reich adds.

Reich knows firsthand the impact that initiation into the labor movement can have on students’ lives. The program was inspired in part by Reich’s own experience in studying labor organizing while a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley. There he came into contact with the organizing campaigns of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, the two unions that at one time were partners in a national Walmart campaign, although UFCW has since taken over sole direction of the effort.

With the nine-week field program now concluded, students are currently working on preparing the archive for its final forms. Some 137 audio interviews of workers and campaigners are being prepared for deposit in the Columbia Center for Oral History, including some interviews with surviving veterans of the original 1964 Freedom Summer. Students are also preparing a book-length manuscript that Reich hopes will be published. Each of the five teams of students was also provided with a video camera, and one student is working on producing a video documentary. Selected passages from various audio interviews and some video material is being added to the Summer for Respect web site on a continuing basis, says Reich.

“The great thing for me as a young faculty member is that I get to meet with, and work with, students who are passionate on social justice issues. There is a lot of talk that the millennial generation is apathetic and unengaged, but this experience made me more optimistic about young people,” says Reich. “It gives me a sense of hope for the labor movement.”

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Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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