For R12-2: SWA’s Political Principles Allow it to Build Socialist Labor Leaders

The decision of the Student Worker Alliance (SWA) to require members to commit to its political principles has been hotly debated within YDSA. Supporters of Amendment R12-2 argue that it’s those political principles that make SWA an effective organization. 


Last year, undergraduate student workers created the Student Worker Alliance (SWA), an organization that promotes rank-and-file militancy and socialist labor organizing in the undergraduate labor movement.

Now, YDSA members who authored “Resolution 12: Recommitting to the Rank-and-File Strategy” want to depoliticize SWA. R12’s writers ignore the effective work SWA has done so far because of its political principles. They also disregard the democratic decisions of the rank-and-file and the politicization of many working-class students of color who we want to recruit. We should vote in favor of “Amendment R12-2” to support SWA’s successful organizing model.

What is SWA?

The movement to unionize undergraduate campus workers began slowly in 2002 with the UMass Amherst Resident Assistants and Peer Mentors (RAPM) Union and in 2016 with the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW). Then in 2020, YDSA members joined the wave and helped form the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (KSWOC). Two years later, YDSA members led two major undergraduate worker union drives: the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees (WesUSE) and the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth (SWCD). Thereafter, these unions either inspired or directly supported nearly thirty organizing drives at undergraduate campuses across the United States. Currently, fifteen drives have won National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certification.

Crucial to this boom in undergraduate unions was the “Student Worker Org Cohort,” a group chat formed by YDSA leaders after Red Hot Summer (RHS) 2022 to connect RHS participants and facilitators who were organizing on college campuses. The channel was on WhatsApp, not on Slack with other YDSA communications, for two reasons. First, YDSA organizers used WhatsApp for some RHS 2022 communications. Second, leaders from the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) refused to join YDSA or our Slack channels due to the vote of the DSA National Political Committee (NPC) to disband the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group in March of 2022. UGSDW organizers’ refusal made a clear statement: the politics of leaders of the largest certified undergraduate union to date were in fact to the left of Y/DSA’s.

Members of the group chat eventually voted to transform it into an organization called the Student Worker Alliance (SWA). They created SWA to spread a socialist strategy of organizing workers around both economic and political demands, a model which SWCD and UGSDW proved was wildly successful. 

In SWCD and UGSDW, student organizers agitated workers around strong economic demands and relationally organized to win majority support for their unions. Their focus on rank-and-file participation turned UGSDW into the largest certified undergraduate union in the country and won SWCD the best wage of any undergraduate union: $21 per hour. Simultaneously, UGSDW and SWCD built socialist leaders from the multi-racial working class at their colleges by organizing around political demands, like the removal of Israeli food products from student cafes or reproductive healthcare funds for students. These demands brought in Black and brown college students who were politicized by issues like police brutality, Israeli apartheid, climate change, or Dobbs v. Jackson and who hadn’t yet been politicized around class struggle.

By sharing militant strategies across campuses, they also hoped to combat the spread of business unionism pioneered in the undergraduate labor movement by international unions like the Office of Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) or the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). These unions declined to invest in undergraduate union drives, dropped those unions in the middle of contract campaigns, pushed failing legal strategies, or jeopardized organizers’ chances of winning majority support in their workplaces by rushing union drives. 

To achieve its goals, SWA ran labor organizing and political education trainings, and it required its members to commit to political principles of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-imperialism, and class-struggle unionism to join. In spring, 2023, SWA members organized a “Ready to Strike” workshop. The graphic for this workshop was posted on social media by multiple of the unions whose members led SWA (like UGSDW, SWCD, and WesUSE). The event garnered 65 RSVPs, many from union drives that were close to winning an election and starting contract negotiations. Had SWA allowed in organizers uncommitted to rank-and-file militancy, this event may have instead warned new organizers against spending union resources on strikes, promoted closed-door bargaining, or shared other tactics antithetical to class-struggle unionism. 

This summer, multiple student workers from SWA facilitated or participated in YDSA’s Red Hot Summer 2023, a program that marries labor organizing trainings with political education about the role of the working class in winning broader socialist struggles for abortion, Palestinian liberation, and police abolition. SWA leaders also planned a separate Palestine solidarity workshop for undergraduate unions to help them craft contract demands.

If YDSA recognizes that it and SWA both hope to build rank-and-file led labor campaigns that connect the multi-racial working class on college campuses to the American Left, we can continue similar partnerships to win over more student workers to socialist politics. 

Debate about the politics of SWA

In spring, 2023, YDSA members started discussing what the direction of SWA should be: whether it’s members should launch the organization publicly to bring in even more student workers, host more events about strike readiness and contract demands, begin broader outreach to campuses to identify potential union leaders, or push for coordinated contract action across student worker unions.

SWA members and YDSA elected leaders from SWCD and the Columbia University Resident Adviser (CURA) Collective brought a proposal to the YDSA National Coordinating Committee (NCC) to suggest that YDSA support a public launch for SWA to recruit more student workers into it. However, the proposal lacked clarity about how SWA formed, why it adopted socialist commitments, or the work it had done in the past year. Because of the confusion around SWA’s history and strong disagreement within the NCC about its future, the NCC voted to instead host a call for YDSA chapter leaders to debate the direction of the undergraduate labor movement and SWA. 

In April 2023, members of SWA’s organizing committee, which included YDSA undergraduate union leaders, regrouped and voted to adjust their structure. In this new structure, SWA members would still need to agree to political principles. SWA’s group chat would be renamed Student Worker Alliance Network (SWAN), and it would be open to any young student-worker who wanted to discuss strategy with others, regardless of their political commitments. SWA would also use the chat to respond to any questions from rank-and-file organizers and share information about its events. 

This structure proposal was adopted in a nearly unanimous vote by leading members from nine undergraduate unions, with thirteen votes in favor and one vote abstaining. These unions and organizing committees included those at the University of Oregon, Wesleyan University, Grinnell College, Hamilton College, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, and two more schools where organizing has not yet gone public. There was only one abstention vote, cast by a staff organizer from KSWOC. 

Now, YDSA national organizers are again debating whether SWA should make membership contingent on union leaders’ commitment to those political principles. Some YDSA members argue in “Resolution 12: Recommitting YDSA to the Rank-and-File Strategy” that requiring SWA members to commit to political principles to join the organization constitutes “red unionism,” the practice of “requiring political allegiance to socialism from overwhelmingly non-socialist workers before engaging them in class struggle.” R12 then mandates that YDSA members who join SWA in the future should push it to drop its membership requirements. 

Contrary to this claim that the principles are a litmus test that exclude a population of “overwhelmingly non-socialist” undergraduate student workers, those political principles were adopted by leading members of nine undergraduate unions and organizing committees that run SWA and SWAN. By claiming that SWA embodies red unionism, the authors of R12 ignore the democratic decision made by rank-and-file leaders in the majority of unions and organizing committees who run SWA. The resolution writers (many of whom have not formed undergraduate worker unions themselves) are presuming that the rank-and-file members of unions and organizing committees are less political than they are in reality. 

The political principles of SWA, undergirded by this democratic mandate, have proven effective in steering the undergraduate labor movement in a militant direction. SWA leaders’ commitments to radical union politics allowed them to maintain SWAN as a network free of business-unionist staff organizers; host informative events on strike preparation; and recruit black and brown student organizers who are already politicized around issues like police brutality, climate change, sexual harassment, and US support for Israeli apartheid into the labor movement. In other words, the politics of SWA’s leaders have spread the kind of unionism that socialists should support: unionism that pushes workers to set strong demands and strike for them, to fight for political transformation beyond wage improvements, and to join the socialist movement.

Another clear example of these principles in practice is SWA members’ commitment to keeping SWAN a rank-and-file led space. At one point, a student labor organizer asked whether they should add a union staff lawyer who had been known to push organizers to file failing unfair labor practice charges as a substitute for deep, relational organizing. Most SWA members pushed against adding the lawyer to the chat, noting that the goals of the space were to share advice between rank-and-file workers without the conservative tendencies that often emerge from union staff.

This political unionism is the only kind that makes the undergraduate student worker movement strategic for the American Left. The authors of R12 start their resolution by stating that “the working class is the only group in society that has both the interest and the capacity to create a rupture with capitalism and win democratic socialism.” But it’s obvious that resident advisers, dining hall workers, or college tour guides have little to no leverage to force transformations in American society outside of their campuses, especially if they are bargaining with business unions for meager wage improvements of $2 per hour for a small number of part-time student workers. 

Instead, these undergraduate unions become important for the Left when they are committed to broader political goals and political education that radicalize and recruit future socialist leaders from the working class on college campuses, a goal central to SWA’s mission. When they do this, they become bigger, stronger YDSA chapters with more reach among non-white student workers who could be recruited into the labor movement long-term. Building SWA as a political organization is a strategic intervention to reach these students already politicized around police brutality, Israeli apartheid, or reactionary Supreme Court decisions and connect their politics to the labor movement, rather than a sectarian attempt to divide political workers from apolitical ones.  

If the YDSA Convention passes R12 unamended, it will undermine SWA’s ability to carry out its effective political program, confuse our aims in the undergraduate student-worker movement, and signal disrespect to the rank-and-file workers who have democratically decided to use political principles as a guide for their worker-led organization. I urge YDSA members to amend R12 with “Amendment R12-2,” which expresses support for SWA’s political strategy and clarifies our goals in the undergraduate labor movement. 

Why Vote for Amendment R12-2

Our rank-and-file strategy must recognize that workers’ interests, leverage, and politicization dramatically differ by their conditions. The black lives matter movement, the Bernie campaign, climate change, and overturning of Roe v. Wade produced a wave of young, working-class radicals on college campuses who know that they want to fight the system, but don’t know how to do so. They have little experience with unions, especially when union density is so low for the part-time jobs that they may have had in high school or college, and they haven’t seen the labor movement fight for the issues they care about deeply. YDSA should support SWA in meeting those workers where they are through its political program and building them into the next leaders of a radical labor movement. 

Uniting workers on the basis of their class does not require dividing labor from issues of imperialism, racism, and sexism. By voting for R12-2, you support a rank-and-file strategy that understands the politicization of the college-educated working class, its own desire to establish a political home for student workers in SWA, and the broader need to unite each section of the working class with the Left.