How YDSA Led a Resurgence of the American Labor Movement

In recent years we have started to see the resurgence of the labor movement in the United States. YDSA members have been intimately involved in that resurgence from coast to coast. 

This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 print issue of The Activist, which can be found here.

The American labor movement has witnessed a stunning revitalization of late, with strikes from Amazon warehouses to hospitals giving birth to a new generation of union organizers. As the post-pandemic strike wave grew, so too did the involvement of YDSA members. Focusing primarily on campus-wide campaigns, YDSA chapters built relationships with organized labor at their universities, winning concessions from administrative leadership and reforms impacting not only their colleges, but entire surrounding communities.YDSA members from across the country have been engaged in labor campaigns. Some already had immense experience in the labor movement and others were just beginning, but all felt unionization was an essential tool for enacting long-lasting change.

Gabriel McAdams is a member of UC Berkeley YDSA, which gained national attention through its participation in the University of California academic workers strike, the largest strike of academic workers in American history. Berkeley YDSA held rallies, disseminated petitions, and engaged in solidarity efforts for the strike’s duration. When the strike ended a new contract for university employees was ratified. Three months later, students are living in the wake of this historic upheaval, and according to McAdams, “the focus has been on contract enforcement.” Making sure “ everything that we agreed upon is happening.”

McAdams is first to admit the agreement made last year was conciliatory, not being “to the degree that was demanded by the union.” Multiple provisions fought for by Berkeley YDSA were left out, including “full fund remission for international students,” and the base wage of $34,000 agreed upon in December was “not the $54,000 demanded in the original strike.”

Regardless, McAdams recognized the importance of what his chapter accomplished, and viewed the unfulfilled goals as something “to push for in the next contract.” McAdams said the California strikes allowed his chapter to “show how capable we are at organizing,” and build relationships with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the United Auto Workers of America (UAW).

Though the campus-wide strike may be over, Berkeley YDSA’s labor work hasn’t ended. The chapter’s focus has turned to libraries, as their university continues “removing lending for libraries across campus,” and cutting funding for these facilities. McAdams says his chapter was “contacted by the librarians union,” who asked them to “form a student movement.”

Asked what advice he would give to chapters interested in labor organizing, McAdams mentioned things from “contact your local DSA chapters,” to expressing solidarity with local union members.

Over 2,000 miles away at Columbia University, Lexy Pryor and Lenna Yumeen are spearheading a campaign about the plight of Residential Advisors (RAs). The saga began in April of last year, after a letter was drafted “talking about how RAs are treated [and] how much input they had into their workplace,” Pryor explained.

Independently, Columbia YDSA “created a petition advocating for fair pay and workplace democracy,” along with a host of other demands, including “neutral arbitration,” and “anti-racist and anti- sexist policies.” Columbia YDSA used the momentum from gathering 12,000 signatures of RAs and other students to announce their RA unionization plan on February 17th. Pryor and Yumeen’s chapter wasn’t unfamiliar with labor efforts, with Pryor finding the Student Workers of Columbia strikes last year “really radicalizing.”

Such direct interaction with labor work made Pryor more “aware of labor issues in general,” allowing her to realize “how powerful a union can be.” Both Yumeen and Pryor trace their interest in activism to the black lives matter movement. Having spent the majority of her youth arguing for abolishing the police, Pryor called labor “definitely new to me.” Yet the experience has “taught me a lot,” Pryor said, specifically about the “power of collective action.” Yumeen stressed the importance of “focusing on the systemic causes of these issues,”and Pryor highlighted the intersectional nature of their campaign.

Jake Colosa is co-chair of YDSA’s National Coordinating Committee, and has watched the relationship between YDSA and labor change dramatically.

“There’s been a really big shift in how YDSA relates to labor in the last two years,” Colosa said, pinpointing the Kenyon student workers’ strike as inspiring “a lot of other chapters to start doing labor work.” Charlie Muller, Co-Chair of YDSA’s Labor Committee, is a Kenyon student. The question has increasingly become, in Colosa’s view, “how do we keep this energy going?” Colosa played a peripheral role in Red Hot Summer, but had a front row seat to how the program unfolded, and in hindsight reflects, “I don’t think we were prepared to adequately capture that level of interest.”

Similarly, while many students attended the program, not all were in fields ripe for unionization. With this in mind, Colosa said 2023’s Red Hot Summer will “look a little different than it did last year,” with specialization for YDSA members in strategic industries being prioritized. Overall, Colosa sees the shift toward labor as caused by dissipation in interest among socialist organizers for other avenues of victory.

There’s “a lot of energy around labor organizing,” compared to electoralism, where “we’re kind of stagnating.” But it takes weeks, months, sometimes years, of work for labor campaigns to be worthwhile, and Colosa stated no matter the degree of enthusiasm, substantial labor work requires “a lot of effort from YDSA organizers.”