The following interview, with YDSA national Co-chair Labiba Chowdhury by Oren Schweitzer, was conducted to contribute to a forthcoming pamphlet on the rank-and-file strategy. The pamphlet, a joint project of the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission and YDSA’s National Labor Committee, is due out in Spring 2021.
Could you tell me a bit about the YDSA Student Debt campaign?
The YDSA Student Debt campaign is focused on demanding that President Biden cancel all student debt — not just some of it — via executive order. It’s pretty easy for Biden to do. All he needs to do is sign a piece of paper. He doesn’t need the Senate or House to support it, and he can cancel all student debt by pausing payments for federal loans and also buying all private loans off and pausing all those payments as well. So our campaign is about building our movement and increasing pressure on Biden through things like phonebanks and working in coalition with labor unions.
Could you tell me a bit about the labor work you just alluded to?
We’re working in a coalition with union locals around the country. We’re starting with teachers’ and nurses’ unions to first get them to pass a resolution calling on Biden to cancel all student debt; to join a Labor for Student Debt Cancellation coalition and to volunteering with us on phonebanks, potentially leading up to some kind of panel of union leaders around the country demanding Biden cancels all student debt.
How have you built this Labor for Student Debt Cancellation group?
I reached out to DSA members who I knew have connections with union leaders and rank-and-file activists. I was connected with teacher activists around the country, and I’ve been having conversations with them about the campaign, what our goal is, how we are organizing in YDSA. Together, we’ve been thinking through a plan for pushing resolutions in their union demanding Biden cancel all student debt and a plan for getting other rank-and-filers involved in the Labor for Student Debt Cancellation coalition.
What’s the relationship between this work and already existing union reform efforts?
I’m in contact with some leaders in West Virginia United, the rank-and-file union reform caucus in the teachers unions that was born out of the 2018 statewide strike. We’ve been talking about how we can work with them around these efforts. They already have pretty well-established networks around the state. They’re going to organize to push for the resolution through the union’s state structures and also share the petition that we’re using to organize on social media and through their networks.
Why is labor so important? YDSA is a student organization so why are we getting labor unions involved and specifically why are we getting rank-and-filers involved?
Unions and their rank-and-file members are the ones with actual power in this fight. And that’s true for any meaningful fight we engage in, and any real change for the working class. It’s really important to incorporate labor in campaigns like these so we have an actual chance at building real power for the working class, so that our demands are taken seriously.
How do you think this is similar or different to other forms of student activism?
Other nationally organized student efforts usually focus on pressuring elected officials through direct action or petitions. They don’t work with labor the way we’re planning to. They’re also often more short-term projects, as opposed to organizing students for the long-term. We’re looking to bring in students so they stay organizing with us as lifelong socialist organizers. When we bring a student into a campaign, we are bringing them into an organization that will hopefully keep them in our movement for the rest of their life.
What is the relationship between this distinct approach to student activism and the focus on labor in this campaign?
Understanding that students as students don’t have the power to win full student debt cancellation means we have to continue to organize in strategic industries and build more powerful and democratic unions from the bottom up to be able to win transformative change. Working with unions on campaigns like this allows us to begin to build deep relationships with unions, reform caucuses, and rank-and-file activists that will be integral in the fight for socialism in the long-term.
Do you consider this labor work that YDSA is doing through this campaign as part of the rank-and-file strategy and if so how? What other efforts is YDSA doing to support the RFS and how do they connect?
These efforts are definitely part of the rank-and-file strategy. I spoke to a union reform caucus leader this past weekend and they were excited to engage with the campaign because they were looking for something to push in their union to get members excited about and involved. It’s a really great opportunity because rank-and-filers will be organizing around a vision where they can say “we have real power in this fight, and it’s also more than just us winning change within our union, but about us winning change for the working class across the country.”
The previous networks and organizing done by rank-and-filers in reform caucuses like in West Virginia lays the structures and political foundation for organizing around a political campaign like this in their union, strengthening our ability to fight for student debt cancellation. But also, our campaign can help strengthen their organizing efforts as well because rank-and-filers, reform caucuses, and unions can use the political campaign to activate a wider layer of their members and bring them into struggle.
This fits in really well with our rank-and-file pipeline, too. I can’t wait for us to organize a Labor for Student Debt Cancellation panel and for YDSA members to attend that and see rank-and-file activists and leaders who are fighting for a more democratic and militant labor movement also talk about student debt cancellation and how their union organizing can win real change for the working class.
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