Why Tuition Strikes Matter

Tuition strikes can turn students into organizers.

This semester, Columbia YDSA launched a historic tuition strike, leading thousands of students to take action against their administration and helping bring campus activism back into the mainstream. And while these organizers have managed to win impressive concessions already, the real power of the strike lies not just in their ability to win demands from their administration, but in what these students will do in the following weeks, months, and years.

YDSA members should recognize that our power comes not from our identity as students, but from our proximity to the working class. With many students from working-class backgrounds, we have important connections to family members, friends, and communities of workers; perhaps more significantly, we are current or future workers ourselves. Students on campuses do have power to take on universities — which are in and of themselves powerful institutions in American capitalism — but in order to win the world that we deserve, and to take on the power of the state and most powerful capitalists in the world, we will need a movement of millions of working-class people standing up for themselves.

But how do we get to this level of class consciousness? While this question continues to be debated among socialists, many would agree that engaging in collective action and shared struggle is one of the most powerful tools we have to help workers realize their power. Through struggles at the workplace, workers realize who the enemy is — the boss — and that they share the same interests as their coworkers no matter how different their backgrounds. Indeed, in countless interviews on the picket line, workers identify this awakening and express their desire to learn more about class conflict and militant unionism, as well as to continue to organize their workplace in the future. Thus, collective action is not only a tactic to improve our material conditions, but it is also a tactic for class formation, strengthening the labor movement through every fight.

With this perspective, we can see the real power of a tuition strike. Not only because it has the potential to improve the material conditions of students and workers on campus, but because it shows students that they can win these demands through collective action. Every time you ask a student if they will withhold their tuition, you are asking them “Which side are you on?” Will they stand with their peers in the fight against austerity and soaring tuition costs or side with the administration that only cares about getting their tuition money? Tuition strikes also give students an indispensable experience of solidarity. Without hundreds or thousands of students refusing to pay, and the trust that all of them will continue to do so, the university can easily intimidate and coerce strikers to give in.

Organizing and pulling off a successful tuition strike is by no means an easy task, and student organizers should take great care to understand the specific risks associated with their universities’ policies before committing to a strike. But, if organizers make building class consciousness and growing the socialist movement their primary goal, tuition strikes can build power without necessarily winning any concessions from administration. In showing students the power of collective action and recruiting tens or hundreds more members to Y/DSA, tuition strikes have the potential to facilitate class formation. Through political education, organizing conversations, and intentional onboarding practices, YDSA chapters can develop the students they mobilize into organizers themselves, and give them the tools and perspective to organize in their workplaces after they graduate. Lastly, by including demands from campus unions or workers, tuition strikes can inspire and challenge campus employees to fight for themselves and build much-needed solidarity between socialist organizations and labor unions. 

With the momentum of Columbia’s strike inspiring organizers across the country, YDSA members must keep our ultimate goals in mind: the fight for socialism and democracy in all aspects of our lives.

How should YDSA chapters organize on and off campus? YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit articles to The Activist here.

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