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The Point: Encampments: UAW, Homeless, Students


This week’s Point was written by Professor Steve Striffler of Labor Studies.

The past two weeks have been filled with contradictions that reflect not only the polarized nature of our political system, but powerful political currents moving in seemingly different directions. 

On the one hand, workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted overwhelmingly to unionize, making VW the only unionized foreign-owned auto plant in the US South.  The fact that workers had voted against the union twice before, and that they faced a robust anti-union campaign led by the state’s Governor, speaks volumes to a reinvigorated labor movement and to the commitment of UAW’s transformed leadership under President Shawn Fain.  The fearmongering we’ve come to expect from the right appears to be less and less effective – at least on the union front.  6000 workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant and 4000 workers at a Hyundai plant will be holding union elections soon in Alabama, quite possibly following the path of the VW workers.  The labor movement now has far more than an encampment in the South, and is poised to move deeper into the region. 

On the other hand, if the past two weeks are any indication, the right’s ongoing assault on both homelessness and higher education appears largely unabated, even if there is some room for hope.  To start with the unhoused, we saw the beginning of a Supreme Court case, Grants Pass vs. Johnson, which is simultaneously shocking and totally expected.  In the last few years, the way in which policy-makers and the broader public have come to view homelessness has become angrier, crueler, and far more violent, ranging from unrestrained vigilantism to increased police violence.  Local governments across the country, including in Grants Pass, Oregon, are criminalizing unhoused people, destroying their encampments and removing them from public spaces.  The nerve of people to sleep in public when there is nowhere else to go!  And yet, as some commentators have noted, the shifting mood with respect to homelessness did not come out of nowhere, but was orchestrated by a right-wing propaganda campaign that demonizes the unhoused as subhuman and inherently criminal.  

I was reminded of how successful this campaign has been when I saw a recent video on X proudly posted by New Orleans city councilman Oliver Thomas.  In the video, Thomas, a well-known, vaguely progressive, New Orleans Democrat with an interesting history, is seen “adopting” a street corner in New Orleans by running off (what the viewer assumes to be) unhoused-panhandlers.  As if to end the argument, Thomas informs these folks that they are occupying “public property,” to which one smartly responds:  “We’re not the public?”  To be sure, hating on the poor is not limited to Republicans, and in fact has a long history within Democratic circles, including Thomas, who after Hurricane Katrina complained that government programs had “pampered” the Black poor and infamously declared “we don’t need soap opera watchers now.” The recent right-wing campaign, however, has made hating on the unhoused a populist winner and good career move across the political spectrum.  Democrats are jumping on board, seemingly unaware of the extent to which they have fallen for the right’s bait.

The unhoused were not the only ones being criminalized and evicted from their encampments this week, however, as we saw with pro-Palestine student activists across the country.  Regardless of where one lands on the broader question of Israel-Palestine, it is important to recognize that the current violence and repression against peaceful protestors was made possible by the right-wing’s ongoing demonization of universities as bastions of elitism, hyper-liberalism, and wasteful spending.  The right-wing’s sustained campaign against diversity, equity, and inclusion set the stage for this latest assault on campus-based protest, creating University administrations that are so scared that they find it politically necessary to repress academic freedom/activism with a zest that seemed almost impossible even a few years ago. 

As with homelessness, it is interesting not only how callous the discourse and discipline against university-based activism has become, but how a right-wing campaign has successfully captured a large chunk of the political spectrum.  Although there is a long history of conservatives attacking academia to score political points, including Ronald Reagan who rose to power in the 1960s by bashing on Berkeley, the right’s current obsession seems fairly new, at least in its intensity (it certainly wasn’t core to George W. Bush’s politics, for example).  Unfortunately, the current iteration seems to be working as they have quickly captured a wing of Democrats who now double-down on conservative depictions of universities as elite enclaves for radicals. 

One glaring example of how far conservatives have moved the needle was evidenced by the recent Congressional testimony of Columbia University President Minouche Shafik.  While throwing faculty, students, and academic freedom under the bus, President Shafik felt compelled to cede so much ground to Republicans that she even seemed fine with Congressman Dick Allen’s concern that Columbia might be cursed by God.  Lord help us. And yet, her capitulation seemed to appease no one as the House Speaker, Republican Mike Johnson, felt she had not gone far enough to the right and called for her resignation while her own faculty were preparing to censure her for failing to protect academic freedom and student rights. 

Room for hope?  It would certainly be in the workers in Chattanooga who chose solidarity over fear to defeat a sustained anti-union campaign.  It is also in the student protestors across the country.  University-sanctioned police repression did not squash student protest. It emboldened it.  And it is in those standing in solidarity, including union bus drivers who refused to help the NYPD cart off arrested Jewish protestors daring to demand a cease fire.  Only time will tell where these currents take us, and how effective they will be in pushing back against the right’s sustained assault.  Regardless, solidarity is needed now more than ever.