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The Point: The Labor Movement’s War


This week’s Point was written by Suha Ballout, who is an Associate Professor in the Manning College of Nursing and Health Sciences

Since Professor Ballout submitted this piece to the Ad Hoc Communications Committee we got the news of the administration-directed police crackdown and mass arrests at the encampment on our sibling campus, UMass Amherst.  We are witnessing an aggressive response to a peaceful protest that included a disproportionate use and showing of force. Our parent union, the MTA, has issued a clear statement in response to this draconian administrative response: “The use of force to silence protests is antithetical to the reason why universities – and especially public universities – exist.” The MTA statement concludes with the declaration that the “MTA will support and defend its members’ rights to free speech and academic freedom…as they play a crucial role in defending workplace and social justice.”

Encampment on college campuses in response to the Israel–Hamas war, has been, since April 17, 2024, a critical tactic used by student activists. Students are demanding their universities divest from Israel and its affiliated entities. Though mainstream media took notice of these activists only recently, the encampments grew out of a series of pro-Palestinian protests that have been taking place across the United States since last October.

You’ve likely noticed the speed with which this form of protesting the actions of the Israeli state have spread. They now number over 100. You’ve probably also noticed the scale and severity of state, municipal, and university authorities’ crackdown. As of this writing (Monday), approximately 2,500 arrests and detainments have been made according to this NYT live tracker. Columbia University has seen significant activity, with the NYPD stating that “outside agitators” are trying to hijack peaceful protests, precipitating a dramatic late night raid of an occupied building. These protests have led to the closure of some universities, votes of no confidence, and some universities pausing financial ties with companies over their connections with Israel. These events are part of a larger global response to the conflict and have garnered a range of reactions from political leaders and the public.

Given that these activists are contending with many of the same entities that our own union does—university administrators and elected officials, for instance—a crucial question for the labor movement in higher education is how are these protests effective? Or, what does “success” for this sort of activism look like from labor’s point of view? A historical perspective can guide responses to this question.

Student encampments in the United States historically emerged as a form of protest and activism in response to various social and political issues. These encampments can take different forms, such as tent cities, sit-ins, or occupation of specific areas of the campus. For example, in the 1960s, student activists’ important role in the Civil Rights Movement leveraged numerous sit-ins and campus encampments. These actions helped to arouse public opinion and pressure policymakers to enact civil rights legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. During the Vietnam War era, student encampments and protests were widespread on college campuses across the country. Students opposed the war and demanded an end to military involvement in Vietnam. These protests contributed to a shift in public opinion and influenced policymakers to eventually withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. In the 1970s and 1980s, student-led campaigns on college campuses called for divestment from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Through sit-ins, protests, and campus encampments, students pressured universities to divest their holdings in such companies. These efforts were part of a broader international movement that contributed to the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

In 2011, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, encampments sprang up on college campuses across the U.S. Students and activists protested against economic inequality, corporate influence in politics, and rising tuition costs. Although the Occupy movement did not lead to concrete policy changes as the earlier protests did, it brought attention to income inequality and influenced public discourse on economic justice issues.

In recent years, student-led encampments and protests have focused on climate change and environmental issues. Activists have called on universities to divest from fossil fuel companies and adopt more sustainable practices. These campaigns have led some universities to commit to carbon neutrality and divestment from fossil fuels.

The impact of these encampments on policy has varied depending on factors such as the scale of the protests, broader public opinion, and the responsiveness of policymakers. In some cases, student activism has led to tangible policy changes at the institutional or even national level. However, even when immediate policy changes are not achieved, campus encampments and student protests can still raise awareness, mobilize support, and shape the political landscape over time.

So, will these current protests be effective? My brief historical survey suggests a few responses. First, consciousness-raising can be important even when protestors’ immediate demands are not met. In the context of the current pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses, we are witnessing an increase in awareness about the Israel–Hamas conflict and the broader Palestinian struggle for justice. By bringing attention to the injustices and sparking conversations on campus and beyond, these protests may well contribute to shifting public opinion. Second, protests really can exert pressure on universities and policymakers to take action. The demand for divestment from Israel and its affiliated entities reflects a strategic effort to use economic leverage to influence policy—and reports from some campuses in the US and Ireland suggest that the protests are having some immediate effect. The closure of some universities and the pausing of financial ties with companies over their connections with Israel demonstrate the potential of this pressure to bring about material change. Finally, these protests mobilize people and build solidarity among the diverse groups calling for justice.

Here is where the protest activity becomes especially relevant for the labor movement. Shawn Fain, who is President of the United Auto Workers (UAW) has been out front on this issue.  The UAW has been, in recent years, particularly active in organizing unions of graduate workers around the country, and just recently Fain had this to say about campus protests:

The UAW will never support the mass arrest or intimidation of those exercising their right to protest, strike, or speak out against injustice. Our union has been calling for a ceasefire for six months. This war is wrong, and this response against students and academic workers, many of them UAW members, is wrong. We call on the powers that be to release the students and employees who have been arrested, and if you can’t take the outcry, stop supporting this war.

The widespread participation in these protests, as evidenced by their spread to over 100 campuses, suggests there is a growing coalition advocating for Palestinian rights. This solidarity will strengthen the impact of the protests and sustain momentum for long-term change.