In July 2019, the Bernie Sanders campaign sent an email to thousands of students, inviting them to apply for an organizing summer school. By early August, the program launch brought fifteen hundred participants to Zoom for six-hour-long meetings, with titles like “Political Education and My Bernie Story” and “Creating Your Organizing Plan,” followed by homework assignments on campus organizing and Slack conversations about the Green New Deal.
Meetings began with one of the program leaders, Shana Gallagher or Yong Jung Cho, encouraging students to explain what brought them to the Students for Bernie Summer School and what a Bernie presidency would mean for them. Most often, it was Medicare for All, but also the other key issues tied to Sanders’s campaign: crushing student debt, and fears caused by the mounting destruction of the environment.
Students for Bernie leadership went through the logistics of key organizing skills — friend-to-friend organizing, contact mapping, canvassing — to be used within and beyond the Sanders campaign. But staff never touted a Sanders presidency as the natural end of all organizing efforts. “They were preparing us to be able to keep the movement going, whether Bernie was in it or not,” explains Ximena Ybarra, a student organizer from the University of Kansas.
The 2020 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders ended months ago. But for alumni of the Students for Bernie program like me, the question isn’t about whether we continue organizing, but how. Sanders’s exit from the race for the Democratic nomination makes little sense as an ending point for the kind of movement that his campaign built. Through Students for Bernie, organizers learned to pinpoint key political issues and rally their communities beyond electoral campaigns. That makes Students for Bernie unique among the “student outreach” programs designed by other presidential campaigns, who gauge success by vote counts.
After the end of the campaign, many Students for Bernie organizers turned to organizing pressure campaigns at their colleges and universities. Facing financial losses during a global crisis, universities with multibillion-dollar endowments have turned toward austerity measures for workers and students. Harvard University, for example, has declared hiring and salary freezes, while the University of Connecticut refused to pay student workers through the end of the semester. Students for Bernie groups saw this as a time to put their skills into action.
Dozens of Students for Bernie organizers launched pressure campaigns beginning in March, with many of them still ongoing. These campaigns have posed demands of payment, access to sick leave, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for campus workers while American universities conduct classes online and university administrators attempt to cut costs during the financial crisis.
Their organizers see these efforts as the extension of the ideals that they fought for under the Bernie 2020 banner. CJ Cetina, a member of Texas State for Bernie, described a key demand of his group’s pressure campaign, paid sick leave for campus workers, as “something Bernie has argued for for many years,” making for a natural transition from galvanizing the student vote to lobbying a school administration for workers’ rights.
Kylee Dostie told me about an email sent by University of Connecticut administrators during the spring semester in which she was informed that “supervisors can pay students for their scheduled hours” for their jobs on campus. “The key word is ‘can’” — leaving the issue up to the whims of the supervisor. Hence the campaign #EverybodyEatsButUConn, the title designed to remind the University of Connecticut community that the student workers in their dining halls have yet to be compensated for their labor.
Watching their school shift its political will away from its obligations to student workers and toward belt-tightening for a fiscal crisis, the organizers of UConn for Bernie referenced their training from the Sanders campaign in negotiating and relational organizing. Dostie described being “thrown around to new people every week” with her fellow activists as the administration tried to disperse the pressure campaign — first the head of dining services, next the vice president of student affairs, and finally a communications chair. She brought a full assembly of twenty coworkers and co-organizers to the next Zoom office hours hosted by the university president.
While the president struggled to change the topic from student workers’ compensation, every meeting attendee that he called on directed attention back to the topic at hand, demanding to know why the school was failing its employees. The campaign’s demands have so far been unmet, but students plan to continue pressuring the university administration.
Meanwhile, although Harvard’s $40.9 billion is the largest academic endowment in the world, it has refused to tap into this endowment to protect workers and students, opting instead for university-wide salary and hiring freezes during a global crisis. While Harvard’s president enjoyed financial security and immediate access to COVID-19 testing during his recovery from the virus, on-campus workers received PPE from student donations and, upon experiencing symptoms of the virus, returned home without paid sick leave.
Students involved with the #40BillionForWhat campaign aim not only to end these inequalities, but also to link them to a larger critique of class warfare at the university. The campaign’s immediate demands include providing workers with access to paid sick leave, hazard pay, and PPE. This work and these demands are inspired by the advocacy of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) and the Harvard Law’s Labor and Employment Action Project (LEAP). These two organizations mobilized the Harvard community to fight austerity against workers in March, circulating a petition that received over seven thousand signatures, and for a May Day call to action, hosting virtual phone-banking sessions and sharing email templates to push demands of sick leave and fair pay.
The central question of this project — “$40 billion for what?” — references Harvard’s immense endowment (larger than the GDP of many small countries), a resource that can more than fulfill these demands. The university has so far defended fossil fuel investments and denied its unionized workers adequate health care. It does not extend to the protection of its own workers, students, and residents in the surrounding community.
Earlier this year, #40BillionForWhat organizers hosted teach-ins on Harvard’s unjust labor practices with prospective students, lobbied the administration to fulfill the campaign’s demands, and shared testimonials from students and campus workers that outlined the need for these basic protections. Now, as the members of a newly minted Harvard Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter, these students are in conversation with community labor leaders and campus activists to continue the #40BillionForWhat mission. Their next course of action is to gauge how they can use the resources and power of that campaign to back the campus workers in the battle against administrative cost-cutting.
In late March, as students across the country returned home indefinitely amid school closures, the national leadership of Students for Bernie brought the group back to Zoom for a series of trainings on how to build a pressure campaign. During these calls, they explained concepts like power mapping and targeting, and posed basic questions of strategy related to classic organizing questions: Who has the power to give you what you want? What power do you have over them?
The organizing skills gained by these campus activists are versatile. And the fiscal belt-tightening enacted by university administrations isn’t isolated — consider, for example, how these institutions connect to the fossil fuel industry and to the prison-industrial complex through their investments. Successfully challenging university leadership holds significance beyond a college environment: students who have mobilized their peers for elections and pressure campaigns can contribute to the working-class movement and the American left off campus.
Providing students across the country with grassroots organizing skills, the Students for Bernie program also prepared them to bring these skills to campaigns beyond electoral politics. Now, as their universities cut costs and ignore the needs of campus workers, Students for Bernie organizers are putting their skills to use.