The Youth Movement

September 22, 2001

Opening to the National Board

an anecdote: An incoming first-year college student was seven or eight
when the Soviet Union collapsed, has known no U.S. president but Clinton,
and doesn’t remember an economic recession. Why, then, did over 600 young
people join the YCL by the Web alone since last October?

don’t intend to definitively answer that question, but maybe my report
can point towards an answer. Like all of these presentations for discussion
in our Pre-Convention period, I hope this, my little opening today, is
the beginning of a bigger discussion on the ideological and theoretical
issues faced by young people today.

will not and cannot be comprehensive in a ten-minute report, and we have
not had thorough enough consultation and discussion for this to reflect
the thinking of the whole YCL leadership. I won’t even go deeply into
some of the demographics of the young population in the U.S.; I have a
handout for that. But I think I touch on the main important points by
focusing on what is new on the youth front, what are new trends and developments.

are, I think, four key trends in the current youth movement and a whole
slew of unanswered questions. First, there is today a big upsurge in the
youth and student movement. After the crisis in the socialist world and
the disillusionment in the student movement following the Gulf War, campus
and high school movements went through a deep recession. The election
of Clinton to the White House also made many organizations complacent.
Cynicism ruled the youth movements during the 90s.

incubating during this period were a number of new youth movements that
exploded onto the scene most dramatically in Seattle, November 1999. These
new movements are distinct from the Central American and South African
solidarity groups, the student government activists, and even the choice
activists of the 80s. Environmental radicals, sweatshop boycotters, anti-prison
activists and gay and lesbian rights activists had been holding their
own on campuses throughout the 90s.

school organizing also grew during the 90s. From school blowouts against
Propositions 187 and 209 in California to anti-Nike and anti-Gap campaigns
in New York City, high school students are organizing among themselves
more than ever. Political consciousness is starting at a very early age.
This is also reflected in the more than 2000 membership applications the
YCL has received from high school-aged students in the past six years.
Many fifteen year-olds write things like, "The capitalist pigs have
ruined America," when asked why they want to join the YCL.

leads me to my second trend: young people are more anti-corporate, anti-capitalist
and pro-labor than they were ten years ago. Today there are over 150 campuses
with labor solidarity groups. There are over 200 campus affiliates of
the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). This didn’t exist when
Noel and I were in school or even during the era of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
In fact, the approach by most youth organizations these days is to be
close to labor. Next week, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, thousand
of students around the country will take part in the second annual Student
Labor Solidarity Day initiated by the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP),
a joint program of USSA and Jobs with Justice. It is worth saying that
Fred Azcarate, the Director of Jobs with Justice was once the President
of USSA.

Seattle demonstrations against the WTO best represent the new relationship
between labor and youth. 30,000 trade unionists joined together with tens
of thousands of student and youth activists. Instead of hostility, both
sides welcomed the other, despite real differences of tactics, demands
and politics. It was particularly critical that Sweeney and others didn’t
distance themselves from the protestors who were being brutally attacked
by the Seattle police.

also reflects a change in labor, which I won’t get into here, but I will
note this change didn’t emerge in a vacuum. The new leadership of the
AFL-CIO, the success of Union Summer and the Organizing Institute trainings,
the ongoing relationship between labor and USSA, etc., all contributed
to this new potential. We need to strategize how to further this trend,
both among labor and youth.

me also say there are real weaknesses in the new anti-globalization movement:
anarchism, sectarianism, youth vanguardism, and a romantic view of police
clashes are all real trends in that movement. We also need to figure out
how to continue the development of anti-corporate sentiment into an anti-capitalist,
pro-worker and even pro-socialist direction. There is also the contradiction
that most young people are coming to the anti-sweatshop and even anti-globalization
fight as consumers. Theirs is a moral outrage at what is being done abroad
for their footwear or in their name. Many organizations have had a hard
time getting USAS and its affiliates involved in fighting domestic sweatshops
or struggling around other issues here in the U.S.

third trend is the predominance of cultural politics among young people.
I believe young people have flocked to poetry, hip-hop, punk rock, graffiti,
and other politics of style exactly because they felt like this was one
area where powerless young people could contest capitalism in the 90s.
Many young people feel, "I can’t vote against Giuliani or Prop. 187,
but I can grab a mic a rap about them." As a result, every young
person is a cultural warrior, or as one YCLer put it on his own hip-hop
mix tape, "Everybody raps." This is not necessarily a bad thing,
but too many think culture alone is politics and reject collective struggle
for the individual or isolated acts of artists. And already capitalism,
creative that it is, is selling youth radical culture back to them on
a plate.

opposite is true of the YCL and the Party however. We hardly tapped into
the new upsurge in youth radical culture at all. We need to redouble our
efforts to attract young artists and performers and effectively utilize
those that we have in the context of mass political struggle. Now that
is art.

fourth trend is that even though there is a huge upsurge in youth organizing,
there is an insufficient level of organization and institutional strength
in the youth movement. USSA, which is the oldest and largest student organization
in the U.S. has a little over 200 member campuses, out of 4000 colleges
and universities in the U.S. The Center for Campus Organizing, a national
training and support center for campus activists, and probably the second
most important campus organization in the U.S., folded just a few months
ago. The Student Environmental Action Coalition, which emerged in 1990
with a student conference of 10,000 attendees, is today a shadow of its
former self, while enviro-activists are spontaneously sprouting up around
the country.

school students have no national organization, and except for a few notable
exceptions in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Miami and Chicago
almost never have political citywide high school age organizations. Youth
Action in Albuquerque, NM is the closest thing to a national leader on
high school age youth organizing.

young workers are one of the fastest growing organized sectors of the
economy, the majority of young workers remain isolated, super exploited
and lacking organization in their work place or community. Even the AFL’s
Union Summer is more targeted to bringing young activists into the ranks
of organizing than spreading union consciousness among young workers.

youth organizing non-profits are losing their funding. From USSA down
to many youth leadership organizations in many cities, funding of youth
activism is out in the philanthropic world, meaning there is less and
less money to fund the organizations that can give structure to the youth

in all, the youth movement is lacking organizational might when it most
needs it, at a time when Bush is stepping up the attack on education,
at the time when the young generation in coming into its own politically.
This is sadly true for the YCL as well.

I presented four key trends. There are probably more, but since this is
my report, there are four. But I want to speak to one more thing, the
trends in the YCL itself.
The YCL has had a number of recent breakthroughs and new challenges that
are a reflection of some of the trends I mentioned earlier and some that
are independent. I think the most notable experience is our growing relationship
with USSA.

this year we have had what I think we all believe is a new situation.
The YCL table has been a favorite at USSA’s Legislative Conference for
the past several years, but this year it was probably the most visited
organizational table. Also, Anita and I were asked to come to present
a special workshop about the organizing for the World Youth Festival.
But what was really new was that I was asked to be the keynote speaker
at the USSA "Unity Meeting," which brings together its various
constituency caucuses. I was even introduced as National Co-Chair of the
YCL. Furthermore, the YCL was printed in the USSA legislative program
book as a national coalition partner, something that has never happened

friend of mine, a USSA alumna said to me, "This is the first time
I have been to Leg Con where the kids weren’t whispering, ‘the Commies
are here.’" How do we take advantage of this breakthrough without
threatening positive trends in USSA leadership? How do we get more YCLers
running for student office? How do we help USSA build new member campuses?
How do we get more involved in USSA’s legislative and electoral agendas?

change in the YCL is the growth of high school interest. Over half of
our members are high school students, but we have very little successful
experience organizing high school clubs. We only have two high school
students on our National Committee. How do we approach the special needs
and problems of high school youth? How do we build high school clubs?
This is one of our biggest challenges.

also have a new development in recent years of YCL growth in rural America.
The fact that the YCL club in Chickasaw, OK is the largest in the country
is something completely new. We are still learning to work with these
comrades, and they are learning to work with us. We have yet to fully
address the financial, cultural and logistical challenges these new clubs
and members face.

of course, the YCL’s financial, political and organizational shortcomings
make these challenges all the greater. We need to raise more money, build
and maintain more active clubs and have a more regular political education
and leadership development process. We just don’t have the cadres to do
everything demanded by our growing organization.

I want to speak briefly about why the Party is having this discussion.
Too often, I think we in the Party leave youth issues for the youth, namely,
for the YCL. Ideological issues, strategic issues, and even policy issues
are sometimes overlooked. What is the Party’s youth policy? And how is
it formed? What is the Party’s approach to young people? How do Party
clubs interact with the local YCL members and clubs? How does the national
YCL interact and work with the Party nationally?

cannot take any of these questions for granted. I believe and I hope we
can begin a new period of dialogue and innovation in Party/YCL relations
and that the Party can renew and improve its youth policies and approaches
in cooperation with the YCL in this period. This report is presented in
that regard.


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