The Trump Administration Thinks Grad Students Aren’t Workers. Grad Students Tell Them to Think Again.
Graduate students aren't just mobilizing against the NLRB. They're demanding democracy in their workplace.
If you collect any sampling of news headlines since 2016, it’s hard not to feel like the world is hurtling at light speed towards catastrophe. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were two peaks in a broader trend towards nationalism, and reactions towards refugee crises around the world continue to make the stakes of that shift all too clear. Extreme inequality grows as the rich concentrate more of their wealth and power at the top. And an October report from the United Nations served as a reminder of the tightening deadline to halt climate catastrophe.
Amid the chaos, people across the political spectrum have turned inward, looking towards national programs to stem the crises. But most of the biggest problems we face— everything from a race to the bottom in wages and surging far-right nationalism to climate change — have no borders. A strategy that tackles them at the source, a new movement contends, must transcend borders, too. Justice is Global is ready to do just that, by building towards an economy centered on international solidarity rather than competition. A special project from the People’s Action Institute, they’re offering up a bold agenda to end the inequality at the heart of the global economy.
Justice is Global was borne out of a task force from the Chicago-based People’s Lobby that advocated for a global minimum wage. Tobita Chow, the director, says it quickly became clear that pushing for an international wage floor couldn’t be done in isolation. “The transition from that single campaign concept to Justice is Global as a more all-encompassing project just came out of seeing how the issue of the race to the bottom in wages is connected to a whole range of other issues that are global in scope.”
A campaign for a global minimum wage had to take on a whole host of other tightly integrated issues — including weakened labor standards, global tax evasion, right-wing nationalism, and climate change — that feed off each other. “Our analysis is that all of these injustices, all of these problems are different parts of a highly unjust and unequal global economy,” Chow says, “and need to be dealt with together in a strategy to create a global economy that’s more equitable and more just.”
Remaking the global economy can feel far beyond ambitious on a good day. But Justice is Global program director Molly Abbattista says the coalition has been thinking hard about how to fit the puzzle pieces of local organizing into national and international strategies. A large part of that is political education. The organizers at Justice is Global have been developing a dynamic curriculum, including interactive workshops and a compelling video series on the problem at the heart of the global economy (neoliberalism) and their proposed solution (progressive internationalism).
The workshops connect concrete things in people’s lives — everything from gentrification to t-shirts — to global economic forces. A training on the global city, for example, encourages participants to see the parallels between financial hubs — places as seemingly different as Chicago and Tokyo — as they become increasingly stratified, affecting everything from housing costs to policing.
“We’ve been talking a lot about why theory is important,” Abbattista says, “and part of it is you take the things that you’re experiencing in your everyday life like as you’re walking around, and then theory gives you a framework to understand what you’re seeing and why it is the way it is and what the impacts are.”
They’re also working with local grassroots groups on campaigns that fit under a globally-minded progressive agenda. Some of their top priorities include the issues that under the umbrella of a Green New Deal — investing in infrastructure, green jobs, and just transition, especially in areas that have borne the brunt of environmental degradation — fair taxation, and transparency around election financing.
All the while, they hope to build power with these local bases around global issues, like progressive trade policy and the race to the bottom in wages. Their first steps will be connecting with fellow People’s Action groups in Rust Belt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and coordinating local bases on regional and national campaigns.
They’ve already found that people respond to the connection between local labor conditions and the global economy. Chow mentions a campaign leader originally from the Rust Belt who’s seen people in her community turn to Trump for answers about job losses and low wages in her native Pittsburgh. “What she sees in this campaign is a necessary alternative narrative and agenda around the economy that deals with these global issues that shows them a way forward that is not about this fantasy of reviving lost manufacturing that Trump is giving them,” Chow says.
Internationally, the group is connecting with the organizations in other countries that are similarly aligned, and creating systems for resource sharing, training, and mutual support. They’re leveraging everything from social media to academic networks to engage with people around the world. The global nature of their project also draws in organizers within the United States who have their own connections abroad.
“It’s common to people who are immigrants or from immigrant backgrounds to get excited by theidea that their activism or organizing here in the U.S. can be relevant to conditions in their country of origin,” Chow says, something he understands well himself. Chow spent his summers growing up between North America and Japan, where he has family, so living transnationally felt natural as a kid.
“It’s frustrating to me that it doesn’t feel natural to me now that I’m grown up,” Chow says, “and as an organizer it feels like something that takes a lot of work to assert that our lives are not confined to within the borders of this country necessarily.”
Ben Levenson, the managing director of Justice is Global, is quick to point out that the borderless lives of some Justice is Global members is also a function of how the economy works — something that’s also helped expand their message outside of Chicago. “We find that we have many more people who have some sort of international connections than we’d expect,” Levenson says. “There’s all kinds of ways that we’re connected to a much wider group.”
The coalition hosts quarterly conference calls open for anyone to call in to, all over the world. During the first session, Levenson says, people called in from Japan, Germany, Ireland, and across the U.S. A New Yorker weighed in on a recent call about the coalition’s involvement with municipal elections in Chicago to say that the application of their ideas to strategy helped give a sense of legitimacy that advanced their goals beyond simple conversation.
Justice is Global is also working towards partnering with like-minded organizations and movements doing similar work abroad, ideally working together to build consensus around an agenda to win international policy changes. As all of the Justice is Global members mention, they’re not trying to actively build their own organization in other countries, but to create stronger networks across borders. There are already people working on the issue areas they care about, from tax accountability to climate change, around the world. “These are policies people have talked about before us,” Levenson says, “but when we want to do is build the coalition that can connect and win them.”
They’re beginning by targeting countries with a significant impact on the global economy. Justice is Global has established leaders in Europe and Mexico. They organized the Midwest leg of a book tour for the labor activist authors of Striking to Survive, which details worker resistance in China.
Most recently, Chow traveled to Warsaw with Berlin-based Justice is Global leader Sören Brandes to lead a training for a group of European organizers ahead of the European Parliament elections in May. Brandes is involved with European Alternatives, a movement promoting for real democracy and transnational solidarity across the continent. They’re also involved with European May, where they’re in coalition with other groups to plan a series of actions in support of workers, free movement, and democracy in the face of a surging right wing.
Europe’s an interesting space to organize for a coalition like Justice is Global. As Brandes points out, transnational democracy might seem unimaginable in the United States, but it’s in formation in Europe. Even still, there have been broad rifts around the European Union and the democratic legitimacy of its political institutions. The nature of the European Council, where heads of governments come together to negotiate past the frictions of whatever their national constituents want, can have the effect of exacerbating nationalist tendencies and undercutting global solidarity.
Heads of government, Brandes says, “go in front of the cameras and say, ‘I have achieved this for Germany or this for Sweden.’ There’s always the notion that this nation wants this, that nation wants that, and there has to be some kind of sacrifice. And as you clearly know, in the last few years those compromises have been more difficult to reach than ever.”
That’s why the upcoming European parliamentary election is increasingly politicized, as opposed to the second or even third tier status they occupied in years past. With that comes a discontent with the way things have been organized up until now, where advocates tried to make a depoliticized case for a united Europe, even as right-wing movements flourished. As Brandes puts it, “we were doing these demonstrations and waving European flags but nothing was happening.”
Brandes says the training resources from Chow and Justice is Global helped situate some of the limitations he’d run into as an organizer in European progressive spaces. “The idea that in order to gain power from the bottom up you need to organize people — that’s not really known. When we started organizing stuff two years ago, we thought we had to organize something, rather than someone,” Brandes says.
Individual petitions or demonstrations might’ve been successful, he says, but they never changed the balance of power. “You are just entirely ignored by the political system because you don’t pose a threat or anything,” Brandes says. And while unions play a more institutionalized role in Germany, the strong labor regulations mean they have less need to organize from the bottom up.
To get this point across, Chow ran a training for the European organizers where he asked them to draw up their ideal community with markers on large sheets of paper. As they were drawing, Chow came around with a marker himself and slowly degraded what they were trying to accomplish. With a swipe of his marker, a public school turns into a charter school. A border wall pops up. A community garden gets bulldozed, only to become luxury high rise apartments. The organizers — a diverse group, coming from several different countries — had to come together to devise a strategy to keep their community in their hands.
“It’s a way of illustrating the power dynamic, especially in cities, but in all communities, that really hits people in their gut,” Abbattista says of the training. “Because people get mad! They’re like stop it, we’re building this thing and you just have unchecked power.”
Abbattista says communicating these challenges — and how to tackle them — is a question that runs at the heart of their work. “How do we develop a political education program that gives people the tools and the analysis that they need to understand the world and their role as change agents — and the fact that’s even possible?”
It might seem like that question is all the more difficult to answer when you’re trying organize a base to take on the backbone of the global economy. But since the problem is all-encompassing, the solution must be, too. And Chow says that helps provide a lens that can be used by organizers across the world.
“Part of the analysis and perspective and spirit that we’re trying to bring into this work is that it doesn’t matter where you are. Global forces are present in your life,” Chow says. “What’s going on in your life and in your community, what’s happening in your workplace, what’s happening in your school district and your local state government. The injustices, the exploitation, the oppression that you face is influenced deeply by these global forces.”
“And what that means is that in order to address these injustices wherever you are, at some point it’s going to take fighting for justice at the global level.”
To learn more about Justice is Global, watch their video series diagnosing the problems with the global economy, and their approach to fixing it.