In the past two years, a small but talented group of student organizers at the University of Oregon (UO) have managed to build up a vibrant left ecosystem on campus. In 2021, we re-founded a YDSA chapter, UOYDSA, and shortly after launched a campaign to organize undergraduate student workers. Two years later, on October 25th, that campaign succeeded in forming a wall-to-wall union of nearly 4,000 undergraduate student workers.
The union, University of Oregon Student Workers (UOSW), is the largest of its kind in the United States, and has been driven from the start by YDSA organizers. The union drive and UOYDSA developed in tandem through the 2022-23 school year. This was an important factor in making UOYDSA the fastest growing YDSA chapter in the country last year.
It was in this context that we received news of the violence in Israel and Gaza that began last month. Myself and a handful of other UOYDSA members had already been making plans to launch a campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The news on October 7th both made this project much more urgent and also opened up the possibility of building a mass movement of students and workers in support of Palestinian liberation.
Building an SJP Chapter
My thinking since October 7th has been strongly influenced by Peter Camejo’s advice for how socialists should conduct themselves in a mass movement. Rather than make abstract ultraleft demands like “end imperialism,” we must organize around a concrete demand for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, which has mass salience that can move people into action.
To do so, we’re building an organization, UOSJP, open to all students committed to ending the occupation, whether or not they are socialists. Just like our work in UOSW, UOYDSA members are participating actively in UOSJP and aim to be its “best builders,” but we clearly understand the need for a division of political labor between these mass organizations and our socialist organization, YDSA.
Because we did not have a preexisting SJP organization and because there are not large Palestinian, Muslim, or progressive Jewish communities at UO, we have been slightly behind the curve of the Palestinian solidarity movement on other campuses. But we’re catching up fast. UOSJP has held two mass meetings since October 7th, each drawing 50-60 students.
We have sought to bloc recruit other student constituencies into the organization, including the campus Muslim Student Association (several MSA leaders have become leaders in SJP), the UO Amnesty International chapter, groups of graduate student workers, and others. We are exploring the possibility of helping organize a Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, too.
Our first public events were held in the last week of October. The first was a joint educational meeting organized between YDSA, SJP, and MSA which attracted around 120 students and community members, including Muslim elders from a local mosque. The next day, we turned out over 200 people to a permitted, on-campus rally with multiple Palestinian and Jewish speakers and a powerful speech from a UOYDSA leader.
The educational meeting strengthened organizational ties between YDSA, SJP, and MSA and introduced new students to SJP. The rally received surprisingly favorable coverage from a local TV news station, which accurately reported UOSJP’s demands, which revolve around the idea of a “just peace” achieved through ending the occupation. The article quoted the YDSA speaker and even printed a large chunk of our press release verbatim.
SJP’s next task is to build an escalating pressure campaign that targets Oregon’s congressional delegation to demand that they support a ceasefire. We intend to organize for divestment demands at our university, but the most urgent task now is clearly to apply massive bottom-up pressure against congressional Democrats who are complicit in genocide.
Palestine Solidarity and the Undergraduate Labor Movement
The most complex question facing UOYDSA is how UOSW fits into the movement for Palestinian liberation. Our local graduate worker union put out a strong pro-Palestinian statement, which immediately raised the question of whether UOSW leadership would put out a similar statement.
However, UOSW is a newborn union and is still fragile in many ways. Crucially, we have not done the work to understand where rank-and-file workers stand on this issue. Rather than a statement, we in UOYDSA (especially those of us organizing in SJP) plan to explore what we can do to build rank-and-file sentiment around this issue.
For the growing wave of undergraduate student unions, effective solidarity with the Palestinian people must mean more than statements. It must mean the ability to threaten mass disruptive action — like strikes — for ceasefire and divestment demands, whether inside or outside the framework of contract bargaining.
But this is impossible without bottom-up organizing. Over the next year, YDSA members in the undergraduate student worker movement should be experimenting with different tactics to educate coworkers and turn support for a just peace into a widely and deeply felt demand on the shop-floor.
Two tactics seem effective for this in our context, and each centrally involves SJP. First, we can map SJP’s growing membership to identify and recruit student workers who can begin organizing openly on the shop floor as a current or caucus within UOSW.
The goal is to simultaneously carry out nuts-and-bolts union organizing work like mapping workplaces, identifying leaders, and agitating coworkers, while also having conversations about Palestine and how peace can be a union demand. This could be combined with a rank-and-file petition to build support for including BDS demands in bargaining.
The second tactic for persuading thousands of UOSW workers to withhold their labor power for peace and BDS demands would be to change the ideological and cultural climate on campus so that the burning question of Palestine is coming up everywhere — in the dorms, in classrooms, and in the workplace. In a situation where masses of students feel a need to understand and act to stop the violence, SJP and YDSA members in campus workplaces will find it much easier to educate and organize around these demands.
Next Steps for YDSA
Looking forward, YDSA chapters should seize the opportunity to build durable social movement organizations dedicated to Palestinian liberation on their campuses. These organizations should be open to anyone who shares our demand for a just peace and an end to violence and occupation. Socialists should not hide their politics, but should aim to be the best builders alongside non-socialist organizers (some of whom will become socialists through the experience).
They should seek to bloc recruit members of aligned campus and community organizations en masse into the movement (for tips, I recommend revisiting chapter two of Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts). Where possible, they should seek to organize undergraduate student workers to use the strike weapon to achieve political demands for divestment and ceasefire.
In my view, this is the best way to build a mass movement at our universities against the occupation and genocide of Palestinians, and ultimately for a peaceful and just world order.