Yesterday: The Factory Floor Today: The Campus Commons

In case you may not have heard as yet, Occupy Wall Street's "Strike Debt!" (SD!) working group has a modest goal in mind for 2015: to organize America's debt-burdened college and university students into a union strong enough to bring today's institutions of higher learning to their knees.

In much the same fashion as labor unions were able to bring auto and steelmakers to heel, this OWS group will incorporate some classical tactics -- and a few modern ones of their own making -- to accomplish this goal for students.

This was revealed in detail to another of Occupy's surviving groups, AltBanking, on a Sunday afternoon in mid-December in a Google Hangout conference call by SD! Spokespersons, Hannah Appel and Laura Hanna. The two spent more than an hour not only to outline the 2015 Strategy, but to instruct their audience on the differences between past union worker enrollment campaigns and what is required in today's "connected" age.

The Factory Floor

The landscape and mechanics to create a powerful collective action requires a much different toolset then it did for Sally Field in the role of Norma Rae in that iconic movie of that name which came out in 1979.

When the final straw of management pressure (to stop her unionizing work) "broke the camel's back" in the movie, the heroine quietly wrote one word on a piece of cardboard (sound familiar, occupiers?) simply declaring Strike! and then stood on her worktable displaying it until every worker got the message and every machine stopped.

Every machine. Everyone was united by that one act. It was no longer the company's (a textile firm) factory, it was their factory. It was no longer separate stories of trying to live on the minimum wage of the time, it was everyone's story. It took months of struggle and sacrifice, but the solidarity paid off when the company unionized.

Scenarios like this, both before and after Norma Rae were played out on factory floors across the U.S. to achieve financial equity for the union worker and secure legislative remedies to bring about what we today know as the "middle class" -- the bedrock of our country. Or, what once was...

As described by Appel and Hanna, the strike that was possible for workers back then is not an option in quite the same way for the no-less-financially-abused school debtor. A new battleground has emerged.

The Campus Commons

A strong case could be made for today's colleges as "factories," but the similarity ends at the Dean's door. He/She doesn't look out over a shoproom floor of sewing machines and workstations turning out well-turned and profitable products for the market.

Students, themselves, are the profitable goods, and the longer they stay on the factory floor, the more they are worth to the school. Year after year, each cog in this money machine will be replaced by an equally eager cog as the earlier class walks out the door as graduates (or, too often leaving without a diploma -- but, still owing). "Lip Smacking," as I once described to a New York Times reporter.

What is even more delightful to those who own or finance a for-profit school is that the students -- via government-guaranteed loans -- are the ones who ultimately will pay. If they could find a decent paying job, that is, but that's another blog...

Students not only manufacture their own sheepskins, but enter into years and years of debt servitude to pay for them.

You Are Not Alone

Here is where the SD! ladies drew the distinction -- and problem -- between the worker on the factory floor and the student in the college classroom (virtual, or not). Each and every student is alone (a loan, get it?) in their suffering.

It isn't possible, as it was for Norma Rae in a show of solidarity and strength, for a student activist to shut the factory floor down. On campus, there is no common workspace where Strike! signs can be waved about and be seen by everyone affected. There is no physical machinery to stop.

Not that throwing a boot into the college debt-creating machinery hasn't been attempted.

"You are NOT a loan!" was an early rallying cry when members of SD! addressed student debt in the early days of Occupy. A first attempt to organize students failed miserably when organizers called for one million students to unite and refuse to pay their student loans. Few adherents were attracted, and fewer committed.

"We learn as we go," said Laura Hannah. "We realize now that this (the 2015 campaign) is first an educational project to build collectivity and shared identity."

This bitter learning experience was heeded and helped to craft strategies that would be grounded in reality and be compelling -- something that might serve as a bridge towards unifying students. I am talking about the Rolling Jubilee campaign which was launched November, 2012, and brought to a close in late 2014.

The Rolling Jubilee (TRJ)

Developed by a sub working group of Strike Debt!, TRJ's goal appeared modest: to raise $50,000 in public donations which would be used to locate, buy, and then ABOLISH $1,000,000 in personal medical debt.

It evolved to be a very public pounding of a stake through the heart of debt! The lessons applied:

Create a project that has the benefit of universal awareness and support: alleviating the pain of unpaid personal medical debt. Start with a modest goal: raise $50,000. Invite donors at any level to help: people bailing out people. Use a publicly understood and approved vehicle: a 501(c)4 corporation. Transparency and frugality: use unpaid core volunteers and resort to contracting only to collection industry professionals at market rate.

There is little argument that TRJ was an unqualified success. Instead of raising $50,000, the campaign eventually attracted over $700,000 in donations. Instead of abolishing $1,000,000 in personal medical debt, it is closer to $20,000,000.

Every critic, even from within Occupy, was silenced when TRJ performed beautifully -- both transparently and effectively. It attracted the attention of the press, nationally and internationally, with articles coming from the New York Times, The Guardian, and even Forbes Magazine along with mainstream broadcast media notice.

SD! founders acknowledge TRJ as a tactic, albeit a very good one which successfully drew attention to their website and educate people on their contention n that medical debt should not even exist in a modern, civilized society. TRJ served as an activist training ground as the organization moved into the domain of student debt -- and outward from that.

The Debt Collective

As the project of purchasing medical debt was ending, small amount of TRJ's funds remaining from the campaign were directed at student debt. "We cut our teeth on Rolling Jubilee," as Hannah Appel sees it, and then described how a more experiended SD! took a bite out of a publicly disgraced for-profit school system - Corinthian Colleges.

This industry behemoth comprising over 100 campuses across the U.S. is presently under criminal investigation by the federal government. A rigged shut-down of 12 of its schools by the DOE and arranged sale to the EMC Group -- a supposedly non-profit organization that runs one of the largest student-loan guaranty agencies -- is unfolding.

Outraged, SD! searched out a buyer of the Corinthian debt and set about to abolish $3.8MM of what they were able to purchase. Again, as an awareness-building tactic. Not simply to rescue a number of afflicted students, but to bring to public attention the predatory nature of for-profit colleges.

All of this work is preparatory for the creation of the Debt Collective which is preparing the structure needed take on the larger subject of Wall Street manufactured debt. As in the case of medical debt, student debt is a powerful wedge and rallying point.

"Public opinion is on our side," Hannah declares.

Reaching out to engage Corinthian students to publicly disavow their debt she describes as a "safe" strike which will pave the way for future direct action against similar schools. She reminded her AltBanking audience to consider the history of rent strikes, at one time illegal but now a legitimate tool in court to force unresponsive landlords to meet legitimate tenant demands. She completes the thought:

"We are in that same, historic (context and) moment, and we will prevail."