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Op-ed

What a College Student Strike Taught Me About Labor and Land

As a sophomore at Rutgers University, it is fair to say that strikes, protests and inflammatory words are normal on the college campus. It’s also normal to find yourself educated at events like this. Last semester, New Brunswick and Newark campus’ faculty members threatened to walk out if contracts through their unions were not modified. Students like myself found ourselves asking the full-time faculty and teaching assistants about their union contracts and why they were so important. Last year, Rutgers students who protested for a $15/hour wage were arrested for doing so and attended a court date in February.  Before the $15/hour was signed into law by Governor Murphy, groups on campus were protesting for workers to be paid at a higher rate, something I supported but never really understood until I looked into the cost of living in New Jersey, and discovered how many New Jerseyans are suffering to afford basic necessities such as food and housing.  

Arriving at the 2:30 climate change march, I found that there were multiple groups and individuals present. There was the NJ State Industrial Union Council present, a group whose goals are to protect and help union and non-union workers in New Jersey, toting guitars and shirts advocating for the government to take responsibility for climate change. Other groups involved were USAS-Rutgers or the University Students Against Sweatshops, Rutgers Sunrise Movement, all members of the Central Jersey Climate Coalition.

As the march marched on, songs were played before guest speakers were introduced. During the song “Soon and Very Soon, We Going to Change the World”, a middle-aged mother standing with her son next to me made an interesting comment as I was recording the union sing:

“We need some younger people to start singing, just saying. This generation [screwed] us all.”

The mother expanded that the union members, who are of the older generation, did not care about the environment until it was too late, and that the younger people have a responsibility to take control and say what they need to say. She admitted that she is also an older individual, but didn’t have the power that they possessed, that she didn’t seem to have an organization like a union to have a platform to discuss these things. Her anger and outrage was an emotion that was a constant theme in the rally, but her individual outrage seemed obvious and unhelpful to me. How was I, a student with limited power and resources, going to be able to make a change by singing a song in the stead of these well-meaning older people when I can instead invest my time in trying to find some way to address the problem nationally like other young people?

Soon after, a speaker came up. Karelle Hall, a Lenape woman and Rutgers student, explained the history of land usage and how we have treated our resources. She underlined how our campus is built on Lenni Lenape land and how the Lenape still live in New Jersey and throughout the country. Cast away, but not forgotten.

“I encourage each and every one of you to learn more about the history of this land. How it has transformed from Lenape to today’s campus of Rutgers University. The violent capitalistic profit-driven history that continues to shape how this land is exploited today. And I encourage you to learn more about the dynamic and varied aspect of contemporary Native America.” Hall said.

Source: Mia Boccher/YouTube

Hall continued her speech by thanking those who came out for the strike and explaining that First Nations, a term referring to Native Americans who were the first nation of people to settle on this land, have always been the first to talk about environmental awareness and climate change. From referencing the oil pipeline incident in America to native communities in Amazon speaking up about commercial deforestation, indigenous groups have “continued to promote visions and support for long-term sustainability over short-term economic profits.” Hall stressed the intersection of Native Americans and environmentalism, and how indigenous people cannot and should not be removed from the conversation. Native people have been at the forefront of the climate conversation, and Hall’s urging to connect people from different identities and backgrounds to create a stronger group of people is not unique. This is a familiar statement to one of the Sunrise Movement, an organization based mainly in America that focuses on grouping young people to advocate for government officials to sign the Green New Deal and a Rutgers chapter responsible for organizing the strike.

Sunrise Movement advocates follow principles viewable on their website advocating for unity as a group such as growing in power through talking to communities,  stating that we are Americans from all walks of life, we tell our stories and we honor each other’s stories, we ask for help and give what we can, we take care of ourselves and each other, we embrace experimentation and learn together, and we stand with other movements for change  all champion intersectionality and unity as the most important things needed in environmental activism.

There was a brief interlude of chanting after Hall’s speech, with some chants being short and sweet: “No more coal, no more oil, keep your carbon in the soil!” and others being lengthier: “When the air we breath is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back! When the water we drink is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back! When the earth is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” They adopted a melody that is common among labor unions and enforced a feeling of brethren fighting together for the greater good.

Another speaker was David Hughes, a professor of anthropology and Treasurer of the American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP AFT). He spoke about how environmentalism has been spoken about but never followed through, referencing Exxon Mobile being aware of the negative effects of using oil, and how Democratic Congress members speak on it but never seem to do anything.

“We are going to stop burning oil gas, and coal. We will switch to wind, solar, and other renewables. From this day forward, the world will be different, starting here and moving out from Rutgers.” Hughes said.

The strike moved to the outside of Congressman Frank Pallone’s office to continue protesting, chanting and talking about how all these people came for this movement.

Source: Mia Boccher/YouTube

Despite the climate strike being focused on changing the environment, it never seemed to occur to me until I listened to these speakers how intertwined labor and land are. How minority groups such as Native Americans are intertwined with the land that was once theirs and is now being unhealthily exploited, how their labor in harvesting this land has affected them to the point they are restricted to certain sections. How labor union groups and environmentalism are based on respect and equality, and their relationship with the land is a crucial and sensitive thing. How politics is intertwined with climate change and land use in an intricate and complicated manner. As a student majoring in political science and journalism who is extremely interested in what is happening in their community and internationally, this event made me more aware of my ties to people around me and the Earth. My desire is to help people in the future, but the passion I felt and encountered in that event made me feel like I could do things now, perhaps not as impactful as I would like, but something to help change one life.

Featured Image Source Via: Mia Boccher

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Mia Boccher
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I want to share my words and take in other's.

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