Samuel Nelson was four years old when anti-union strikebreakers threw newspapers at him and his mother. His father had gone on strike from his newspaper job, and was fired as retaliation, Nelson said.
Since then, the fight for a safe and fair workplace has become a very personal one for Nelson, a senior who now helps lead a growing group of students that have found momentum behind progressive causes this year.
“My political beliefs come from very personal experiences, and when I talk to people about what radicalism is, it’s being able to grab things by the root,” Nelson said.
Nelson and about 40 other GW students belong to the three-decade-old Progressive Student Union to fight for workplace and financial security for their peers. They are pushing their progressive cause – shaped by members who range from liberal to anarchist – amid weakening national favor for unions but strengthening political support for higher minimum wages.
They’ve taken their protests against high student debt, low minimum wages and firings of union workers to GW’s campus, the D.C. government and local corporations over the past year. The number of active members has doubled over the last three years, Nelson said.
“Our success is because we’re action-driven. We’re not trying to change people’s minds and it’s not about career planning,” said senior Alyson Cina, a 33-year-old undergraduate transfer student who said she sympathizes with anarchist causes.
Instead, Cina says, the group focuses on accomplishing “measurable, concrete change.”
Last fall, the organization petitioned D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray to pass what pundits dubbed the “living wage” bill – legislation that was passed by the D.C. Council but vetoed by the mayor.
The organization rallied 200 people against student loan servicer Sallie Mae in front of the Department of Education last spring. The advocacy landed Nelson a spot behind President Barack Obama during a student loan speech at the White House.
The group also raised awareness for the firing of longtime J Street worker Rochelle Kelly, who allegedly was fired for missing work to take care of her ill husband. The organization led a campaign to re-hire Kelly and hand-delivered a petition with over 400 signatures to J Street’s general manager.
“One of our main phrases is ‘agitation,'” Nelson said. “We want people to be a little uncomfortable saying ‘Raise High!’ on campus, because who is the University? Is it the administration or the students?”
Michela Masson, a member who also heads the Feminist Student Union, credits the growth of the campus progressive group to its nontraditional structure. It shuns the typical hierarchy of a student organization by not electing a president or vice president, which members say creates a spirit of community.
“A lot of it is word of mouth, so people just invite their friends to meetings and rallies. It gets more people involved,” said Masson, who’s been involved in both groups since her freshman year.
Ariella Neckritz, whose “‘60s hippie, war-activist father” took her to political rallies from a young age, became interested in joining the the progressive orgnanization after hearing her friends, some of whom are employed in the local restaurant industry, describe their low pay.
The group has also taken on a significant campus issue: student debt. Nationally, student loan debts have surpassed to a staggering $1 trillion, rising an average of 6 percent between 2008 and 2012.
Still, Nelson said the University’s reputation as a wealthy student’s school makes it difficult to rally outrage against GW’s average student debt of about $33,000.
“There are a lot of really wealthy students that go to GW, but there are also a lot of students here with huge amounts of debt. The problem is the course of the dialogue where people think that just because only 40 percent of students have loan debt it’s a nonissue,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to shift the perspective that education is a business rather than a public good.”