The Student Solidarity Union (SSU), a political club at Willamette, is an “organization on campus that is a place for socialists to organize together for our collective betterment of the school, the city and the world,” according to Vice Chair and Counselor Zander Huston (‘25). On their [website] SSU also represents themselves as an organization that “seek[s] democratic control of institutions, including our University” and aims to “contribute to the international revolution that will overthrow the old order and pursue justice, peace, and liberation in its ruins.”
SSU is a newer club on campus, created during the 2020-21 school year. Chair Forrest Derr (‘24), a founding member, said that it was started because a group of students on campus did not see any other clubs that were oriented towards very left-wing politics and fulfilled the “goal of liberation through direct action, education and similar projects.” They added, “More specifically, I think we kind of occupy a more specific niche of student labor rights, so there was that just missing on campus.” The SSU website affirms this idea, stating that the union will always “endeavor to defend student labor, student interests, student liberation, and student rights.”
The club has a few core values, including democracy, anti-oppression, socialism, equity and community. Huston expanded upon these beliefs, stating that, “Under capitalism, there are certain power dynamics and injustices that are essential to the system, and we believe we need to build towards an alternative—something that’s better, that can meet people’s needs instead of exploitation and injustice. We see that as part of a broader struggle against oppression in general.”
SSU, which has 12 official members, operates under a formal constitutional structure that was passed last semester. In order to join the assembly—the general body—one must apply to be a member and meet certain requirements. According to a follow up email from Huston, “Members cannot be cops, prison guards, active military members, bosses, managers, or fascists. However, SSU membership may vote to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. Members must also be current Willamette University students.” These prohibitions are laid out in the club’s [constitution]. Leadership roles within the union include the chair, who is responsible for conducting meetings and general leadership; the secretariat, a smaller group of students who make decisions representing the assembly; and the counsel, which serves as somewhat of a judicial body that resolves internal disputes and interprets the constitution.
However, Huston made sure to emphasize that the union’s power belongs to the general members and is not held by the leadership: “The assembly has ultimate control over every union decision.” Upon attending a meeting this is evident—due to the smaller membership size, everyone has the opportunity to speak and give their opinions, which are taken into consideration before voting.
In general, SSU’s meetings are structured interestingly—the union holds a general organizing meeting every Tuesday, where members meet in a circular format that allows them to have productive discussions, give feedback and make decisions, as well as lends a feeling of community to the group. There are also formal assembly meetings at least once a semester which are focused on voting and passing restrictions, in contrast to the weekly meetings that focus on smaller projects. The assemblies are open to everyone, but the power to vote is limited to committee members. Huston, in a follow up email, indicated, “There is a distinction between the Student Solidarity Union and ASWU-affiliated Student Solidarity Union. These two entities operate parallel to each other and have different leadership and constitutions. So, Assembly meetings fall under the SSU and organizing meetings fall under the ASWU-affiliated SSU,” though the two are tied to one another. He added that the ASWU-affiliated organization deals with funding, but is not governed by the aforementioned constitution and does not have the same leadership body.
This semester, SSU has been working on the [Student Labor Initiative] (SLI), which is an ongoing effort to pay all ASWU-funded employees a minimum wage of $15 an hour adjusted for the cost of living, tied to the student fee, as well as force ASWU to immediately recognize any labor unions students form. The club has received the required 10% of the student body’s signatures on a petition to have the SLI be voted upon by ASWU, but they say it is currently stalled by administration.
At the time of the interview SSU had an upcoming meeting with Associate Dean of Students Lisa Holliday to discuss further action. Holliday has said that the SLI could not move forward to referendum because ASWU does not have jurisdiction over student wages and employee status. This meeting resulted in an impasse, and in an email update, Huston explained that SSU will be pursuing a “[Fifteen dollar] minimum wage adjusted for cost-of-living changes annually, card-check union recognition [and] employee status or equivalent protections extended to all workers,” rather than those paid solely by ASWU funding. They plan to continue to communicate with administration, as well as organize and recruit students, though Huston indicated in his email update that, “As practical conditions change, so will the SSU.”
In addition to the SLI, other projects taken on by SSU have included a book club reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, writing letters to political prisoners and supporting Salem grassroots social justice organization Latinos Unidos Siempre. Individual students have also used the club as a space to “support trans rights on campus, call attention to the misconduct by the College Republicans, organize support for homeless people in response to a sweep conducted by Oregon Department of Transportation and the city of Salem and…build a community garden,” according to Huston.
When asked about collaborating with other groups, both Derr and Huston confirmed SSU would be interested in working with organizations that have similar goals, both on and off of campus. Derr specifically mentioned an interest in the Climate Action Alliance and the Restorative Justice Coalition, citing the union’s stances in favor of climate justice and against prison and policing.
However, collaborating with any political club has not been discussed within SSU. Huston explained that, “The Student Solidarity Union is very intentionally anti-sectarian and we believe that if you have common goals then you can work with people who share those common goals.” Derr stated in a separate interview that neither the College Democrats nor the College Republicans have reached out, and added that SSU’s emphasis is not being a political club, though “[they] give that impression.” Derr did comment, however, that some sort of collaboration would be “nice, in line with building community.”
This more hesitant approach to collaboration with the political clubs may be due to SSU’s stance against the two party system. Derr called the current American political system “detrimental,” stating that “Both of the parties have obviously different platforms but largely serve the interest of the capital, propagate capitalism, and I think because of that there’s not a lot you can do, at least at the federal level, in either of those parties because of that.”
When asked about what an effective change may then look like, especially at Willamette, both members outlined a difference in student interaction with administration. Huston said, “Effective change does not look like the administration giving concessions to students, it looks like students actually building power, having long-lasting change at the university level…what real change looks like is people having the long-term ability to influence their own lives both in the realm of education, but also work and all other aspects of their lives.”
Huston also encouraged students who are interested in making this change to come to SSU meetings on Tuesdays at 6pm in Ford 204, adding that you do not need to be a “dyed-in-the-wool socialist” to attend and that all members want to work with you: “We’re here to help students, we’re here to help workers and we’d love to see your face at meetings.”
SSU Treasurer Ainsley Moench (‘24) declined to be interviewed for this article.