One, two, three, four. We don't want your dirty ... job?
Call it the business-suit version of student protest - a tactic that capitalizes on today's tight labor market to try to change corporate policy.
For an earnest band of students across the United States, staging sit-ins or withholding dollars during consumer boycotts are yesterday's news. They are opting, instead, to withhold themselves as potential employees from corporations whose practices they criticize.
A national jobs boycott is a novel approach at a time when student activism tends to revolve around local issues such as multiculturalism on campus or the cost of tuition. But this effort, which focuses on corporations' environmental records, holds the potential to spread outward from college campuses, much as the anti-apartheid movement did in the 1970s and '80s, observers say.
"A lot of students want to make socially responsible job choices, and they just don't totally know how to do that," says Antha Williams, a Boston organizer of the Dirty Jobs Boycott, which officially kicks off this weekend at ECOnference 2000, a national student environmental conference in Philadelphia.
The campaign intends to help environmentally conscious college graduates do just that. The boycott will target as many as 12 corporations, each in a different industry, and it will urge students to pledge not to interview for jobs at those firms until the offending practices are changed.
Coca-Cola Co., for instance, might be asked to use more recycled plastic for its containers. The demands will echo those of other national environmental groups, "so the student activism will be another level of pressure," says Ms. Williams.
Skeptics, however, say most students are not likely to put jobs on the line for an environmental cause. The boycott "may turn off some people from interviewing, but overall ... companies have so many options to find people," says Philip Gardner, director of research at the Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute.
But he sees a possibility for isolated success. "Some major employers only go to a handful of campuses [for recruiting], and if the coalitions on those campuses are effective, they could hurt somebody."
Organizers hope they can mobilize enough people to change, inconvenience, or even embarrass their targets - and they believe the tight labor market is working in their favor. Moreover, the boycott is expected to target firms that rely heavily on campus recruiting.
Because many colleges have been slow to develop environmental programs, "it's really been incumbent upon students themselves to ... organize around environmental issues," says Daniel Faber, an environmental sociologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
Students are increasingly putting pressure directly on the private sector. "There's a growing frustration with the unwillingness or inability of the state to go after polluters, the long time frame that's involved, the legalistic approaches," Professor Faber says.
Student protests have been on the rise in the 1990s, says Arthur Levine, author of a number of studies on student attitudes and president of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.
The largely peaceful methods - from press conferences to litigation - may be less flashy than the '60s-era street demonstrations, but they also can be more effective, he says.
As more international students and American minorities have a presence in higher education, they tend to bring an agenda that links environmental and social-justice issues.
Recent movements against environmental harms and humanitarian issues, such as sweatshop labor, take their inspiration partly from the successful anti-apartheid movement, Faber says.
"They politicized their own universities for investing their own funds in South Africa and supporting apartheid. From there they branched out to look at local corporations and then larger corporations," he says.
Another trend the jobs boycott taps into is college students' desire to find employment that matches their values. The Graduation Pledge Alliance, for instance, is a growing movement in which students agree to "explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider or any organization for which I work."
More than 50 campuses are expected to be involved in the pledge by graduation 2000, says national coordinator Neil Wollman, a psychology professor at Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind.
By spelling out how certain companies are thought to harm the environment, the Dirty Jobs Boycott will fill a gap in the information available at career resource centers, says Brian Korb, regional coordinator of the boycott and a senior at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Companies that change the spotlighted policy can be removed from the list, and replaced with another "offender." With this kind of protest, "you can get a very tangible victory in the short term, which is very important for student movements," says Faber.
Although Boston organizers say it might take some time to get off the ground, they believe - with 20 colleges in their coalition - the campaign can make a difference.
They are encouraged by students' positive response to the idea. "They have been able to reach a lot of students who aren't the 'enviros' on campus," says Williams. "It's not a bunch of students who are going to go work for nonprofit saying, 'Yeah, we're not going to work for that corporation.' It really has been ... well received by students who get recruited by these [types of] companies."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society