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The Massachusetts DSA Labor Outlet
Updated: 9 hours 12 min ago

Boston Labor Conference Measures Pandemic Impact, Labor Revival

Fri, 2022-04-01 07:01

Boston Labor Conference Gathers In Shadow of Pandemic

DORCHESTER ⁠— On March 26, labor academics, journalists, and scholars joined with union members and leaders for the annual Boston Labor Conference. The conference presentations marked a crossroads for the labor movement, as scholars and practitioners alike drew lessons from the most recent period of struggle, marked threats and opportunities for the next period.

The pandemic overlaid the conference, as participants observed what for many was their first large gathering since society shut down more than two years ago.

A mixed panel of epidemiologists and economists marked the suffering of the working class over the last two years. Of course, we all know the story: the pandemic decimated all parts of society, but workers, people of color, immigrants, and those with disabilities were hardest hit. Still, it is crucial that we take an account of the challenges and traumas of the last year, as well as the victories, and draw lessons for our future fights.

Measuring A Labor Revival

Many of the day’s breakouts investigated the significant progress being made to rebuild the labor movement. Last fall’s “Striketober” wave saw IATSE film workers, John Deere factory workers, and many other workers move into class struggle. Alex Press of Jacobin cautioned against an unrealistic reading of Striketober; but highlighted that there is still much cause for optimism.

Some of the breakout discussions of the day focused on the healthcare, education, and hospitality sectors; comparing the discussions highlighted how the various sections of our movement are at different stages in revival. 

Healthcare workers faced some of the most dangerous and stressful working conditions during the pandemic. Still, as in the St. Vincent nurses strike, healthcare unions move from strength to strength even in the illusive private sector, as the continued growth of the industry empowers offensive fights.

In the education sector, the militancy of a handful of teachers unions has continued to spread. The conference heard how academics, K-12 teachers, and graduate student workers are building off of the Red For Ed movement, continuing to draw on a “bargaining for the common good” framework, and taking the fight to neoliberalism in the education sector.

Hospitality workers were also some of the hardest hit during the pandemic, both through mass layoffs as well as the dangers of working on the front lines without adequate protections. Workers are ready to fight, especially in hospitality strongholds like universities, hotels, and the public sector; however, the majority of hospitality workers remain unorganized, and issues around immigration status and precarity remain obstacles to organizing. The pandemic saw mainly defensive fights, often for justice for laid-off workers, but the recent Starbucks drive points towards the potential of winning unionization outside of traditional strongholds.

In all three sectors, COVID-19 posed serious challenges both to workers and their unions. But as the pandemic sharpened class struggles, workers in the sectors were largely prepared to meet the moment with newfound militancy.

Two other factors in this revival also received attention at the conference: spontaneous organizing and socialism. There was much discussion on self-activating workers, from those forming cooperatives, to the Starbucks organizing wave, to app workers and street vendors pioneering new ways to organize in New York City.

Connor Harney presents on his paper Rediscovering Class: Emergency Workplace Organizing and Pandemic Labor Activism. Henry De Groot/Working Mass

Connor Harney’s presentation on the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee did a fantastic job highlighting how many, but not all, of this new-found militancy among non-unionized workers is being sown, fostered, and concentrated by socialists, including DSA members.

Crossroads For Labor

Looking beyond the pandemic, the labor movement is clearly entering a new stage. On the one hand, there are many positives to highlight.

The multi-decade assault on labor density appears to have largely stabilized, if only because we can hardly shrink any smaller than we stand today. Since the strike wave in education, militant organizing by existing unions has continued to capture national attention and demonstrates the will-to-fight among the American rank and file. And this past year, a confluence of the Great Resignation, a favorable labor market, and newfound militancy led to an increased movement in the heretofore harsh private sector. We aren’t just on the threshold of a labor revival; we have taken several steps forward in just a few years. Many do not even remember the times when strikes were all but an empty threat.

But if the Reagan era anti-union drive is beginning to run out of momentum, another villain casts its shadow from the wing.

What job can’t be put on an app?

Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman

This year in Massachusetts, Uber, Lyft, and other Big Tech titans are spending upward of $100 million on a referendum to exempt themselves from labor regulations by misclassifying their app-based workers. In a characteristically fiery speech, Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman highlighted the threat of misclassification; he rightly argued that the fight is not just about drivers but the future of the labor movement. Pointing out that Big Tech has now set its sights on grocery delivery, room service, and healthcare workers, Tolman posed the question: “What job can’t be put on an app?”

Steve Tolman opens the conference. Henry De Groot/Working Mass

As Massachusetts stares down a Prop 22 clone, the labor movement stares down the threat of losing NLRB protections through misclassification. A handful of new ballot measures or legislative tweaks ⁠— combined with a Democratic Party too weak to block them ⁠— have the potential to throw millions of unionized workers outside of the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). And you cannot win NLRB elections if you are carved out of the NLRA.

Ultimately, misclassification has the potential to eliminate the “labor peace” enshrined by the NLRA. While I cannot disagree with those who argue that the National Labor Relations Board has softened the fighting spirit of the unions and accommodated them to capitalism, it will be a lot less painful to regain our fighting spirit within the NLRB than without.

This year’s Boston Labor Conference has done as much as any organization in highlighting the pressing questions facing the labor movement, drawing lessons from recent struggles, and pointing the way forward. The UMass network of labor programs is an asset to the Commonwealth and its labor movement, and we hope to continue building relationships between academics, unionists, and socialists.

Henry De Groot is a Working Mass editor, Boston DSA member, and Executive Director of Massachusetts Drivers United.

Featured image: Unionists from Massachusetts and beyond gather at the Carpenter’s Training Center in Dorchester. Henry De Groot/Working Mass

Opinion: Bhaskar is Wrong – The Left is Not In Purgatory

Mon, 2022-03-28 10:17

By Henry De Groot

Responding to Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara, who writes in a February editorial that the socialist movement is stuck in purgatory, Henry De Groot contends that the last 10 years have been marked by incredible progress and that the socialist movement continues to take steps forward, even if we have work to do. This is the first part of a series, the second installment of which will explore the obstacles holding back our movement and what it will take to turn sympathy into socialism.

Massachusetts Memories

The latest issue of Jacobin sits on my desk to the left of my laptop as I finish writing this piece. On its cover, Ilhan Omar, AOC, and Bernie sit in a waiting room. In front of them on a coffee table lies a neatly fanned line of Jacobin magazines; behind the trio hangs a poster of a weatherman showing endless cloudy days, with the lines “The Left In Purgatory.”

My own copy doesn’t sit neatly. Instead, it is perched atop a pile of organizing notes. Crying out for attention from beneath it are the contact numbers of app workers, Working Mass assignments, a subpoena from Uber, and the number for a lawyer I need to call.

And on my screen, I see the graphic Cory made for this piece. The collage calls to mind memories of meeting Bernie on Boston Common, walking the St. Vincent picket line, interviewing Starbucks organizers, and fighting on the streets of East Boston and Somerville and Dorchester for socialist candidates or worker rights or both. You might have been there with me. IYKYK.

Purgatory, So They Say

In the latest issue of Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara laments that the American left is stuck in purgatory, drawing from Inferno to eloquently pepper his contribution with Dante quotations.

Bhaskar writes that “There is no doubt that we’re at the end of a period of rapid politicization and settling into one of either gradual decline or slow advance.”

He continues, writing that “there is something dangerous about being large enough to be a political presence in parts of the country — and a subculture for thousands of activists — but far too disorganized and powerless to carry out your political program.”

As ever in Jacobin, not far behind is a second lament about the hopeless inability of middle-class radicals to connect with our long-prophesied working-class base. But instead of laying a concrete path from the socialist movement to the working class, we are fed over-intellectualized self-pity.

Perspective, Not Purgatory

I’ve never read Dante, but I have read Marx. And just as important, I’ve been paying more attention to the movements of the working class and radical youth over the past decade than the whinings of the leftist intelligentsia.

Instead of laments of purgatory, what we need is some perspective on the last 10 years of our movement. Here’s a quick review:

When Occupy Wall Street captured the world’s attention more than a decade ago, pointing out economic inequality was considered radical. Now we hear about inequality every day.

When I first started trying to talk to students on my campus about socialism in 2014, I found some success. But I also received many cold shoulders, bewildered looks, and once I was literally spit on. Now the majority of our youth hold a critical view of capitalism and are rapidly moving to the left.

For the better part of a century, hardly a single socialist had been elected to public office in the United States. In 2016 and again in 2020, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns electrified millions of Americans, and over 1 million signed up to volunteer on his campaign

Just in Massachusetts, the DSA has made gains on the electoral and labor fronts. This past cycle, Boston DSA ran a slate of 12 socialists across four cities. We elected 7 and won a historic victory in electing the first socialist to the Boston City Council in who knows how long.

From McCarthyism up to the late 1990s, American labor unions played the role of reliable lackeys to American capitalism, while new organizing was all but ignored. Now the Starbucks workers movement is spreading like prairie fire, and two of the largest unions in the state — the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts — are led by DSA members.

Apparently for Sunkara, these steps forward are mere “cultural radicalism” which we should not equate with “real advance.” Dripping with pessimism, he concludes his piece by writing that “as one year of marginality drifts into another, it is increasingly hard to argue that the fault for the Left’s predicaments lies with everyone but ourselves.” He does not elaborate on his pessimism, for apparently his prowess and profile have grown so large that he need not substantiate his pronouncements.

It’s true, we do not yet live in a worker’s republic. Socialist electeds are still a minority, many of those who identify as socialists are merely social democrats — or worse, opportunists — and the string of exciting wins for the labor movement are far short of a fully realized revival for unions. Membership participation within the DSA is far too low and our membership lacks sufficient diversity or working class representation. On the electoral front, we don’t win every seat we contest. And socialists within the labor movement are poorly coordinated.

All told, there is a serious mismatch between our organizational capacity and sympathy for the socialist movement among wide layers of the working class and radicalizing youth. We have work to do. But when we remember where our movement was just a decade ago, or at the start of Bernie’s 2016 campaign, what we see is incredible growth, not purgatory; we see potential, not pessimism.

Henry De Groot is a Working Mass editor, Boston DSA member, and Executive Director of Massachusetts Drivers United.

Graphic by Cory B.

Clark Grad Workers Win Worcester’s Newest Union

Wed, 2022-03-23 17:50

WORCESTER — Graduate student workers at Clark University have voted 100 to 7 to join the Teamsters in a union election.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) counted the vote late Wednesday afternoon following a two-day election on campus. With a bargaining unit of 144 workers, three-quarters of those eligible to vote cast ballots, and 97% voted for a union.

The organizing committee, which was out celebrating its big win, understandably could not be reached for comment at press time.

Clark graduate students announced they were organizing with Teamsters Local 170 on February 9, citing issues like poor pay and benefits and the lack of a say in their workplace. They have spent the past several months organizing master’s and PhD students across departments who are employed to teach and conduct research for Clark.

While the university administration did not voluntarily recognize the union, they ultimately chose not to publicly oppose it, possibly due to the risk of reputational damage and the high level of union support demonstrated by Wednesday’s election results.

In the wake of a 2016 NLRB decision that extended union rights to student workers at private universities, there has been a surge of organizing on campuses across the country. Although slowed by the election of Donald Trump and the accompanying changes in the composition of the NLRB, unionization efforts have since picked back up, with graduate student workers at MIT scheduled to vote in an NLRB election at the beginning of next month.

For Clark University Graduate Workers United, officially CUGWU-Teamsters, their next task is engaging members to collectively bargain for a strong first contract.

Cory Bisbee is the treasurer of Worcester DSA, an editor at Working Mass, and a member of National DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.

Featured image credit: Alex Kawa/CUGWU-Teamsters

Unions Picket Anti-Worker Boston Marriott Copley Place

Mon, 2022-03-14 08:39

For over a month, union members have been picketing outside the Boston Marriott Copley Place. The city’s second largest hotel hired a Florida-based contractor, CRS, which is paying out-of-state, non-union workers to renovate rooms at substandard wages. On Thursday, Working Mass was outside on Huntington Ave to learn more from three members of IUPAT DC 35 about how the hotel is undercutting all Boston workers.

“I was a glazier for 42 years,” said Bryan O’Sullivan, a retired organizer and past president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35 (IUPAT DC 35). “I’ve done a lot of work in buildings in the area, and now I’m out here paying it forward for the current members so that they’ll be able to retire when their time comes.”

“For DC 35 — painters, wallcoverers, drywall finishers, and glaziers — our bread and butter is hotel work. Every 10 years this Marriott redoes their rooms, and we’ve been out here for well over a month now because they are not meeting community standards of wages and benefits.” Instead, he said, “They’re taking advantage of cheap, non-union labor from out of state.”

Bryan O’Sullivan (right), past president of IUPAT DC 35, outside the Boston Marriott Copley Place. IUPAT DC 35

“Workers in the hotel industry have been under attack for years. And it’s not just us Painters who are affected by fights like this; It’s the Laborers, the Carpenters, the building trades in general,” O’Sullivan said.

The Marriott Copley Place has a history of trying to push down wages and working conditions in Boston.

In 2012, the Marriott Copley Place hired Baystate Services for renovations after the Woburn-based general contractor underbid union competitors by half. A state investigation later found that 15 construction companies involved in the project misclassified workers as independent contractors, dodged taxes and benefits payments, and worked some employees 12 hours a day, six days a week, at $4 an hour. State law ultimately protected the hotel owners and these contractors from being charged for breaking tax and labor laws.

In 2020, the Marriott Copley Place also permanently laid off half its workforce, many with decades of seniority. Over 230 of its hotel workers were told to reapply as new employees after the pandemic and were issued significantly reduced severance pay. Although it does not represent them, UNITE HERE Local 26 is supporting the Marriott Copley Place hotel workers and their call for a boycott until they are reinstated.

Union members rallied outside the hotel on March 4. IUPAT DC 35

Noting the attacks on these workers and those at other anti-worker hotels, O’Sullivan connected the current struggle over renovations to broader worker struggles and expressed gratitude for the hotel and aviation workers who have joined the picket line.

Hundreds of union workers rallied outside the hotel entrance on the morning of March 4 to stand up for good jobs in Boston. Members of IUPAT, the Carpenters, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, and other members of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council were joined by UNITE HERE Local 26, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and their president Sara Nelson, and Mayor Michelle Wu.

Writing that “a significant portion of your business — as much as 30 percent — is currently filled by crew layover stays,” AFA-CWA was among seven aviation unions that issued a letter on March 1 declaring their combined 180,000 members will take their business elsewhere: “We are mobilizing at all levels of our unions and engaging with airline management to move our business to other hotels until you have resolved this dispute to the satisfaction of our allied unions. We will not be using your hotel while you undermine the working people of Boston. We do not cross picket lines.”

School trips and academic gatherings also make up a meaningful part of the hotel’s business. On Friday, as first reported by Working Mass, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which represents 23,000 educators, emailed leaders of AFT locals in the state calling the hotel’s actions “unacceptable” and urging them to inform their members of the issue. President Beth Kontos, who is also a DSA member, highlighted that the union does not cross picket lines and wrote, “Please do not patronize the hotel nor book your future events at the Boston Marriott Copley Place until this labor dispute is satisfactorily resolved.” AFT Massachusetts includes the 10,000-member Boston Teachers Union.

“We’re happy to get that support from workers in other industries,” O’Sullivan said. And turning to the need for strong unions, which raise wages for union and non-union workers alike, he added that, “For us, we all live here, and Boston is an expensive place to live. People know that once you let one hotel or one employer get away with this, others will soon follow.”

AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos (right) supported laid off Marriott Copley Place hotel workers at the Labor Day rally in 2021 and recently told Working Mass that “We always honor picket lines.” AFT Massachusetts

Daniel McHugh is an apprentice glazier who recently finished the first year of a three-year apprenticeship. Pointing to some examples of glasswork in the buildings around us, he described how glaziers install and replace all kinds of glass used in construction. As an apprentice, McHugh works most of the year, gaining on-the-job training, interspersed by four stints of school-based training that each go for a week.

“I was a window cleaner for 20 years — 10 years non-union and then with SEIU — and I wanted to learn something new,” he said. “I’m also getting older, and I have to think about retirement. I had some friends that were in the glaziers’ union, and the health insurance, pension, annuity, and other benefits — everything is better.”

“But I just got laid off because the work is slow. I can call the union hall, but right now I might as well come out and stand with my brothers and sisters,” McHugh said, explaining how this fight ties into his own livelihood and that of other members who need these jobs and are ready to work.

“This Marriott project is commercial so they’re taking away commercial jobs from Boston,” said Anthony Thompson, a Boston resident and painter since 1985 who does a lot of commercial painting. “I take it very seriously, and we’re out here to fix the problem.”

“I’m proud of our union,” he said. “Our union is strong, and we’re going to keep fighting.”

For anyone who would like to join them on the picket line, union members are on Huntington Ave outside the Boston Marriott Copley Place everyday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Cory B is the treasurer of Worcester DSA, an editor at Working Mass, and a member of National DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.

Featured image: Anthony Thompson (right) and Daniel McHugh (second from right) outside the Boston Marriott Copley Place. Cory B/Working Mass

Uyterhoeven Only Candidate To Advance To Boston DSA Endorsement Vote

Wed, 2022-03-09 14:42
Credit: Audrey Odom-Mabey https://unsplash.com/@octoberroses

By Henry De Groot

On Wednesday morning, the Boston DSA Electoral Working Group (EWG) announced the results of its candidate review. The EWG screens candidates and recommends them to the chapter to finalize an endorsement.

A candidate forum will be held on Thursday, March 17 at 6:00 p.m., and the endorsement vote will take place at the March 20th Boston DSA General Meeting.

A threshold of 60 percent was required to advance, the same threshold used for chapter endorsements. Of four candidates, only incumbent state Representative Erika Uyterhoeven was advanced, with 93 percent support. So far, Uyterhoeven is not facing an opponent. 

Additional candidates may apply for endorsement, but those who were not advanced may not reapply. Even if candidates do not receive an endorsement, the chapter may recommend that Boston DSA members vote for them in the chapter voter guide. 

Overall, debates highlighted EWG comrades’ continued push to evolve the chapter’s endorsement process. The working group’s intention is to make endorsements meaningful by committing to mobilize volunteers and to publicly canvass as DSA members. 

Nichole Mossalam, who is running for state representative in the 35th Middlesex district, which covers Malden and Medford, narrowly missed the threshold to advance as working group members were divided on her candidacy. In discussion, some expressed concern for endorsing Mossalam based on the chapter’s capacity, given the chapter-wide electoral priority of defeating the statewide app worker ballot question and the chapter’s endorsement of the Fair Share Amendment. 

Roberto Jimenez-Rivera also did not advance. He is seeking the newly created 11th Suffolk state representative seat which includes parts of Chelsea and Everett. He is not a DSA member.

Brandon Griffin is running for state representative in the 7th Plymouth district. He is a DSA member and also active in the Workers Party of Massachusetts. He also did not advance.

Henry De Groot is an editor of Working Mass and a Boston DSA member.

MNA nurses of St. Vincent Hospital vote to keep MNA union

Wed, 2022-03-02 12:19

By Ri Banks and Jacquelyn

On Monday February 28th, St. Vincent nurses voted overwhelmingly to keep their union and representation with Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The 10-month St. Vincent nurses strike — the longest of its kind in Massachusetts history — came to an end in early January with a stunning victory for the workers. Raises, improved safety regulations, and a promise to address both staffing shortages and nurse-to-patient ratios were all part of the new contract. But at the same time St. Vincent’s nurses were celebrating their victory, Tenant Healthcare and National Right to Work Foundation were filing a petition to force a decertification vote on the Massachusetts Nurses Association as retaliation.

There has been a full-court press to break the MNA affiliation with St. Vincent, as seen by recent billboards, accusations of scab bullying of the now-returned strikers, and scabs supposedly attempting to organize with other unions. Saint Vincent’s CEO Carolyn Jackson had given ‘her word’ that a union would be welcomed at the hospital, and that the source of the vitriol stems only specifically from the MNA union presence. 

As reported by MassLive, C. Richard Avola, a nurse who was hired to replace the striking nurses, tried to remove the MNA and affiliate the working nurses with a new union — the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Viola stated that he had AFSCME’s “verbal support” and that he needed 256 signatures, the required 30% of the hospital’s replacement nurses, to trigger a vote to remove the MNA. However, AFSCME’s Communication Director, Jim Durkin disputed this and stated that “AFSCME does not organize at workplaces where a union already exists. We believe in bringing the benefits of union membership to non-union members and their families. We most certainly would never entertain organizing workers who cross the picket line.” 

Although the Massachusetts Nurses Association had numbers in their favor, MNA remained cautious but confident that this wasn’t a decided and dead race due to this onslaught of corporate attacks. If decertification was successful the MNA says “…the decertification would have stripped the nurses of their union rights and any right to enforce their recently ratified contract that provides the nurses with hard-fought and long-sought improvements in staffing/patient care conditions, as well as significant wage and benefit enhancements.”

To trigger a vote to decide if the existing MNA union should be decertified required only one-third of the staff – a threshold that was met. Ballots were initially sent out on February 4 with an order to have them turned in by February 25. On February 28th, the nurses of St. Vincent voted in favor of keeping their union 302-133, jettisoning Tenet’s attempt to punish them for their successful strike.

Upon this week’s victory, the Massachusetts Nurses Association wrote that “The honor and integrity of our union is strong, as the St. Vincent nurses have reaffirmed our right to maintain a powerful voice in our advocacy for our patients and our work life. We now look forward to working with all our colleagues to truly begin the healing process and to build a positive future for St. Vincent Hospital,” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, a longtime nurse at SVH and co-chair of the nurse’s local bargaining unit with the MNA. “We are proud of our union and the great contract we have built over the last 22 years, a contract that provides our nurses with a strong voice to ensure optimum patient care, and which protects and rewards all nurses at the hospital for the contributions they make to the success of, this, our community hospital.” 

Ri Banks is a member of Worcester DSA. Jacquelyn is a member of Cape Cod DSA.

Clark Grad Workers Rally for Recognition

Sat, 2022-02-19 10:43

WORCESTER — Members of Clark University Graduate Workers United (CUGWU-Teamsters) braved the wind and cold to gather with supporters on campus Wednesday.

With Jonas Clark Hall as their backdrop, the graduate student workers rallied outside the main gate at 2:30 p.m. and urged the administration to voluntarily recognize their union.

“We’re forming a union because we want Clark to live up to its values,” said Patrick Geiger, a member of the organizing committee. “We make the university function.”

When asked why they want a union, Gia Davis, another organizing committee member who is a PhD worker in psychology, echoed Geiger’s sentiments and talked about the precarity grad workers face.

“I’m in my fourth year, and I have seen that there are really good people working here, and they deserve a life of dignity,” Davis said. “This university relies on us, and we should be able to live.”

“I love Clark, I love my community here, and I want to be able to do well,” they added. “But sometimes it feels like we’re hanging off the edge in terms of our well-being and security, and something needs to change.”

Davis sees a union as the means to make that change and wants the administration to voluntarily recognize CUGWU.

“I know that they can do this and set an example for other institutions by not union busting. Clark’s motto is ‘Challenge Convention. Change Our World’” they said. “The university can live those words by recognizing us.”

With a crowd of over 60 people in attendance, the grad workers were joined by members of the Teamsters, faculty, and other supporters.

“All workers, including all student workers, need a democratic say in the workplace,” said Cameron Keenan, an undergraduate and a member of Worcester DSA. “Organizing is how you make that a reality.”

CUGWU has been organizing with Worcester-based Teamsters Local 170, and the local brought out their truck, Big Blue, joined by a truck from Teamsters Joint Council 10.

As passing WRTA and school bus drivers honked in support, one rank-and-file member of Teamsters Local 25 explained that he came out because “Solidarity is the magic word.”

Grad workers, supporters, and Teamsters — including Matt Landry at right — listen to a speaker at Wednesday’s rally. Cory B/Working Mass A truck from Teamsters Joint Council 10 sits across the street from the geography building and Clark President David Fithian’s second-floor office. Cory B/Working Mass

Matt Landry, a union steward for UPS workers who has been with Local 170 for some time, also said he was glad to be there to support the grad workers.

“I’m here for the fight, brother,” he said. “Everyone deserves good pay and good benefits, and now is the time to get them.”

Geiger indicated that now is also the time for Clark to make a decision on whether they will voluntarily recognize CUGWU-Teamsters.

“It’s still a pandemic, and it’s a cold day out,” Geiger said. “But today we showed strong determination, we brought out people from all parts of our community, and we let the administration know loud and clear that if this goes to a union election, we’re going to win and win with as big a number as possible.”

Cory B is the treasurer of Worcester DSA, an editor at Working Mass, and a member of National DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.

Featured image credit: Cory B/Working Mass

Why Clark Grad Workers Decided to Unionize

Mon, 2022-02-14 11:01

Graduate student workers at Clark University in Worcester are organizing a union. On Friday, Cory B, who was a peer learning assistant and student worker while an undergraduate at Clark, spoke to two members of the CUGWU-Teamsters organizing committee. William Westgard-Cruice and Patrick Geiger discuss what drove the decision to organize their workplace, the university’s “mental gymnastics,” and how grad workers fit into the labor movement. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WM – Could you tell me about your job and the work you do as a grad student worker?

WILLIAM – Formally my job is as a teaching assistant. This semester I’m a TA for an earth system science introductory course. Last semester it was for an advanced environmental politics course.

For context, in the geography department here at Clark, geographers, especially human geographers, are often moving between human and physical geography, and teaching different kinds of classes — be it on GIS, urban geography, or physical geography, like earth system science.

Sometimes we serve as research assistants as well, and I’ve done that in the past too.

WM – And are those the two positions that really make up the bargaining unit — graduate teaching assistants and graduate research assistants?

WILLIAM – For the most part, yes, although there are some exceptions. There are more senior graduate students who are in their sixth year or so of their PhD who’ve come back from field work and are writing their dissertation. Several of them are working as instructors, usually for introductory courses. There are also some people who have slightly different arrangements with their department. Their responsibilities often transcend being only a teaching assistant. For example, they may also have to write for department publications.

WM – How has your work been affected by the pandemic?

WILLIAM – Personally, I was relatively lucky during the 2020-21 academic year in so far as I was able to work remotely as a teaching assistant for one semester and as a research assistant for another semester. However, a lot of people didn’t have that choice. They could express a preference, but if they were told they needed to be here, then they needed to be here. This was especially true for international students, who were often not able to be paid without being in the country because of federal law.

But now this year, I’m a TA for a class with 75 students. For Clark, that’s relatively large, and we were in a classroom with a capacity of a bit over 100 so there’s basically zero social distancing. Thankfully, I have not gotten COVID, but many of us have been quite concerned about the university administration being a bit too lax around these issues of workplace health and safety and feel that this was expressed in the fairly high COVID numbers at the beginning of the semester.

For us as workers, the issues are a few. If we get COVID, what’s going to happen to us with sick leave and in making up the work that we need to do? And also, as members of the working class, part of what is concerning to us is the situation in hospitals across the country and across the state. If nurses, doctors, techs, and other healthcare workers are under unbearable stress because the government has failed to handle the pandemic, arguments about the relative danger of the Omicron variant are frankly kind of nonsense. What matters is the absolute number of people who are in hospitals and the effect that that has.

WM – And since you mentioned it, what is the situation with paid sick leave for grad student workers?

That’s a good question actually. Technically, we’re eligible for Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave. However, when that was originally passed, we were not informed that we were able to access that. And generally, I would say [pained laugh] there’s a dearth of good information and communication about our rights and access to such programs.

WM – Also, on the topic of the pandemic, something we’ve seen is this attempt to redirect culpability and divide the working class. For example, trying to pit families against teachers and create this idea that workers’ demands for a safe workplace come at the expense of students’ education. Have you experienced anything like that from the university?

WILLIAM – In terms of workplace health and safety, we’ve been on the same page with the undergraduate students.

The administration has to a certain extent tried to say they’re attempting to deliver the real Clark experience, and what that means is in-person teaching. I think in-person teaching is obviously better than teaching on Zoom. We all believe that, for the most part. The question is, are they using all the resources they could to, for instance, space out many of the larger classes? That’s not entirely clear.

There have also been some other issues, such as providing substandard masks. We’ve certainly had questions that we’ve addressed to the university administration about how serious their pandemic response has been, and the undergrads have been with us in asking those same questions.

WM – Turning to the union drive, how did that start and what do you think it was that really got it started?

WILLIAM – We’ve been organizing around employment conditions and issues of graduate student labor since December 2020. That’s when a bunch of us across different departments, mostly PhDs, got together because the university was passing the rising cost of healthcare premiums on to us, without giving us any raise and in the midst of the pandemic.

We organized to try to pass that cost back onto them, and we were successful in doing so, at least in getting 50% subsidies for this academic year for most PhDs. Many were excluded, though — for example, some PhDs in the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and master’s student workers, who often do the very same jobs as us. Seeing these exclusions eventually helped us realize that if we want to universalize these benefits, we need to get it on paper; we need a collective bargaining agreement.

And so gradually, I’d say over last summer, it evolved into an understanding that we need a union. We approached several, and the Teamsters were by far the most responsive. Local 170 is rooted right here in Worcester, and we thought who better to join than a union that already represents thousands of working people in Central Mass.

So we’ve been working with Teamsters Local 170 and the larger Joint Council 10, which is for all of New England, since about September, and as you know, the window for unionization really opened up with changes in the composition of the National Labor Relations Board.

WM – How did you personally become involved in the union drive?

WILLIAM – Personally, I was not satisfied with how much money I was making doing this job. I have friends who are doing PhDs in many different countries — Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany — and I saw that many of them were making a lot more than I was to do very similar work. Sometimes we actually do more work than PhDs in other countries — for instance, in so far as we have to be TAs for more semesters than they do. And what has led to those better working conditions for researchers in Sweden is the fact that they’re a member of their national trade union confederation, and they’ve been advocating for this stuff for a long time.

And of course, we’re also paying attention to what’s been going on at Harvard, Columbia, and other universities, where there have been major union drives over the past several years and where they’ve made concrete gains, for themselves and for all of us. So on a personal level, it’s seeing how much better the conditions could be for graduate workers and also seeing healthcare as an essential part of that.

The American healthcare… Well, we don’t even have a system, properly speaking. We’re in a situation where we have to advocate for our employers to provide greater coverage, and it was just unconscionable to me that Clark would do what they did in the middle of a pandemic. And then as I’ve said, I’ve assessed the situation elsewhere and seen what all these places have in common: They have collective bargaining, they have representation, they have an organization that will fight to protect and safeguard their rights.

WM – And were you in the original core group of people or did you get involved part way through?

WILLIAM – I’ve been involved since the beginning, since December 2020. In that initial group, geography had a very strong representation as did psychology. Those are the two biggest departments at Clark in terms of graduate student workers. There were some really strong organizers from physics as well and other STEM disciplines.

Unless someone has graduated or gone off to do field work, pretty much all of the people who started this are still in it and have been pushing all the way. As we’ve continued to organize, we’ve attracted more people too from every graduate department in the School of Arts and Sciences and from IDCE, which is the International Development, Community, and Environment Department, and it’s just grown from there.

We all recognize that we form a community of interest with one another and that we need to work together to achieve a lot of what people have been trying to make happen in their own departments for a long time. In geography, we would say to our directors and the faculty in charge that we’re not getting paid enough, and the cost of living in Worcester is rising. And ultimately, they would tell us they sympathize but that this is something that has to be addressed with the administration because they set the budget priorities of the entire university. And for the administration, it’s a question of whether they’re going to invest in research and teaching by investing in graduate labor and paying us a fair stipend or…

WM – Or are they going to put it into the endowment. Or buying more land.

WILLIAM – Yeah, or the endowment or buying land. So Clark University is certainly not on the scale of Columbia University or of Temple University in Philadelphia in terms of the acquisition of land and the expansion, but they did recently buy a 7-acre plot on Park Ave and they’re making big investments at their own scale. They basically bought a college — Becker College — as well.

WM – You’ve described the earlier healthcare fight and how that primarily involved PhD students. How did you bring in master’s student workers?

WILLIAM – There are a lot of master’s students who are working side by side with us — many as TAs and research assistants for the very same faculty — so we know each other as people who often have contact on the shop floor. We would say, “We’re getting organized. We’ve won this stuff so far. Do you also want healthcare subsidies? Yeah? Come on board.” So it spread through word of mouth that way.

WM – What was it like to organize across departments? Would you say it’s a similar thing where you have existing connections with one another?

WILLIAM – The pandemic has made organizing across departments more difficult because there aren’t nearly as many social events bringing graduate students or graduate student workers together.

That said, we started with a strong foundation in each of the major departments and in some of the smaller ones as well. We also made a deliberate effort to build those connections. We’ve gone off in groups of two or three to people of different departments and just struck up conversations when people were on break.

WM – I’ve seen you received your bachelor’s and master’s degrees from universities in Europe. Could I ask, are you an international student?

WILLIAM – No, I’m not. I am a U.S. citizen — dual national with Ireland — however, I have experienced being an international student and an international student worker. I did my undergraduate and master’s degree in the Netherlands, and that experience of studying and working in an entirely new country has made me more aware of the kinds of the difficulties that many international student workers face here in the United States.

There are definite commonalities in terms of how confusing it can be, especially if there’s a lot of misleading information from the university about things like the U.S. employment and taxation system. I personally have been working on some issues around that this year as well because I would say perhaps even a majority of our bargaining unit are international student workers. I don’t have solid numbers for you, and we don’t automatically ask people where they’re from or their citizenship status — that can be a discriminatory practice that we don’t engage in — but international student rights have been really essential to our campaign, especially since this past fall, and there’s definitely good representation on our organizing committee.

WM – You mentioned low pay earlier. What is your stipend and general compensation like right now?

WILLIAM – I make $19,220 a year in gross pay for a 9-month appointment, which is about average in the geography department. Unlike some other universities, we don’t have guaranteed funding for every summer so we often have to go out and find summer funding.

There are economics students who are making significantly less than us actually. If I recall correctly, some are making between $15,000 and $16,000, which is… I don’t know how people survive on that. And then there are some STEM students who are making slightly more than us, I think ranging between about $22,000 and $24,000, but that’s not so much more. And it’s not nearly as much as at other universities, especially those that are unionized.

WM – And you had also brought up the cost of living. What are some of the concerns of members of the bargaining unit there?

WILLIAM – I’ll start with childcare because that is a huge issue. While we don’t have our bargaining priorities formally set — we’ll do a democratic process with a survey and voting on these priorities — I personally will be advocating quite strongly for more robust support for childcare. Because while the university talks a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion, the reality is, for someone who has a child and doesn’t have a very well remunerated partner, graduate school and the graduate training you need in order to teach at the university level is often not feasible for them. We do not have any subsidies currently. That’s the type of thing that people have won at many other universities.

WM – Subsidies for dependents?

WILLIAM – Yeah, so there are a couple of different things. There’s healthcare coverage, or subsidies, for dependents, which we do not have currently, and there’s also childcare subsidies. So if you need to send your child to daycare while you have to be at work teaching or researching, we do not have that covered right now. It’s probably something we will be advocating for in order to make graduate school here at Clark much more accessible to people.

A former colleague of mine had a child about 8-10 years old. The child was in the local school, but that ends at 2 or 2:30 p.m., and the colleague in question still had to be here, often trying to juggle taking care of his own child and being attentive to his responsibilities as a teaching assistant. This colleague of mine eventually left the geography program, and I talked to them about it afterward and they said that one of the reasons was just that the cost of living in Worcester was so expensive. They had come from a master’s program at a Midwestern geography department where they had lived more comfortably on an even lesser stipend.

Now some of the issues with living in Worcester are not things that Clark can directly control — like the fact that the WRTA is not serving communities in Main South nearly as well as it could, in terms of, say, people being able to get to and bring things back from the grocery store. Clark has things like shuttles and so on, but when you’re an adult trying to raise kids and work both as a teaching assistant and on your dissertation, the services they have, mostly for undergraduate students, are not always the type you’re looking for. The point is that people have been at this university as PhD students and left, and a big reason why some of them have left is the cost of living in Worcester not being met by how much we’re making, especially for those with dependents.

WM – Childcare is very important, and it’s clearly an issue for working people across all kinds of jobs. I think of this Dunkin’ Donuts I frequently pass through where there’s a worker who has this young child with her there while she’s working, and that’s a crushing thing to see.

WILLIAM – Yeah, and many of us have had that in common. And whether that’s in the formal, physical workplace or whether that’s at home throughout much of the pandemic, balancing those duties has been a real difficulty with the current conditions that we have.

WM – With healthcare costs, the university has said that they would go to subsidizing 100% in the future up from the 50% you won for this year. What do you make of that?

WILLIAM – I think the direct quote is “pending budgetary approval,” and this would be 100% subsidies only for the same set of PhD student workers who they subsidized 50% this year. Now, as I mentioned before, part of what got us to really organize on this basis is trying to extend those benefits to everyone and to get them in writing because we heard about this subsidy last year, perhaps in April, and we haven’t heard anything since.

WM – It seems like something that can drive interest in unionization is seeing that you can’t really trust your employer’s promises, or even signed agreements, but that you can trust your fellow workers and the collective power you all hold to force your employer to follow through. That’s what actually turns a promise into an agreement and an agreement into reality. It’s not their signature; it’s your power.

WILLIAM – Correct, and especially if you have the Teamsters behind you! [laughs] — or pretty much any union, but we’re very happy to be working with the Teamsters because of the experience they have — for instance, in winning great benefits for UPS workers. When we first went to a meeting with the Teamsters, one of the things they talked to us about is the disparity in benefits and pay between UPS workers and those doing very similar jobs at or with Amazon. It’s just very clear that when you build a strong union, you’re going to be able to enforce promises that are otherwise not worth the bits an email is encoded in.

WM – And besides the things we already covered, are there other major concerns for graduate student workers? For example, I know setting up and improving harassment processes have been important to other grad worker unions.

WILLIAM – Again, our bargaining priorities will be set democratically by our membership. However, we are taking inspiration from a lot of other unions of grad workers across the country, and we think trying to create truly independent procedures for handling harassment, discrimination, and intimidation is very important. There have been some cases at Clark where we’re just wondering who students are able to go to, and that’s not always clear when they feel they’re being wronged, whether by an administrator or a professor, an advisor, and so on.

We want students to be able to reach out to their union because these issues are work issues and a union can lead on these things and stand up for survivors who have been ignored or felt uncomfortable and unable to reach out to the people who they should be able to reach out to because of potential conflicts of interest.

[pauses] And my colleague Patrick is here as well! [laughs] He just came in a few minutes ago.

PATRICK – Sorry! I was supposed to be here, but I was talking with a psychology student who had many questions.

WM – What has the university’s response been so far — to your prior organizing and to your recent announcement?

PATRICK – In our prior campaign, we were successful in actually forcing the university to change. So we won the 50% health insurance subsidy, and Clark also changed its policy of not paying international students until they provided a Social Security number, which is not what is supposed to happen. You’re supposed to be able to be paid while your application is pending, and our organizing got them to comply with labor law.

So they’ve been somewhat responsive to some campaigns so far, but they have not responded to us about unionization yet. Clark has, however, sent an email to all faculty saying they hope to engage in dialogue with faculty on the issue of grad worker unionization. While we’re not opposed to dialogue, faculty are our bosses. Fundamentally, the decision to unionize rests with us, and any faculty interference would be union busting and also violating labor law.

We would have hoped that they would have first extended the branch to grad workers. In that memo, they said that they are adopting a neutral stance…

WILLIAM – No, actually, they said they are not adopting any stance, including a neutral stance. So it’s some mental gymnastics there that are… incredible. But go on. [laughs]

PATRICK – From our perspective, a truly neutral stance would be voluntary recognition via card check because a supermajority has already spoken and anything else would just be a delaying tactic meant to slow down the bargaining process and effectively be union busting.

WILLIAM – Yes, the decision has already been made in that sense; a supermajority of the workers have spoken up for a union, and we’re waiting for the university to recognize our rights. We want to get going because we need these protections that we’ve talked about as soon as possible, and not coming to the bargaining table on their part is clearly an instance of stalling, of delaying. They have acknowledged receipt of our letter asking for voluntary recognition and notifying them that we filed with the NLRB, but as Pat said, nothing beyond that.

PATRICK – We filed while seeking voluntary recognition for a reason — because we know we have the support. So the university can act now, or we can go through with the NLRB election. We hope it’s voluntary recognition, but we’re not going to wait around while they hire some anti-union law firm to come in and try to dissuade folks from voting yes.

I do think grad unionization is so hard because there’s such a high turnover. We have members of our organizing committee who are going to be going to different countries to do field work next year, and we’ll have people who graduate. The university can try to take advantage of that high turnover through delaying, but that’s something that we’re prepared for in that we’ve filed, and this is going to go forward. We hope that Clark starts this off on a collaborative basis, rather than a confrontational one.

WM – And other than the administration, what has the response been like from undergraduate students, your supervisors, and faculty generally?

WILLIAM – Undergraduates and their student organizations have been very supportive. Many we’ve spoken to think this is the type of democratizing initiative Clark needs because, whether or not they are student workers, they feel like they really don’t have a voice either.

With the faculty, many of them had been supportive of our earlier campaigns — for instance, around healthcare. They recognize that in order to be able to attract the most qualified graduate workers they need to have competitive working conditions here and as more and more universities are getting unionized, that means having a unionized workforce at Clark. Many of them see that, and many of them have been supportive. On unionization itself, it’s so new that we don’t have a complete sense of where most faculty stand. We have also reached out to many faculty expressing why we unionized, why we urge Clark to take the path of voluntary recognition, and asking them to support that as well.

WM – Clark is a liberal institution that markets itself as socially conscious. But do you think there’s been a tension between the image that Clark would like to project of what it is and what its values are, and how the university actually values you and your work as graduate student workers?

PATRICK – Clark likes to bill itself as an institution that responds to feedback and encourages dialogue, but that has not been the case with graduate workers. We have been excluded in a number of ways, and I think where we feel it most strongly is in the COVID response. We were told, just told, that we had no options to work remotely, and we were not part of the same dialogues with the administration that the faculty were able to be a part of. And in many cases, we had faculty advocating for us to give us the option of doing a research assistantship that has no requirement that we be on campus, but that is one tangible way in which I don’t feel it’s been very collaborative.

WILLIAM – If I can specify, remote work was possible at one time under emergency conditions and then it was ended, basically without any input from us.

WM – Could you share more about the timeline of that?

WILLIAM – It’s with this academic year, I believe, that they ended the possibility of remote work.

PATRICK – Yes, in the 2020-21 academic year there were options for remote work available, and if I’m recalling correctly, we individually got to choose. That was not the case starting this fall. We had to be here in person if we were working.

As to Clark’s vision, we’ve seen examples, such as at Georgetown University, where graduate workers unionized and the university responded positively. In that case, Georgetown agreed to an election outside of an NLRB then run by Trump appointees because the graduate workers appealed to the university’s Jesuit values. At Clark we have values that aren’t Jesuit per se but values of social justice and our motto even is “Challenge Convention. Change our World.”

We’re not as concerned about what has happened in the past so much as we’re concerned with the present and the future. Voluntary recognition of our union is the perfect opportunity for Clark to live up to its values.

WM – Since capitalists’ offensive against unions in the 1970s and 1980s, many working people in the United States today have never been in a union. What has your prior experience been with the labor movement and has it been a challenge to bring up unionization with those people who haven’t had much exposure to unions?

WILLIAM – The fact that many of our bargaining unit members are international student workers has worked in our favor because, while some are spooked by misinformation that’s out there on unionization and their rights as workers in the United States, many have positive experiences with unions in their own countries. They recognize the important work that unions have done, from South Korea to Ghana — really all over the world — and so they’re sometimes not as biased against unions as some people who have grown up in the United States may be.

Speaking for myself, I have not been a member of a union previously, but I do have family members who have been active in the trade union movement and some experience in solidarity work from when I was doing my master’s in the Netherlands.

PATRICK – For me, my father was in a union and still is — the United Steelworkers — and I went to college in part on a union scholarship so that definitely colored some of my perspective on unions growing up.

I was then involved in a campaign to form a graduate worker union at George Washington University, where I got my master’s degree, so I’ve been involved in grad worker unionization before. That was not a successful campaign because we were organizing right after Donald Trump was elected, and we weren’t able to actually file with the NLRB or get the university to agree to a neutral election like at Georgetown.

I think talking to people here, one thing I have not seen is any anti-union sentiment among graduate workers. We see some initial confusion about what it means exactly, and people want to learn more about unions and how they affect their visa status, what dues are and what they support, and how we vote and ratify a contract, but I have not really talked to anybody who has said “I’m not interested in this” or “I’m anti-union.” Our work is educating people, and they’ve been hugely receptive.

WM – Naturally, there may be some people outside of the university who look at you as students and as people pursuing advanced degrees and find it hard to believe that you could have serious concerns or a need for a union. How would you respond to that?

PATRICK – For anybody questioning the need for grad worker unionization, imagine living on less than $20,000 a year for six years of your life when you already have student debt from your undergraduate or prior education. If we’re committed to making higher education accessible and not exclusionary in the way it’s historically been, which I view as something that’s important not just for academia but for society as a whole, then unionization is a very concrete tool to make that happen. We need to support people with families and people from underrepresented communities in academia, and make it so that people who are not wealthy can pursue an education and a career in higher ed. For me, that really underscores the importance of unionization, not just at Clark but everywhere.

WILLIAM – I would also say that there are a lot of misconceptions in society about what graduate student workers spend their time doing. Yes, we are enrolled in classes, we read articles and write papers, and we engage in seminar discussions. But we spend the vast majority of our time doing one of three things: We teach, either as a teaching assistant or as a sole instructor; we do research, not self-directed but under an academic supervisor who is ultimately the principal investigator; and we work on our own dissertations, which is something we are not formally paid for — unlike PhD researchers in many other countries, which recognize the significance of advancing science and pay workers throughout all scientific and humanistic disciplines to do that.

But we are spending most of our time doing work of one of those three types, whereas the popular perception might be that we’re just sitting around in seminars all day, and that’s actually a very small part of what we do.

WM – There’s this idea called bargaining for the common good, which is essentially when unions use contract fights as an opportunity to organize with community partners to advance a set of demands that benefit not just the bargaining unit but a broader community. For example, a teachers union might bargain for free bus passes for their students or for the school district to retrofit buildings to cut climate emissions. Have you thought about that at all and do you think there’s a place for bargaining for the common good at Clark?

PATRICK – I definitely do. I may not have much in the way of concrete examples yet, but since you mentioned building retrofitting, the geography department is not accessible, which is completely unacceptable and is absolutely a labor issue. I can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to address it in collective bargaining, but it’s these types of concerns that without a union we have no way of even raising the issue. And so there are myriad ways in which we want to use unionization for graduate workers here at Clark to improve the lives of everybody who interacts with the university in any capacity.

WM – Since the 2016 NLRB decision that granted student academic workers at private universities the right to unionize, we’ve seen student workers across the country pursue unionization. The MIT Graduate Student Union filed for an NLRB union election earlier this month, there were the strikes at Harvard and Columbia last year, and student researchers at the University of California won recognition for a unit of almost 20,000 workers in December. Have you had any contact with any of these union members at other universities and to what extent have you been following what’s been happening at other institutions?

WILLIAM – I would give a shout out to the Harvard Graduate Student Union and NYU, in particular. These two unions, who we were in touch with earlier last summer, were incredibly helpful in developing our strategy and sharing their organizing experience. We’ve certainly been following the contract fights at Harvard and Columbia very closely too.

PATRICK – Yes, we’re definitely in touch with folks. Folks have been incredibly generous and shown tremendous solidarity with us. We hope to do the same if MIT continues to union bust. If the MIT Graduate Student Union needs us over there in Cambridge, we’ll be there. We’re quite lucky to be unionizing in the Northeast where we have all these universities around us that have grad unions that we’ve been able to talk with, and we want to leverage that to build as strong a movement as possible.

WM – Along these same lines, there was of course the St. Vincent nurses strike last year here in Worcester, striketober in the fall, and this year especially we’ve seen this Starbucks unionization drive pick up. Rather than quitting bad jobs, it seems that at least some workers see building strong, militant unions as a better alternative. How do you see Clark grad student workers fitting into this bigger picture and how do you situate yourselves within the labor movement?

PATRICK – It’s a good question. I think that we should be supporting these movements everywhere and that our role in the broader labor movement is to show up.

We’re affiliating with the Teamsters, and UPS has a contract that’s about to come up, so it’s going to be important to us to practice solidarity with members of Local 170 who work for UPS and who are going to be fighting to achieve a fair contract. It’s a particularly exciting time to be organizing with a union like the Teamsters that is committed to grassroots organizing, with an international leadership that was elected on a mandate to unionize Amazon. We will support those efforts in any way we can.

Our role as academics will be varied. I know three people who have gone from organizing grad unions to now being labor organizers because they looked at academia and said this is not where change happens. But there are a lot of meaningful relationships that can be built between academia and the labor movement. We’ll be a part of that and that’s exciting for me.

WILLIAM – Yes, and it’s also about bridging a divide that has emerged within the working class between intellectual and manual labor. This divide is something that my own research is focused on very centrally, and I think that while it will be impossible to bridge that divide within capitalism, what we can do is begin to unite — in fighting unions — workers who have been pushed to one side of that divide or the other. And it’s frankly very exciting to be organizing backed by people who are in different industries and who can share with us their wealth of experience mobilizing and fighting across those different industries.

WM – Since you bring it up, William, I think in the United States there’s sometimes a perception that unions are for factory workers or people in the building trades, and there is, as you were saying, a divide perhaps between workers in those sorts of industries and others working white-collar jobs. Do you see any of that in the way Clark grad student workers think about unionization and then does that come into play at all in your interactions with the Teamsters, which some may think of as a more blue-collar union?

WILLIAM – I’ll start with the second end of it, on the Teamsters. When we first met with them, here at their local headquarters in Worcester, they made it very clear to us that they are interested in learning what our work process is like. The fellow who will be our business agent in contract negotiations with the university was democratically elected by his colleagues, and he told us frankly that he was willing to spend the time needed to learn everything about what our work process looks like, sitting down with us and figuring out what our issues are and deepening his own knowledge of what’s the same and what’s different from other industries he’s worked in.

On the question of whether people here have had the attitude that unions are for blue-collar industries, no. As Pat said before, there really hasn’t been anti-union sentiment among members of our bargaining unit.

PATRICK – [interjecting] We have a colleague who was literally a UPS driver and a Teamster!

WILLIAM – Exactly, and now he’s working as an instructor here at Clark. Our lives are not as clean cut between being in academia and being out of it as some people may think. And that’s very clear by the example Pat just gave.

PATRICK – Folks have a lot of very fair critiques of academia and the bubble it can be — and it is a tremendous privilege to get to do research — but this is also a job, and you can still be exploited in a number of ways. If you want to break that bubble, if you want to change academia, a union is a great way to do that.

By virtue of us being grad students, we will also be going out into a number of different places and industries. Not all of us will go into academia, but regardless, many of us will enter universities and workplaces that are not unionized, and we’ll bring this experience with us. And so grad worker unionization can have a lot of potential spill on effects to help build a strong labor movement.

WM – Pat, you touched on the winning slate for the international leadership of the Teamsters, and, William, you mentioned building unions as fighting organizations. Last year, we saw this fight for internal democracy and a rank-and-file revolt within a number of unions. There was the John Deere strike after workers rejected two tentative agreements and the fight for one-member-one-vote in the UAW, which includes many grad workers. We also saw it with the student workers union at Columbia, where they voted down a tentative agreement, voted out their bargaining committee, reformed their bylaws, and then went on strike and won big. This seems to show that part of building a strong union is building union democracy, beyond just electing leaders who then go off and make decisions for everyone else. Could you tell me about rank-and-file engagement within the union that you’re building at Clark and also how you hope to empower workers to drive decision-making?

PATRICK – It’s a big question, but it’s something that we’re very committed to.

I was having a conversation with a student who we hadn’t been able to get in contact with yet, and I was explaining to him where we’re at in the campaign, and he said something like, “OK, so it really doesn’t matter if I sign a card or not? This is gonna happen?” And I said, “Yes, but: Here are all the ways in which your individual action is going to help us win a better contract for graduate workers. You’re graduating soon, but there are going to be people coming in after you who need a strong contract, and here are the ways you can help us achieve that.” And immediately this person was on board.

Part of our organizing process has been to have these individual conversations with every graduate worker. We have not had, for example, virtual card signing on our website where people can just go, sign a card, and then check out. You have had to talk with one of us and with an organizer from the Teamsters, or at least that’s been our goal for everybody, because we’re trying to cultivate, like you said, this rank-and-file understanding of the union and trying to cultivate this idea that each one of us needs to be a part of the process for us to get as strong a union as possible. It’s something that people have been incredibly receptive to, and I hope that continues.

WILLIAM – Yes, the engagement in organizing and doing it face to face the old fashioned way has been one of the ways we’re trying to cultivate this while we’re still emerging as a union. One of our first tests is going to be setting our bargaining priorities, and we want the university to come to the table immediately so that we can begin getting an even stronger sense of what our membership wants to see in the first contract. The priorities themselves are going to be subject to democratic ratification, as will the contract, and it will ultimately be up to the workers who make this place run to decide what the contract looks like.

WM – William, I’ve seen some of your writing in Jacobin, and I’ve also taken a look at some of the research and personal interests of some of the other people on the organizing committee. To close it out, could I ask how your understanding of capitalism impacts your organizing at Clark and your desire to unionize?

WILLIAM – Ooh, that’s a big one. [laughs]

PATRICK – You asked an economic geographer about capitalism! [laughs]

WILLIAM – Where I would go with this is that a recognition of capitalism’s impersonal character is very important for an understanding of what we’re up against. We are not up against evil individuals who don’t want to see a union; we are up against the compulsions of a system that agents are forced to operate under themselves — to lower costs, to raise productivity, and to basically eliminate any sort of obstacles to the production of profits. Technically, the university is a nonprofit organization, however, it is nevertheless subject to these very same imperatives to raise its endowment, to acquire more property, and on and on.

So part of the way it’s influenced our strategy is not making this about us versus any one person. It’s about us asserting our rights and our need to have reasonable living and working conditions so we can produce the best work and science we can under the often inhuman conditions of the society that we live in. And we see that the best way to do that is forming a union.

And so my specific understanding of capitalism and it’s impersonal character makes it very clear for me that this is not about the personal inclinations of any university administrator or any faculty or anything. This is about us asserting the need to have humane conditions to do science in a society that often denies that.

PATRICK – I don’t know if I could really add to that. I’m an urban geographer. I study cities, specifically the criminalization of homelessness and how that is a product of these histories and imperatives of racial capitalism. And I don’t want universities to just be a part of this process that William was talking about wherein they seek to buy more land, accumulate their endowment, and forget about what’s going on in their buildings and in their communities. And I think unionization is just a very concrete step where workers can start to address some of these issues.

William Westgard-Cruice and Patrick Geiger are PhD student workers in Clark University’s geography department.

Cory B is the treasurer of Worcester DSA, an editor at Working Mass, and a member of National DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.

Featured image credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel, Jonas Clark Hall, Clark University, CC BY-SA 4.0

Clark University Grad Students Seek to Form a Union

Wed, 2022-02-09 23:17

WORCESTER — On February 9, graduate student workers at Clark University in Worcester formally announced their intent to unionize with Teamsters Local 170.

Clark University Graduate Workers United (CUGWU) said that a supermajority across all departments have signed union authorization cards. They are seeking voluntary recognition but have also filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They are petitioning for a bargaining unit consisting of 144 student workers. The news from Clark comes one week after the MIT Graduate Student Union filed for the biggest NLRB election so far this year.

As to their inspiration, CUGWU points to “a growing national movement” of grad student unionization and specifically at MIT, Harvard, UMass, Tufts, and Brown. They also cite their push for pandemic protections at the start of this semester and another struggle over healthcare costs last year, where they “learned more about the diverse and intersecting labor issues affecting doctoral student workers and master’s student workers alike.”

At the start of the pandemic, Clark University had raised their insurance premiums by nearly 20%, and in response, graduate students formed Clark Grads Demand Healthcare. In March 2021, they delivered to university leaders a petition signed by 107 PhD student workers — more than half of all PhD students — demanding that the premium hike be rescinded.

After a decade of rising healthcare costs, two months of collective action and pressure forced the university to agree to subsidize 50% of graduate workers’ healthcare costs for that year. The administration also claims an intention to boost this support to 100% of healthcare costs for the 2022-23 academic year, “pending budgetary approval.”

So far the university has not detailed how they will live up to this commitment, and the university does not cover dental, vision, or dependents either. Some student workers also do not receive subsidies at all. Among those excluded are student workers at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and those who have alternative funding sources.

Clark Grads Demand Healthcare evolved into CUGWU, and by collectively bargaining for a binding contract, they believe they can go beyond what can be achieved by the Graduate Student Council. CUGWU aims to “extend the health insurance benefits won by PhD student workers to master’s students and all grad workers,” hold Clark to its commitment to cover 100% of healthcare costs, and expand dental and vision coverage. The grad students also plan to fight to “raise stipends, guarantee summer funding, improve workplace safety in laboratories, create a formal process for addressing sexual harassment, and generally strengthen [their] voices with the university administration.”

Teamsters Local 170 is headquartered in Worcester. They represent techs and therapists at St. Vincent Hospital, Worcester Department of Public Works clerks, ABF freight workers, and other workers.

If Clark University does not voluntarily recognize CUGWU, an NLRB election can be scheduled this semester.

Cory B is a Clark alumnus and former undergraduate peer learning assistant, the current treasurer of Worcester DSA, an editor at Working Mass, and a member of National DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.

Featured image credit: CUGWU-Teamsters

2021 and 2022: What DSA Is Building Across Massachusetts

Mon, 2022-01-24 10:25

Working Mass has collected short pieces from Massachusetts DSA chapter leaders and core members reflecting briefly on their chapters’ wins and weaknesses in 2021 and then detailing some of the big projects, important struggles, and political conditions they expect this year.

The purpose of this is to encourage strategic thought and discussion within and across chapters, to increase chapters’ awareness of each other’s organizing (and existence), and to create a record of the state of DSA in Massachusetts at this moment. The writing below is not meant to represent the official view of the authors’ chapters but rather their perspective as active organizers in DSA.

River Valley DSA
Connell H, chapter co-chair; Michaela B, chapter co-chair; Ruth J, labor standing committee co-chair

In River Valley DSA, we have unusually high union density. According to a poll in fall 2020, around one-third of our members are in a union, and many of our chapter’s best organizers are strong rank-and-file, elected, and staff unionists, especially in education. Strengthening our chapters’ local labor network continued unabated in 2021, after a boom during the 2020 pandemic as we came out (safely) in droves for frontline workers documented and undocumented, K-20 educators demanding safe schools, and strikers across industries.

Examples of our labor work are too many to list in one go. But here’s one instance of concrete labor support that has reaped numerous benefits, and can be replicated anywhere. Developing socialist, rank-and-file labor leaders is elemental to winning socialism, and every DSA chapter should be doing it at every opportunity.

At the end of 2020, our Executive Committee passed a proposal to fund member tuition to the local Labor Notes’ Troublemakers School, co-hosted by the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation (WMALF) in February of 2021. The executive committee arranged it so that Labor Notes could directly invoice us. We had lots of interest, and around a quarter of attendees were our members. Not only did it put socialist unionists in touch with local labor, but with one another during a difficult period. Members who helped put on TMS were able to identify our chapter’s unionists, and onboard them into more labor work. It also raised RVDSA’s profile among labor militants in the Valley, and strengthened our bond with the WMALF. We are doing something similar with an upcoming Stewards’ Training for Building Union Power in a few weeks, which will be a collaboration between the WMALF and the UMass Amherst Labor Center. DSA members have been deeply involved in building and recruiting for this five-week course.

In addition to our chapter’s labor work, we had successful political education events, collected voter pledges for the Fair Share Amendment, and canvassed for Take Back the Grid’s utility debt relief bill. While we’re proud of what we accomplished, 2021 came with the COVID difficulties felt by many chapters. We had drops in meeting attendance, as well as membership in general. We struggled to know what was the right time or way to try a hybrid meeting, or if we should canvass in places with high and rising case counts.

Beyond the exhaustion of pandemic life lowering participation, one of the biggest challenges was building relationships within the chapter. With Zoom there are no conversations with a mix of people on your way in or out of a meeting. With that gone we knew we had to be intentional about helping new members find their way in the chapter. We started up a mentorship program based on the Chicago DSA Rose Buddy program. One of our goals this year is to continue and expand this work to help new and less active members get connected to chapter campaigns.

Chapter activity and participation has been increasing over the past couple of months, which is very exciting. Our work on the Fair Share Amendment will continue, along with other important ballot question fights in the state this November. We look forward to spending this year building working class power with DSA members in our chapter and across the state.

Worcester DSA
Cory B, chapter treasurer

In 2021, we saw two prolonged struggles that both ended in success.

The first was the revival of Worcester DSA after its spring 2020 collapse. Recognizing DSA as the most promising vehicle for socialism, Central Mass members began connecting and working on restarting the chapter in January 2021. We met in person at the St. Vincent nurses’ informational pickets, got more organized to support them as they walked out in March, held our first General Meeting in months in April, and elected a new Steering Committee in May.

St. Vincent solidarity was our second struggle and intimately tied to the chapter’s revival as outlined above. Together with Boston DSA’s Labor Working Group and later River Valley DSA and National DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, we held weekly planning meetings, mobilized to and hosted events on the picket line, raised over $13,000 for the strike fund, and worked with DSA North Texas and Orange County DSA too.

We gained a hands-on education in class struggle in our local conditions, learned more about strike support in the process, and developed new leaders, including our current secretary and new co-chair. We also expanded relations with neighboring chapters and forged strong ties with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, culminating with the nurses’ victory and the surprise honor of being invited to speak at their ratification announcement.

Entering Year 3 of COVID-19, capitalists’ endless perpetuation of the pandemic has unquestionably challenged our organizing as we prioritize members’ lives and safety. Nevertheless, member organizing and engagement is still Worcester DSA’s internal priority, and we are constantly thinking about how to help members interact off Zoom and find a home in our chapter. We’re also selecting a new strategic campaign for our external priority, aiming for something that unites us in building working class power while growing the membership, their organizing skills, and our capacity.

The ruling class had already imposed a bipartisan suffer-and-die-for-our-profits plan well before the pandemic. COVID simply further exposed this reality, disrupting far more people’s lives and adding 1 million U.S. deaths to capitalism’s body count. The George Floyd protests, Great Resignation, and even “Squid Game” show that many in this country broadly understand the system is fucked up, see liberalism increasingly discredited by an unwillingness and inability to address its crises, and are fed up with capitalism’s success in ruthlessly advancing capitalists’ interests at our expense. At the same time, they also show us most people see no way out, and we know that if we don’t live up to this moment, opportunists will present fascism as the only alternative and outlet for those disillusioned with the status quo. It’s our task as socialists and DSA members then to not just offer this analysis or our critique of these conditions, but to agitate, educate, and organize the working class to collectively wield their newfound leverage to win change, and not merely line up early to vote for federal (or state) Democratic trifectas.

This year, Worcester DSA should continue building a democratic organization where every member is an organizer. We should keep showing up in our communities for working people, paying no mind to others’ online in-fighting without stakes. And we should deepen ties between Massachusetts chapters. We’re all organizing in the same state, and our success is greater when other chapters succeed. Whether a reading group, ballot question, or publication like this, there is plenty of potential for statewide collaboration and projects democratically governed by and open to members from all our chapters, and we should all give more thought to that.

It’s 2022. The challenges are great; the opportunities limitless.

Boston DSA
Benjamin Gammage, membership committee and communications committee member and editor of the chapter’s quarterly newsletter

The beginning of the pandemic and end of the Sanders campaign in 2020 quickly disrupted our expectations and hopes. 2021 was to be a test: a year into the pandemic, could we adapt and thrive in the new organizing climate of Joe Biden’s America? By all measures, we passed — after a year of building electoral capacity, training new organizers, deepening our connections with the labor movement, and building internal cohesion, Boston DSA is stronger than ever.

The year began with selecting chapter priorities, with members voting for tenant organizing and municipal elections. Our Housing Working Group, which was already organizing against 10 landlords through the Greater Boston Tenants Union, acted on the first priority by running tenant organizer trainings. Not only did the Housing WG build its own capacity, but its training series was so popular that it’s serving as a model for future chapter trainings as we broaden our base of active organizers.

The second priority was more resource-intensive. Although we had done electoral work before, with mixed results, this was our first attempt at adopting the successful NYC-DSA model, in which an endorsement entailed running an aggressive ground game. The focus of these efforts was contesting five new city council seats in Somerville and also our first two seats in Boston.

Endorsing so many candidates meant rapidly building an astonishing door-knocking apparatus, which members threw themselves into with zeal, tirelessly canvassing and phone-banking week after week throughout the summer and fall. We knew that running in so many races — in addition to defending five incumbents — was ambitious, and indeed, we didn’t win all of our races: we lost one incumbent in Cambridge, and won only two new seats in Somerville and one in Boston. Nevertheless, this represents a doubling of our power on the Somerville City Council, and our first foothold on Boston’s. Our challenge in the coming year is to use these seats to build our movement. And in future years, we will need to figure out how to expand our base of canvassers beyond a small cadre of the super engaged, so that more of Boston DSA’s thousands of members find roles for themselves in campaigns.

Meanwhile, our Labor Working Group worked hard to ensure we were present to support workers’ struggles throughout the area. When the St. Vincent nurses began a strike that would last over 300 days, members drove out to Worcester to join them on the picket line and raised donations for their strike fund. The Labor Working Group also participated in National DSA’s PRO Act campaign, as did the Ecosocialism Working Group, alongside its own efforts to pass a statewide utility relief bill.

All of the above have been real signs of our strength — but perhaps our greatest achievement this year has been developing internal structure. One weakness in the past has been our fragmentation, with working groups siloed off and many members feeling disconnected from the chapter’s activity. With our 2021 internal priority of membership engagement and inclusion, Boston DSA members reworked our New Member Orientations, developed a Rose Buddies program for mentoring new members, and trained Working Group leads on organizing events and email lists with Action Network. Our largest working groups elected organizing committees to handle their growing activity and built structures, like Working Mass, to help bring us together and share our struggles. As we enter the new year, we are feeling more than ever not just like individuals but like comrades unified in a single, effective, and growing organization and united in the fight to build a better and freer world. Onward to 2022!

Berkshires DSA

Steve D, chapter secretary/treasurer

As a card-carrying member of the DSA, I believe in our mission and also that there needs to be a DSA chapter in the Berkshires. But I never went to a physical meeting pre-pandemic, and I’ve only attended one local Zoom meeting.

I and a number of other people volunteered for leadership roles in the Berkshires DSA so that it could continue to be a presence in Berkshire County. The Zoom meeting in which I was elected Secretary/Treasurer was billed as a meeting that could have easily resulted in the dissolution of our local chapter. The previous leadership seemed exhausted and frustrated. I didn’t want that, and neither did my current colleagues on the Executive Committee.

We stared into the abyss here in the Berkshires and decided to keep our chapter active. That’s our big win for 2021.

As far as plans for the future, I believe we need to make ourselves attractive as an organization that gets good things done. Whether that’s a brake light clinic, a targeted mutual aid effort, or a voter info packet ahead of local elections, it needs to be something in 2022. My vision for the Berkshires DSA is that no one can get elected to a local office without the Berkshires DSA’s endorsement.


Southeastern Mass DSA

Evan Kirkwood, organizing committee co-chair (acting)

In 2021, Southeastern Massachusetts DSA officially split off from Providence DSA to create its own organizing committee. The year started off strong with consistent engagement during meetings as we were able to hold our first elections for an interim steering committee as we attempted to formalize into a chapter. We had some labor successes as members went on strike with teachers and steelworkers in New Bedford, and USW Local 1357 went on to win a favorable contract. We took part in textbanks with other Massachusetts DSA members for Mass-Care and helped draft a letter to U.S. Representative Jake Auchincloss to win support for Medicare for All. SEMA DSA was able to get our full list of members approved after splitting off from Providence, and we got all our social media up and running, including our Zoom account and regular email updates.

We also wrote and voted on our draft chapter bylaws as we hoped to achieve chapter status by the close of the year. Unfortunately, as the year wore on, we started to see dwindling attendance at our meetings. To combat this, our interim steering committee held an end-of-summer potluck at Buttonwood Park in New Bedford after holding a textbank to try and get dues-paying members to start taking part but only a handful of people showed up. By the end of the year, we had run out of steam to become a chapter and for now remain an organizing committee.

For 2022, the steering committee of SEMA hopes to build back up the support and engagement we saw early in 2021 to build a mass working-class movement in our region. We will continue to support labor strikes on the Southcoast and work on member outreach in our attempts to achieve the goal of chapter status, and we hope to engage in more collaborative projects with other Massachusetts DSA chapters like we were able to through the first half of 2021.

Cape Cod DSA

Alan W. Holt, labor working group co-chair

Cape Cod DSA continues to grow and evolve as we tackle both Cape-specific challenges and the broader Massachusetts and U.S. struggle for socialism.

Housing and labor are major issues here on Cape Cod and they are both areas of organizing CCDSA has thrown itself into. Our housing working group has supported the HOMES Act, which would seal eviction records to keep tenants free from future discrimination. Meanwhile, Barnstable County was awarded $41.3 million through ARPA, and members of the housing group have been pushing for much of this funding to go to creating new affordable housing.

In June of 2021, we formed a labor working group to coordinate our solidarity actions with workers in our region. We participated in National’s campaign to Pass the PRO Act, throwing a successful Zoom event and phone banking. We coordinated with the nurses of both Falmouth Hospital and Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis to attend and speak at their rallies in support of better working conditions. We also further developed our relationships with other local unions represented here on the Cape.

Additionally, CCDSA has begun to work on labor issues outside its immediate vicinity. We have joined forces with other Massachusetts chapters to contribute ideas, articles, and editing expertise to Working Mass, a DSA publication originally started in the Boston chapter. As it seeks to represent all of Massachusetts, we feel that our participation is one of the more promising avenues we have to advocate for our communities. South Massachusetts, strangely, suffers from a lack of local media, especially media focused on the working class. We are excited to continue to work with them in 2022.

Challenges remain. We are at this moment a small chapter which has not always been successful in its community outreach or savvy in its media communication. One of our primary goals is to craft a big-picture, long-term strategy to confront the worsening conditions for working people on the Cape. While we have been successful in building a dynamic chapter full of dedicated people, we have suffered from burnout, as well as the inevitable losses that come with people moving away. Building the strongest organization possible is an ongoing process. We hope that 2022 continues our upward trend.

Graphic Credit: Cory B