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Unions and you – labor in the 21st century

By Ryan O'Connell

Arts & Ideas held a talk discussing the multiple crises facing higher education programs and how students fit into them, Dec. 2.

The first speaker, Jen Sherer, led with an introduction to the importance of worker power, and the importance of that power in regards to “racial, gender, and economic justice.”

“Those of us who care about the future of public education and racial and economic justice have to build our own power,” she said.

Sherer continued on to identify some labor trends being fought for both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The list included the fight for a $15 minimum wage, the necessity for unions, and “bargaining for the common good.”

She then described the meaning of a union, resources to learn more about them, and some key statistics of unions. She added they have positive impacts on aspects like wages and benefits, reducing racial and gender gaps, and on “democracy.”

“[Voter] turnout is lower in states around the country that have adopted anti-union right-to-work laws that are intended to suppress union membership,” Sherer said.

She concluded her time at the event by asking students to consider the Economic Policy Institute as a resource, and to reach out for help provided by the EARN Worker Power Project.

Joanna Gonsalves, a professor of psychology at Salem State University, continued the discussion by stating that many MSCA (Massachusetts State College Association) schools are deep in debt.

This association includes schools such as Salem, Bridgewater, Fitchburg, and Framingham State universities.

Gonsalves added that the lack of residents on campus during the initial COVID-19 outbreak contributed widely to this debt. She said these circumstances were used as an excuse to furlough workers, ignore tenures and promotions, and “retrenching faculty by closing down programs.

“They were using this threat of the pandemic, rather than use reserves,” she said.

Gonsalves said that the taking on of this capital debt to repair and refinish our schools was then becoming student debt. She shared several graphs showing rising student debts for Salem State undergraduates in 2011, 2016, and 2021.

She then added several ways to engage in your campus to help end debt financing, including methods like attending Board of Trustees meetings, and using your voice as an individual to criticize the Commonwealth.

Gonsalves closed her remarks by encouraging activism to help stop student debt from rising. “We need to pay attention to our Board of Trustees – they’re the decision makers. They’re the ones that are deciding we need to borrow.”

The event continued with a discussion by Michelle Corbin, who began by clarifying that it is important to assure fair working conditions.

“As educators, our work is never just about our contracts. It is never just about our working conditions. The entire history of public education is that it is meant to be a public good,” Corbin said.

She added that it was important for students pursuing the roles of educators and union members to defend the public good, before discussing how it was possible to go about that.

Corbin said that the increasingly common practice of universities performing similarly to businesses has also affected unions.

She compared the union model to an insurance policy. “We all come to relate to our union like it’s Geico. You pay your dues, you get your insurance policy, you hire some people to work on your contract, and that’s all you have to do unless you have to file a ‘claim.’ A grievance.”

Corbin added that the power in unions comes from the people in them. She spoke about member-driven unions, and how she loves saying “we are the union” and the idea of a bottom up system.

She concluded by emphasizing how important she felt it was for unions to move away from that business model and toward a member-run organization, and that it was important for members to get involved whenever they could.

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