Building a Union Campaign

Against the Current No. 210, January/February 2021

an interview with Dawn Tefft

With a successful strike under its belt, UIC GEO won COVID-19 demands.

IN 2011, UNIONS and community members in Wisconsin demonstrated their outrage at governor Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation in daily protests and sit-ins. Dawn Tefft was then a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and active in her union.

A few months prior to the start of a mass uprising, Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association were preparing to take action, including a strike. They knew a strike wave was unlikely to materialize due to longstanding bureaucratic approaches to unionism among many unions, but were doing everything they could to help create the conditions for one.

What has become known as the Wisconsin Uprising stopped short of a general strike, though the members of MGAA were willing to go out if other unions were, and the mass movement, in failing to escalate to the point of a strike wave, faltered.

Tefft learned from that experience that a union needs campaigns that grow out of on-the-job discussions with coworkers. From this an organizing committee can form around a list of demands and a plan for how actions can involve the membership. Without building a team that is thinking through how to broaden its base, it can’t build the power it needs.  And without taking strategic direct action, it can’t exercise that power sufficiently.

The appearance of the COVID-19 virus last winter presented several challenges to workers whether unorganized or in unions. Now working as an organizer at the University of Illinois Graduate Employees Organization (UIC GEO) in Chicago, Tefft had helped to campaign for a contract the year before. The question then became, how can graduate employees win what they needed at the beginning of the crisis?

Tefft also became active in the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a joint project of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the United Electrical workers union (UE) taking up problems workers faced as COVID-19 spread. It is an experiment in running a labor organizing project though a network of volunteers.

Dianne Feeley from the Against the Current editorial board interviewed Tefft, who is also a single mother with a two-year old.

After reading this article, check out EWOC, and Labor Notes.

Against the Current: When COVID hit U.S. campuses last spring, what were the major problems graduate student workers faced? In the rapid escalation of the COVID crisis that’s unfolding now, how are graduate students dealing with their own studies as well as their teaching workloads?

Dawn Tefft: Graduate student workers were faced with healthcare plans that were inadequate for pandemic needs, gaps in healthcare coverage, and potential loss of income. International graduate student workers also faced the possibility of becoming houseless.

ATC: At your university, the graduate students are organized into a union. What were you able to negotiate with the university administration? Were there issues you weren’t able to successfully resolve at that time? Were you able to take up issues about how the university would reopen?

DT: Yes, shortly after the state of Illinois declared a state of emergency, UIC GEO successfully impact bargained a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for immediate graduate worker needs that semester. We negotiated improvements to the healthcare plan for the semester, all but one of which we’ve bargained to have extended in other semesters.

One of the biggest wins was two weeks of paid sick leave, in addition to regular sick leave, for those sick with COVID or who had to take care of someone sick with it. This was critical because our members had about three-and-a-half days of sick leave on average. Eventually, the federal government passed the CARES Act, and so an even more comprehensive sick leave policy replaced the one we had won.

The second-most crucial item we won was mass pre-authorization of COVID-19-related tests and treatments at ER and urgent care facilities. The campus has its own in-house healthcare services. Normally, all students on campus are required to have their out-of-network needs pre-authorized in order for those to be covered.

We had heard from members that it could take days to get pre-authorized. And we knew that our members wouldn’t have time for that, given how many people manifest respiratory problems requiring that they be seen immediately. Also, we knew that our members would want to limit the distance they traveled on public transport since public transportation increases risk of exposure.

We also won teletherapy services for those with mental health needs. Studies have shown graduate workers have some of the highest stress levels of any workers, which was underscored by how many of our members had written us to request that we bargain for this item.

Another healthcare need the university met was to cover out-of-pocket ex­penses at 100% for ER and 70% for urgent care, though they instituted this as a policy rather than agreeing to it in a MOU. They instituted this for all students, including undergraduates, in response to our proposal, so we also helped students who weren’t workers or in our bargaining unit.

The hardest-fought MOU, and the one that took the longest to nail down, was free summer housing in the dorms for international graduate workers who were stranded in the United States due to international travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

Though not formalized in an MOU, we also won 80 new internships and assistantships over the summer, 40 of which were specifically for international graduate workers. As with one of the other wins, this was in response to our bargaining and organizing.

This was especially important for those international workers stranded in the country because visa restrictions prevent them from working off-campus. There aren’t usually many summer work opportunities on campuses due to lower enrollments, and typically most international students return to their home countries over the summer.

Bargaining Over COVID Impact

We were the first graduate union to win impact bargaining demands. I suspect part of this is because we went on a highly successful strike the year before. The administration knew we would be willing to stand up for members’ rights, and we did.

Initially, they met with us to bargain but refused all our demands. So we staged an email campaign, flooding administration’s inboxes. And our International Student Caucus very publicly started agitating international workers, who make up 40% of our bargaining unit and whom the university courts in order to turn a profit.

We also acted quickly. Within 24 hours of the governor declaring a state of emergency, our stewards had met and crafted bargaining demands and an organizing plan. Most of our members are allowed to work remotely, and we believe this is due to our nearly instantaneous organizing and history of offensive striking. Many more members of our sister union were forced to work in person than was true for our campus.

Yes, there are still needs we haven’t managed to have met yet. For instance, according to a survey we conducted, a third of graduate workers are putting in more hours than usual because online teaching takes more work than teaching in-person. And according to that same survey, a third of our members have technology issues and could use new laptops or subsidized internet.

While UIC claims a lack of resources to take care of its faculty and work force, it currently has an unrestricted $2.5 billion in various investments, some of which it could choose to spend. Additionally, the university system has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for projects such as the Discovery Partners Institution and is spending $311.8 million for new buildings. We also note they spent $275,000 over five years on arbitration, most of which they lost because they were violating the law!

Last year the state raised its contribution to the university by 15% but the overall budget only increased 5%. This means they were saving money.

EWOC’s Organizing Model

ATC: You have been working with the Emer­gency Workplace Organizing Com­mittee. What’s its purpose and how did it develop? What have you been doing?

DT: EWOC was created to help non-unionized workers organize to get their needs met during the pandemic. Both DSA and the UE saw that non-unionized workers were the ones hardest hit by the pandemic, and decided to apply a distributed model of organizing, as used in Bernie Sanders’ campaign, to fill the hole.

The Advanced Organizers are a team of trained and experienced organizers who assist workers with organizing campaigns. At a first meeting with the workers, things an Advanced Organizer and the workers might do include the following:

• rank issues and draft a set of demands;

• build or plan how to build a list of workers;

• divide up workers to contact in order to ask them to join a central organizing committee or sign on to a petition of demands and possibly take future action;

• begin planning a first action or a series of escalating action.

Advanced Organizers are aided by media and communications teams, who help on certain cases with press work and social media strategies. And workers find out about EWOC primarily through social media posts. When they click on a link in a post, they’re taken to a form they fill out to be put in contact with an Intake Organizer and, if feasible, an Advanced Organizer.

We try to pair up workers with organizers who have experience organizing in the worker’s industry and/or organizers in their geographical location. So far, all the organizing assistance has been remote and occurs through Zoom meetings and is further supported by phone calls and emails.

ATC: What are the success stories? How do they win? What do are the central issues they organize around; what are they able to win?

DT: Within the first six months, we helped workers win 13 campaigns. At that six-month-mark we had six active union drives, 15 active Organizing Committee campaigns, and 37 worker leaders building organizing committees.

The central issues are having personal protective equipment (PPEs), the option to work remotely, hazard pay, and other critical needs born of the intersection of an international pandemic and global capitalism.

For instance, the grad workers I assisted at Texas A&M University won masks. The faculty I assisted at Lafayette College forced the university to go entirely remote. And the workers I assisted at University of Texas-Austin won a 65% reduction of summer tuition for graduate students and a release from paying the already-planned 2.6% increase in annual tuition.

A Sprouts grocery store agreed to provide PPEs to workers and to limit the number of customers inside their McAllen location. Workers at a Taco Bell franchise won $2 an hour hazard pay with back pay and two weeks of paid sick leave.

However, we also help workers organize around issues that are specific to capitalism but not necessarily to the pandemic. For instance, the workers I assisted at Ohio State University won raises of $4,000 over two years. And we’re available to help workers organize for racial justice, although that’s an even harder task.

Currently EWOC is operating as a sort of remote, national labor center. Given that around 90% of the workforce isn’t unionized, largely due to draconian labor laws and court decisions that make it difficult or impossible to organize most of the workforce, we need this organization that helps workers with both emergency needs and day-to-day needs under capitalism.

We’re having conversations about how to help more workers learn about us, as well as how to potentially transition to concentrating some of our efforts on projects that could unite larger swaths of workers in order to further develop class consciousness. We’re trying to imagine a future in which we’re helping workers transform society on a larger level.

That isn’t to say, though, that the campaigns we’re assisting workers with don’t contribute to class consciousness or to transforming society too. I’m currently assisting graduate workers and faculty at Marquette University in resisting hundreds of planned layoffs resulting from lower enrollment due to COVID coupled with long-time financial mismanagement by the administration. They just staged a minority sickout, and their escalation plan was supported by undergraduates who planned their own escalation.

Facing the Neoliberal University?

Embracing direct action and working in unity across demographics are crucial to all efforts to work against the neoliberal model of the university that is omnipresent in the United States.

 In a neoliberal model, graduate workers and adjuncts are specifically meant to be cheap, exploitable, expendable labor. In a situation such as low enrollment, these workers are meant to be sloughed off. The only way to make inroads in this situation is through unified action that truly disrupts the work of the university and/or makes it harder for them to recruit more students.

Any wins in one worksite help pave the way for future wins in another, which contributes to helping build a more hospitable future. At the end of campaigns, I’m also trying to connect some leaders with existing caucuses (such as DSA’s healthcare workers caucus or Labor Notes’ Public Higher Education Workers caucus), so that workers without unions hopefully can continue to learn and practice effective organizing, as well as unite with workers nationally in resisting increasingly harsh policies.

ATC: Progressive forces are calling on the Biden administration to use executive power to cancel student debts. Do you see a movement growing around this, and what would it mean for graduate students struggling with their debts?

DT: To be honest, I do not yet see a movement around this. It’s interesting that you asked this question, though, because it’s one I’ve actually been thinking about after seeing a labor activist Tweet about the need for a movement on the issue.

At a recent EWOC meeting for graduate workers to talk about what we might do in the face of a stolen election, I asked about the possibility of coordinating on this issue. Everyone agreed that it would be important to do, but many felt they didn’t have the capacity to do that and to organize in all the ways they typically need to do plus organize around issues arising from the pandemic.

ATC: How will this current crisis affect higher education in the long run? What are the challenges the institutions face? What are the challenges those who work for the institutions face?

DT: Some small private colleges — which depend on tuition dollars — will permanently close. Public institutions might be more loathe to part with money in the form of raises because they’ll want to “bank” their money for future rainy days, even though they didn’t want to spend it during this particular rainy day.

Some tenured faculty will lose tenure due to “financial exigency,” which could pave the way for further erosion of tenure rights. Graduate workers and adjuncts will face even more precarity than typically characterizes their work.

More and more undergraduate students will find themselves priced out of education as tuition increases to make up for lower enrollment and loss of other revenue streams.

This is also, however, an organizing opportunity to demonstrate the importance of state and federal funding of public education. Clearly, the increasing privatization of education has created an educational system overly dependent on tuition dollars, dorm fees, meal plan fees, etc.

When students started learning remotely for safety reasons, universities lost very large revenue streams by having to refund payments for dorms, meals, gyms and other such things.

Universities and colleges shouldn’t have to depend on property and services for funding. And education should be a basic right, not a commodity available for purchase only by those who are well off.

January-February 2021, ATC 210

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