Friday, June 14College Admissions News

Remote Union Organizing in the Time of COVID

Remote Union Organizing in the Time of COVID

Sritama Chatterjee is a second year PhD student at the Department of English, University of Pittsburgh. She can be found on Twitter  @SritamaBarna and on her Medium blog.

Screenshot of a Zoom Union Office Hours for International Students

When the lockdown was announced in Pennsylvania, I had just returned from the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference held in Boston and quarantined myself. I was preparing for universities to shift to remote teaching for the rest of the semester but I was still somewhat hopeful that I would be able to travel home during the summer. However within a week or two, when I realized that would not be possible anymore, I had two massive panic attacks because I was simply not able to embrace the uncertainty–the fact that my archival research and field trips have to be canceled and that I would not get to see my parents and family in India for at least another year. It was incredibly difficult as an international student to continue with my coursework and teaching but what really sustained me during this time was organizing with the Graduate Student Union Organizing Committee at my university. It has really been one of the few things that has kept me going especially because organizing for our union has allowed me to work with one of the communities that I care a lot about–international students.

Being a part of our union organizing committee means that I talk to a lot of people both within my department and outside about why we need a union, tabling and distributing fliers, organizing issue-based campaigns and getting people to sign on it. But with the pandemic, organizing for our union opened up its own set of challenges because we lost direct access to people and thus opportunities for elevator conversations. At the same time, organizing for our union for better access to funding and healthcare was more urgent than ever because the pandemic has disrupted some of our academic and professional lives, while institutions expected us to work at a “normal” phase or remain productive.  In the last couple of weeks, I had the opportunity to talk to some of my colleagues and graduate workers at University of Pittsburgh about what it means to them to organize for a union, especially during a pandemic and how they have been involved in union-organizing remotely.

Pat Healy, who is a graduate employee at the Program of Information Science said, “There’s a very natural tension between the needs of grad workers and the profit-seeking motives of University administrations. Under stress, universities are going to do their best to cut funding to grads whenever possible, introduce new student fees or healthcare fees, and deny any form of funding extension, doing anything they can to decrease their own financial burden while a lot of grads are put in increasingly vulnerable situations by the crisis. Even among grads who haven’t seen their funding dramatically affected, their families may have been affected, their partner may have lost their job, or they have kids they now have to basically homeschool. And what about the many international students who aren’t getting the (incredibly lackluster) funding our government offers citizens? Administrators need to support their grad workers right now but at the same time they’re incentivized to avoid providing that support as much as possible to protect their own huge salaries and billion-dollar endowments. Unions are the only way to consistently fight for that support, by taking power into our own hands.”

Pat’s point about how international graduate employees have been especially affected because of the pandemic and unequal access opportunities was also echoed by Sinan Doğan, a graduate worker in the Department of Anthropology who told me, “ As an international student, our position is doubly precarious because with the borders closing, we have nowhere to go, our funding opportunities are limited and there’s tremendous concern about health insurance and housing. In such times, we need to be there by one another and listen to one another better. Organizing for our union provides me the space to do that–collaborate and work in unity with my comrades.”

This tone of insecurity about one’s funding was also apparent in the words of Emilee Ruhland, a graduate worker in the Department of English  who said, “COVID-19 has irrevocably changed how universities work, which is affecting graduate student work right now. We are teaching online with little to no experience doing so, with an already limited schedule. We are losing hours in the lab, or, even worse, being ‘asked’ to return to labs that are in no way suitably prepared for social distancing. And we are being asked to do this on minimum salaries, with little to no protection for the future of our education and our income. This won’t change post-COVID… Offered courses may drop, both lowering the amount of classes grad students can teach while potentially doubling the workload for those who do. We need a union to be able to prepare for what havoc COVID leaves for us, and to move forward with our rights as workers, rather than moving back.”

Pat, Emilee and Sinan agreed that organizing remotely meant reimagining ways of reaching out to fellow graduate workers and thinking of specific issue-based campaigns, that would support graduate workers during a pandemic, such as a petition to extend a year of guaranteed funding to graduate workers and securing emergency funding for international students, that they were not initially granted. On being asked about some of the actions that they have been directly involved in,  Pat mentions, “Organizing remotely, social media has become a primary tool for organizing kind of by default, since it’s taking advantage of networks we’ve already built that can be naturally used remotely. Sometimes this can be an incredibly useful tool, like in our recent May Day Actions, which I was pretty heavily involved in organizing. On May Day, we had a short list of actions for our supporters to take part in, most notably an email action meant to push Pitt to extend the (CARES-funded) emergency funding packages it offered domestic grad students to international graduate students. We used Twitter to post and direct message instructions for the actions to all of our supporters and got a pretty huge turnout for a completely digital action. And that action ended up granting us a big win for international students.” Sinan, who was involved in planning the action for international graduate workers mentioned that the action was necessary because, “ We exist too, though the institution often does not care to recognize us.” I have mentioned earlier in the piece that the space for union-organizing was important for me because it offers me community support, a point reinforced by Emilee who said, “I’ve played a large role in implementing Instagram as a site of contact and community, especially collecting pictures of pets. However, I’m most excited about one of our newer ideas that have been born from the pandemic, virtual office hours. An office hour idea had been floated before COVID, but in light of our now exclusively digital presence, it has become a pivotal method of contacting graduate students and responding to concerns about remote teaching, funding, and the inequitable response of our administration to international graduate student assistance.”

Personally, organizing remotely for our union has meant that I reach out to my colleagues using multiple communication channels. It means listening to them carefully about what they need, what we can do to support them and how to make our institutions accountable for the welfare of its graduate employees because power of the collective lies in union organizing and the pandemic has only reiterated that.

Many thanks to Pat Healy, Sinan Doğan and Emilee Ruhland for their time and input!

Have you been organizing for your union remotely? What are some of the things that you have done to organize remotely? Please share with us in your comments below!

Image Credit: Emilee Ruhland. Reproduced with permission.

Published at Wed, 27 May 2020 17:37:00 +0000

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