On Sunday, September 1st, 2019 I had the honor of sharing some thoughts on labor organizing, and our own efforts to unionize at the University of Mississippi, with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford. Here are those comments below, in their unpolished form.
*Updated to correct a part of the background which I got wrong in the first version*
First, I want to thank Reverend Doctor Gail Stratton for extending an invitation to me to talk today. And to Wendy Prenger for organizing the details and the planning.
My family and I come to the UU church on occasion, and we’ve always felt welcomed here. Which I don’t ever want anyone to take for granted – it matters a great deal to us that we’re welcome here.
I was asked to share some thoughts on labor, on organizing, and importantly on the new wall-to-wall union we now have at the University of Mississippi. And in framing those things, I thought I might focus on those aspects of labor, of organizing, and of our union that don’t get as much attention. That these things – labor movements, labor organizing, and the formation of our own union at the University of Mississippi – are at their core about a radical praxis of love.
That praxis of love isn’t often centered in imagery and depictions of labor organizing, at least in my view. More often, labor movements conjure images of anger between workers and their employers, or violent confrontation between workers and law enforcement.
Some of you for example have probably read about, or heard about, the Haymarket Square Affair of 1886. On May 4th of that year, labor activists in Chicago had organized a rally in Haymarket Square to protest the killing and wounding of several workers by Chicago police during a strike that happened the day before. The protest turned into a riot when someone threw a bomb at police. The bomb and ensuing gunfire resulted in the death of several police officers, and at least four civilians, with dozens more wounded.
Some of you may have also read about, or heard about, the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. Here, an uprising of ten thousand coal miners from across West Virginia turned into the largest armed insurrection since the American Civil War. There are of course more contemporary examples, but these are some of the more sensational.
I’m not here to claim that the history of labor movements has been nonviolent, nor am I going to claim that every instance of violence on behalf of labor movements has been justified.
Instead, I want to talk about what grounds labor movements in general, and our own labor movement on campus more specifically.
Let me locate myself a bit, here, too, for context. I was born and raised Jewish. As a young kid, I attended Saturday services pretty regularly with my grandmother. As a teenager, I drifted away from the synagogue. But as a young adult in college, I drifted back to Judaism’s ethics, by way of a few religious studies courses taught at the University of Missouri by the local rabbi.
And it’s that set of Jewish ethics that informs a lot of my own activities today around economic justice, racial justice, and political engagement.
But what are Jewish ethics?
There’s a famous story about Rabbi Hillel, a first century sage and commentator, in which a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism approaches him. The gentile stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stands on one foot. Hillel accepted the challenge, and said the following:
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”
Other rabbis have pointed to Micah 6:8, which some of you may know:
The Lord has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Rabbi Tarfon, another first-century sage, offers the following commentary on Micah 6:8:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Justice, mercy, and humility – these are among the core tenets of Judaism. For many Jews, these tenets aren’t electives we can simply shrug off as optional. We are literally called to be dedicated agents of justice, to look the world’s pain, despair, and sadness in the eyes and face it head on. Even – and perhaps especially – when it would be easier to do otherwise.
And importantly, to act justly and to love mercy – these are relational practices. Each necessitates the other. They are also active. It is not enough to want, or hope, for justice. Or to want, or hope, for mercy. You have to act justly. You have to love mercy.
So what does this mean in terms of union work and labor organizing?
About two years ago, Jessie Wilkerson, who is a professor of history and southern studies on our campus, approached me to see if I had any interest in helping to form a union on our campus. Jessie had been approaching others with the same question, and had been working with a friend, colleague, and labor organizer whom she knew from her days as a community college instructor and member of United Campus Workers of Tennessee.
The early years of United Campus Workers of Tennessee included a successful living wage campaign, and the expansion of membership to every public college and university in the state of Tennessee. Today, United Campus Workers has active locals at the University of Georgia, here at the University of Mississippi, and as recently as last month, at LSU.
And when I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri, I helped form a graduate student association within my department that later became part of the basis for a graduate student unionizing effort that took place after I completed my degree. In June of 2018, a federal judge ruled that the University of Missouri’s student workers are employees under the Missouri state constitution, and that their union is the sole collective bargaining entity for MU graduate students, and that the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators must recognize them. The University is of course appealing the ruling.
Now, when Jessie and I spoke, we talked about our own interests in forming a union. We spoke about things like fair pay, and the fact that the wage floor at the University of Mississippi is not even $10.30/hr. Which works out to barely $21,000 a year, if you are working full-time and have full benefits.
We talked about how expensive housing is here, and how difficult it is to find adequate, affordable housing when our wages on campus are as low as they are. The median rent for a two-bedroom housing unit in Lafayette County is nearly $870 per month. For someone working full-time and making $10.30 per hour, that $870 per month is nearly half of their monthly income, and it’s just for rent.
We talked about how little healthcare our health insurance actually affords us. The co-pays are high, the coverage isn’t great, and if you have dependents on your coverage you’re coming out of hundreds of dollars each month in premiums.
We talked about the imbalance of power between workers and employers on our campus. That there aren’t strong policies that protect us in the workplace from harassment, from bullying, and from retaliation by our supervisors.
Now – it’s easy to hear these things only as grievances. To only imagine the frustration we feel. Maybe even to feel frustration and anger for us. But take a pause. At its core, our discussion was not about anger and frustration, though that was certainly part of it. Our discussion was about our care and concern for our fellow persons. And our anger and frustration was rooted in a radical love for others. In our desire to act justly, and to love mercy.
Pay is low at the university, so low it makes affording housing and other basic needs difficult if not impossible. And that’s a problem because we want people to be able to meet their basic needs. We love our fellow person enough to see their struggle, and to want to do something about it.
Healthcare is expensive, and the coverage isn’t great. And that’s a problem because we want people to be able to see a doctor when they need to, and not go broke because of it. We love our fellow person enough to recognize they aren’t doing well, and to want to do something about it.
There is an imbalance of power in our workplace, and workers have little protection from harassment, bullying, and retaliation from their supervisors. And that’s a problem because we want people to be able to feel safe and supported in the places that they work, so that they can thrive. We love our fellow person enough to see they are being bullied and harassed, and to want to do something about it.
Following that initial conversation with Jessie, several of us began to meet pretty regularly, to plan for the plan, so to speak. And by October of 2018 – less than a year ago, we chartered the first higher education union in the state of Mississippi with an initial dues-paying roster of 50 members. We are now at nearly 90 dues-paying members, with plans this year to grow membership to at least 200.
Because of our success, friends and colleagues at other higher institutions across our state – Mississippi State, Southern Miss, Jackson State, and Mississippi University for Women to name a few – have reached out with interest in joining United Campus Workers of Mississippi, and starting their own campus chapters.
Now, something that is often lost in our union’s narrative, and in social justice work more generally, is this. When it came to organizing United Campus Workers of Mississippi, much of the heavy lifting was overwhelmingly performed by women.
To be sure, there were some men who also did some very heavy lifting. But there were many more women. Strong women. Women committed to acting justly, and loving mercy.
Jessie Wilkerson whom I already mentioned. Ellie Campbell, a former law school librarian who recently moved to Chapel Hill to take a position at UNC’s law library. Wendy Goldberg, from the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. Angela Green, also from the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. Lauren Rogers, who works at the main library on campus. Jodi Skipper, an anthropologist and activist who organizes the Behind-The-Big-House tours each year in Holly Springs. Carey Dowling, a professor of psychology who along with her partner Conor has opened her home for strategic planning sessions.
And then there are the women who work for our umbrella union organization, Communications Workers of America, or CWA. Karly Safar and Melanie Barron, who work as regional organizers for United Campus Workers and CWA. Also Kate Diedrick, who is part of a worker-owned firm called Research Action which partners with UCW, CWA, and other national and local racial and economic justice organizations across the Southeast to assist with their campaigns and organizing practices.
Each of these women shows a radical capacity for love of others – and that love informs and shapes every aspect of our union and its activities.
So to end, if I can go back to Micah, this time to chapter 4, verses 3 and 4. Here, Micah offers a prophecy for how to transform despair, or in Hebrew, ya’ash, into peace, or shalom.
“…They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; But every [one] shall sit under [their] grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb [them].”
Within this passage is a beautiful image of a world to come. But whose responsibility is it to make it so? Not some higher power, whatever name we give that higher power.
This world to come will be, if and only if we make it happen. If we beat our swords into plowshares. If we make our spears into pruning hooks. This prophecy calls us to act, and demands that we love. And only if we – the collective we, the organized we – do these things, can we all know peace and justice.