How do you create a labor organizer? SLU’s Union Semester program is a good place to start. Just ask Brittany Anderson.
Brittany suspected early on that the American Dream wasn’t real for most working people. Raised in rural Minnesota by a single mom who worked multiple jobs, income inequality wasn’t a theoretical concept, it was a daily reality. So she decided to do something about it.
Brittany moved to New York City for college in 2008 and got involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. “I had no idea how huge the labor movement was, how powerful. It really opened my eyes,” she said. The young protester from the Midwest quickly found herself under the wing of seasoned union organizers, who recognized her passion and potential. They told her about the Union Semester program at CUNY’s Murphy Institute and in Spring 2014 she enrolled.
“The program really helped prepare me for a career in the labor movement,” Brittany said. “In particular, Andres Puerta’s seminar in Labor and Workplace Field Study was insightful. He equipped us to deal with the realities of working for a union. It takes a lot of time and energy that easily leads to burnout. Campaign strategy isn’t an exact science and you have to make a lot of tough calls with high stakes. And there can be some of the messy internal dynamics in our labor institutions. After all, unions are run by humans, and humans are flawed.”
During her Union Semester, Brittany met some people from RWDSU Local 338 who encouraged her to apply for a job with the union. She worked evenings and weekends,registering voters and reaching out to young members. Her portfolio and experience grew as she moved through different units of the union, including health and welfare and the political department. Ultimately she was promoted to RWDSU International,where she worked on the Retail Action Project and participated with external organizing campaigns.
In 2017 Brittany returned to Minnesota. She is currently the Field Director of the Southeast Minnesota Area Labor Council of the AFL-CIO. She is also a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and a Community Liaison on the national board of Pride at Work, the AFL-CIO constituency group that represents LGBTQ workers. Earlier this year, the labor news source “Union Track”named her one of America’s “19 Young Labor Leaders to Know.”
Brittany notes that although overall union affiliation has declined in recent decades, she sees a growing trend of younger people starting to join the labor movement. “It’s driven by economic conditions,” she said. “Millennials grew up during the Great Recession,they lived through the housing crisis. Many feel that the economy is rigged against them, with massive student debt, stagnant wages and a shrinking social safety net. They can’t afford health care. These days, Millennials are looking for work opportunities that provide more security. Unions provide them with the ability to negotiate together for their wages and benefits. That’s power.”
In retrospect, Brittany says that the framework that the Union Semester program gave her – the history of the labor movement, the wide variety of perspectives on unions, and the practical knowledge – has been instrumental in driving her career and informs her current work, which involves organizing and getting unions to cooperate towards common goals. She still stays in touch with some of the people in her Union Semester cohort. “There is a broad affiliation of Union Semester graduates all across the country. We stay in touch via social media, we get together for happy hours, and we help each other with our organizing. We have a common purpose, and we are all on this journey together.”
Not yet 30 years old, Brittany Anderson is already well on her way.