Lawrence Ben is a long way from his home in Adelaide, South Australia.
Lawrence made the arduous two-day journey in August 2018 with a very specific purpose: to experience SLU’s Union Semester program.
“My parents sparked my interested in labor,” Lawrence said. “They were both teachers and union members and always told me that ‘when you go to work the first thing you need to do is join your union.’ I also worked as a fruit-picker in my teenage years and was never paid for my work, which sparked an interest in working for a union. While I was studying Law and Arts at the University of Adelaide I took a part-time job with the retail and fast food union in Australia. After I graduated from university, I worked full-time there.”
How did he learn about Union Semester? “I googled it,” he laughed. “It’s really rare to find a program like that with a stipend attached. The stipend made it possible for me to come here. And what better place to study labor than New York City—the classic union town and the center of the labor movement in America.” He added, “I did the application online and Diana Robinson responded right away. She facilitated everything, helped me deal with the international hurdles—she pulled down the roadblocks all the way, for me and for the other students in my cohort from overseas.”
During his Union Semester, Lawrence interned in the political department of RWDSU and on completing the program, took a job at the union as a political coordinator. He also enrolled in SLU’s MA in Labor Studies program. “One of the things I enjoy most about SLU is the diversity of people in the classroom—where they work, what they do, what their backgrounds are. It’s like a microcosm of the city and the labor movement. And it’s not a classroom of 20-somethings. They’re adults working for government, non-profit, and they all have different perspectives—and the professors are adept at using the conversations to make their points.”
He added, “One of my favorite classes was an elective I took with Aaron Brenner on labor and the economy. In the labor world we’re good at understanding social movements, but we don’t necessarily understand how corporations get created and how they function, how Wall Street works, economics in general. You need to know how the system works in order to change what’s wrong.”
Lawrence is currently working on his Capstone project for the spring semester. “I’m doing a comparison of right-to-work laws in Australia and America. The Australian legal system is far more supportive of unions and the right to organize, but there have been national right-to-work laws there for the last 20+ years,” he said. “I also want to research how unions can recover some of their lost membership and eventually grow that membership. The labor movement in Australia is similar to the U.S. in the sense that it has been experiencing long-term membership decline for the last three decades.”
Lawrence was recently awarded a Malave Merit Scholarship by the University Student Senate, and currently serves as a co-treasurer of the new SLU Student Union. “It’s the first year, so we’re really on the ground floor, building it out structurally and institutionally. Then we’ll start doing some outward-facing work to get more students involved.”
When asked why people should choose SLU, Lawrence had a ready answer. “Because it’s such a unique school. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true. Particularly if you care about labor and social movements. There’s nowhere better to learn about that than New York City and this school.” He paused for a moment, then added, “Before I came here, I had some fixed views about some things but since I started studying at SLU, a lot of those views have changed. I had gone to college, I had been in the workforce for a few years, but my experience here has really opened my mind about some of the challenges I thought I had figured out.”
For Lawrence Ben, the trip has been well worth it.