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.”
Continue reading Out of Australia and into CUNY SLU
Gabriela Quintanilla is a DREAMer. And she has some big dreams.
Born in El Salvador, Gabriela came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant at age 13 and grew up in the Catskills region of New York. She went to high school in Liberty, and was very active in her student government. When President Obama issued the executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the local press wanted to interview her. “I suddenly realized that everyone in my school and my community would know that I was undocumented,” said Gabriela, “but I wanted to share my story and raise awareness.”
Raising awareness is something Gabriela cared about from an early age. Her mother worked at a poultry factory for 12 years, and that’s how Gabriela became involved with the Rural & Migrant Ministry. “I joined RMM when I was 14,” she said. “I saw my mother’s situation and I wanted to know more about her rights. Every year we would go to Albany and my mother would share her story. In RMM I worked alongside women who really wanted to make a change in what is like a forgotten land. People in the City don’t understand that rural upstate New York isn’t just about growing apples. It’s about isolated factory workers and farmworkers who have been forgotten.”
After earning her degree in sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, Gabriela returned to RMM, serving as the organization’s Western New York Coordinator. “My job revolved around coalition-building. I worked alongside farmworkers who year after year shared their stories of oppression with legislators. I also organized community members to go to Albany and support The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. The Farm Workers Bill had been around for 20 years. It was about getting farmworkers to be protected by New York labor laws. That they deserved a day of rest, overtime, and the right to collectively bargain. And eventually, we won.” Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law on July 17, 2019.
Gabriela learned about SLU four years ago when she met Laurie Kellogg and Diana Robinson at a food chain workers event. “I wanted to go to graduate school, and I thought SLU would be a good fit for me, with its emphasis on the labor movement. But I had just moved to the Finger Lakes and I wasn’t ready to make another change. I had always dreamed of living in New York City, and last summer I decided to make the move—in the middle of a pandemic. The first month was really hard—I’m an extrovert, and the lack of community was just awful. But I accomplished my goal: I’m enrolled at SLU, in my first semester in the Labor Studies MA program.” She sighed. “Online.”
Gabriela says she’s lucky—she had a great support system that helped her get her education. “Others aren’t so fortunate. So in 2015 I founded Adelante Student Voices, an organization that provides a safe space for New York’s undocumented students to explore their legal status and find routes to college. They learn about New York State’s DREAM Act, the legislation that allows eligible undocumented students to apply for financial aid for college. So far, 55 students have gone through our program and 26 have been able to go to college.”
Asked what she wants to learn at SLU, Gabriela replied, “I’m curious to explore how non-profit organizations have been able to achieve changes in the law without relying on unions. When you think about the labor movement you automatically think unions, but there are many other organizations that should be included. There needs to be a way to bridge the gap. I’m hoping my professors and my classmates can help me figure that out.”
She added, “I’m enjoying learning about urban issues and how labor issues play out in the city. But I also want to bring a different perspective, from my own experience. I want to find out how we can bring the most marginalized communities to the forefront of the labor movement. I want people to think about the issues that impact rural areas and those vulnerable and forgotten workers, many of them undocumented. I’m fortunate to have my green card now and I’ve applied for citizenship. And I will utilize this privilege to bring forward those who are marginalized to decision-making tables.”
She paused. “I’m not going to forget them.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT SLU’S M.A. IN LABOR STUDIES
In this piece from Organizing Work, Marianne Garneau debates with labor organizer and journalist Chris Brooks and veteran union negotiator Joe Burns about Bargaining for the Common Good and its use as a model for connecting workplace fights with broader social demands.
Read part one and part two here.
Labor Studies Professor Stephanie Luce writes about organizing in the labor movement to defend democracy in the event of a contested election. She notes that some unions are trying to connect their core activists with local “protect the vote” groupings in key states and cities to show up to polls and fight to make sure every vote is counted.
Read it here in Organizing Upgrade.
Photo Credit: Joe Brusky
Join us for a special *live* recording of City Works on the pressing issues of police unionism, policing reform, and the Movement for Black Lives. Following the program, panelists will take audience questions.
Laura Flanders – Host & Executive Producer, The Laura Flanders Show
Evelyn DeJesus – Executive Vice President, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
Terry Melvin – President, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists
David Unger – Author, “Which Side Are We On: Can Labor Support #BlackLivesMatter & Police Unions?” (New Labor Forum – July 2020); Coordinator, Labor Studies & Labor Relations Programs at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies
* The Zoom link to the live event will be shared in the registration confirmation email and subsequent reminder emails. *
The New Labor Forum has a monthly newsletter on current topics in labor, curated by the some of the most insightful scholars and activists in the labor world today. Check out some highlights from the latest edition below.
Well in advance of the fall 2020 issue of New Labor Forum , we are releasing an important article by David Unger on the relationship of organized labor to police and carceral work. In “ Which Side Are We On: Can Labor Support #BlackLivesMatter and Police Unions ,” Unger asks whether the highly unionized workforce of nearly 2 million people employed by the carceral state have a right to union representation. And if so, should there be limits placed on their ability to collectively bargain and lobby? And furthermore, do police unions deserve a place within the AFL-CIO, given the role they have sometimes played in strike-breaking as well as controlling and even attacking protests by labor and its allies? Subscribe now to New Labor Forum to join conversations like this and support the work of the journal.
We also include here a cutting-edge talk by Maurice Weeks, of the Action Center on Race and the Economy, presented at a recent forum hosted by NLF publisher, the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Weeks discusses #DefundPolice and its challenge to the structural power of police departments. He also reveals the extent to which police departments dominate municipal budgets, citing L.A., Detroit, and Tulsa, where policing accounts for 52%, 36%, and 30% respectively of those cities’ total expenditures. And, extending the discussion of labor’s role in the fight for racial justice, April Simms, Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, examines the impact on black families and communities of ceaseless police killings of unarmed black citizens. She also makes a plea for unions “to do the uncomfortable but necessary work of fighting the white supremacy that is choking us.” We end with a heart-rending poem by Mark Doty, commemorating 12-year-old Tamir Rice, murdered at the hands of the police.
Table of Contents
- Which Side Are We On: Can Labor Support #BlackLivesMatter and Police Unions? / David Unger, New Labor Forum
- Black Workers and the Triple Pandemic / with Maurice BP-Weeks, June 24, 2020, CUNY SLU forum
- “We need you to fight for us to breathe” / April Sims, The Stand
- In Two Seconds: Tamir Rice 2002-2014 / Mark Doty, American Poetry Review, vol. 44 no. 03