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A Seat at the Table – Update Part 3

This is the third in a series that updates and extends John McKerley’s essay in the current issue of Labor: Studies in Working Class History, which is  freely  available for three months, thanks to Duke University Press. The first post is here. I thought it was an important contribution given the uptick of graduate student, faculty and undergraduate organizing. –ed.

In 2018, I interviewed four leaders of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) at Grinnell College, a highly selective liberal arts institution in Grinnell, Iowa. At the time, I was working as the oral historian for the Iowa Labor History Oral Project (ILHOP), an over forty-year-old oral history collaboration focused on documenting the history of Iowa workers and their unions. Recording the stories of UGSDW members was part of my job, but it also reflected a longstanding interest in student-worker organizing that stretched back to my time as a graduate employee and member of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America Local 896-Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (UE-COGS) at the University of Iowa. Formed in 2016, UGSDW was already at the point where its founding members were preparing to hand over the reins to a new generation, and I wanted to document what I worried might be an important but short-lived experiment in undergraduate worker organizing. As it turns out, UGSDW was far more resilient than I had ever imagined. Indeed, it has gone on to become one of the most successful unions of undergraduate student workers in the country, including waging sophisticated, multi-year campaigns with national implications and expanding its jurisdiction to include all hourly student workers across the college’s campus. Most recently, in the spring of 2023, the union undertook its first strike as part of a complex and as-yet-unresolved campaign to improve conditions for its expanding membership. This post—the third in a series—updates my edited interview from 2018 (published in Labor in September 2023).  I speak with some of my former interviewees—all of whom have gone on to some form of organizing or advocacy work—as well as with new UGSDW leaders and an organizer from Starbucks Workers United in Iowa City, Iowa, whose recent organizing campaign was anticipated by the Grinnell students back in 2018. Taken together, the interview and the posts reveal the role of student workers in the broader service sector in the US, as well as the profound reach of the exploitative working conditions that have come to define that sector. At the same time, however, the success of UGSDW and its counterparts suggests the potential for such workers to redefine the limits of union organizing in the US in ways that reshape the labor movement and its place in American life.

This week’s post comes from Jacob Schneyer, who, after leaving Grinnell and the UGSDW, went on to work as an organizer with SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana.

Looking back [on the 2018 interview], I don’t think I was wrong that UGSDW’s formation was unique and unlikely to be replicated elsewhere, but I did underestimate how successful other independent and student unions could be.  I think one reason for that might be the number of resources available now about the basic hard skills of organizing – I’m thinking of Jane McAlevey’s “Strike School” [described by McAlevey on as “an online training and networking program for organizers around the world”], and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee [a partnership between the Democratic Socialists of America and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America], for example.  Not having experienced organizers to help with those basics was a real challenge for us being independent.

On another note, I remember that we were baffled back then that large international unions weren’t enthusiastically putting resources into student worker organizing.  That’s begun to change, especially for graduate students, but I think the continued success of UGSDW and other undergrad unions shows there’s still so much room for growth.
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November 24th, 2023

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Janine Giordano Drake on her new book, The Gospel of Church

by Randi Storch  on November 3rd,2023
The Gospel of Church: How Mainline Protestants Vilified Christian Socialism and Fractured the Labor Movement, just published by Janine Giordano Drake (Oxford University Press, 2023), chronicles the battles between Christian Socialists and Protestant denominational leaders in the struggle to define the meaning of Christian nationhood. On one hand, a rising movement of Christian Socialists wanted to construct a “Christian nation” as a cooperative commonwealth characterized by the collective ownership of utilities and universal suffrage. On the other hand, Protestant denominational leaders wanted to “Americanize” European immigrants and other people of color but did not think that unions deserved independent cultural and moral authority. The book shows Protestant Social Gospel leaders to be forerunners of the Religious Right: Protestant pastors who took money from big business to advocate for brute capitalism to be transformed into welfare capitalism. The Christian reformers the book highlights were moderates, people who ultimately supported welfare capitalism over collective bargaining rights. Read more →

The 2022-23 Upsurge of Union Organizing and Strikes in Higher Education

by William Herbert  on October 21st,2023
By William A. Herbert, Jacob Apkarian and Joseph van der Naald* As this report documents, the recent uptick in union organizing has not been large enough to reverse the long-term decline in union density, yet the labor movement revitalization of the post-pandemic period is nevertheless an important development. Media attention has focused especially on the organizing drives at Amazon, Starbucks, Apple and other iconic brands. Yet while workers have voted to unionize in those companies, management intransigence has thus far meant that no collective bargaining agreements have been reached at any of them. By contrast, in other sectors of the economy, such as higher education and among medical interns and residents, the recent spate of organizing has led to significant gains. Read more →
William Riddell On the Waves of Empire

William D. Riddell On the Waves of Empire: U.S. Imperialism and Merchant Sailors, 1872-1924

by Ian Rocksborough-Smith  on August 31st,2023
Ian Rocksborough-Smith interviewed William D. Riddell about his new book On the Waves of Empire: U.S. Imperialism and Merchant Sailors, 1872-1924, published by the University of Illinois Press in 2023. Set mainly in the years preceding and following the Spanish-American War (1898) through World War I (1914-1918) and its aftermath, the book looks especially at the experiences of merchant sailors, their unions, and their labor leaders to indicate how class conflict impacted America’s emergent 20th Century empire. Read more →

Michael Pierce Testifies about the Origin of Right to Work

by Michael Pierce  on August 25th,2023
In March 2023 historian Michael Pierce testified on the origins of right to work before the Michigan Senate Labor Committee when it was debating the repeal.  The Michigan AFL-CIO had seen the piece Michael wrote for us in 2017, and asked him to help lawmakers understand how the history helps us to see the current purpose of the legislation that has been a major means of depleting union power across the United States. We are glad to present Prof. Pierce’s testimony below.
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Kevin Kenny on his new book, The Problem of Immigration in a Slaveholding Republic

by J. Hollis Harris  on August 4th,2023
Kevin Kenny, a noted scholar of labor history and immigration history, has recently published The Problem of Immigration in a Slaveholding Republic: Policing Mobility in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Oxford University Press 2023) which “explains how the existence, abolition, and legacies of slavery shaped American immigration policy as it moved from the local to the national level over the course of the nineteenth century.” J. Hollis Harris, a Ph.D. candidate at Northern Illinois University, interviewed him about his  book. While it is clear that The Problem of Immigration is not necessarily a classic “labor history,” can you offer a few reasons labor historians might want to pick up your book? Having spent most of my career writing history from the bottom up, I adopted a top-down perspective in this book because of the nature of the question I was addressing: Who claims authority over human mobility, and on what grounds? This approach required me to move away from social history toward legal, constitutional, and political history in ways I had not done before. Yet immigration history and labor history are inseparable, and the book directly addresses labor in several ways. Read more →

COVID-19 and Authoritarian Populism

by Aditya Sarkar  on July 26th,2023
Aditya Sarkar’s  essay, Pandemics, Labor Relations, and Political Regimes: The Bubonic Plague and COVID-19 Crises in India,” in issue 20:2 (May 2023) of Labor: Studies in Working Class History is available freely until September 30, 2023, courtesy of Duke University Press. The full essay appeared in the 20:2 (May 2023) issue of the journal. Subscriptions are part of LAWCHA membership.  Here we present Sarkar’s introduction and reflections on his essay. Read more →

The Making and Breaking of a Popular Front: The Case of the National Negro Congress

by Eric Arnesen  on July 2nd,2023
This is part of a series featuring authors of essays in the journal Labor: Studies in Working Class History.  Eric Arnesen discusses the main arguments of his recently published essay on the National Negro Congress and shares some great images and documents from his research. The full essay appeared in the 20:1 (March 2023) issue of the journal. Subscriptions are part of LAWCHA membership. Two decades before Rosa Parks and the Black community of Montgomery, Alabama launched what is known as “the modern civil rights movement” in 1955, activists met at Howard University in Washington, D.C. to discuss “The Position of the Negro in our National Economic Crisis.”  Most of those attending found the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal to be inadequate to the task of addressing the Great Depression and injurious of Black workers’ interests.  In the months that followed, they laid the groundwork for a new organization, the National Negro Congress (NNC), that promised to serve as a “weapon for Negro rights” by uniting a broad range of organizations, promoting grassroots protest, and advocating on behalf of interracial labor unity. Read more →

Labor and Public Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy

by Alex Lichtenstein  on June 22nd,2023
Few memorial landscapes have changed as much over the past decade than Montgomery, Alabama, the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” At one time, the city’s best known historic site and museum was the first White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis resided between February and May 1861. Today, that building, just adjacent to the Alabama State Capitol, is dwarfed in importance by a new memorial landscape in the city, anchored by the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. These two sites—pilgrimages, really, for Americans committed to racial justice and an honest reckoning with the history of white supremacy—now stand at the center of an urban memorial complex honoring the history of the civil rights movement. Read more →
school children crossing guards

Francis Ryan: Memories of the Labor of School Crossing Guards

by Francis Ryan  on June 13th,2023
Beginning with this essay, we initiate a series on essays that are appearing in the journal Labor. This one is the backstory to how Francis Ryan, an expert on public sector labor, came to write his new essay in issue 19:2: “You’ll Never Walk Alone”: School Crossing Guard Associations and Labor Feminism in the Postwar United States . A subscription to the journal where you can access this article is part of LAWCHA. membership. Like many children who started grade school in the 1970s, I walked to school. I attended a large parish school in Philadelphia six blocks from my home, and the stroll was not a direct line: to get there, I crossed seven streets and turned corners that led me to the yard where almost 1,500 children from first to eighth grades congregated before the opening bell. These streets I walked to were busy urban intersections—including the twelve-lane Roosevelt Boulevard—the busiest and most dangerous thoroughfare in the city. Read more →

Jake S. Friedman on The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War and Animation’s Golden Age

by Lisa Philips  on June 6th,2023
Lisa Phillips interviewed Jake S. Friedman, author of The Disney Revolt:  The Great Labor War and Animation’s Golden Age, published by the Chicago Review Press in 2022. Friedman makes use of previously untapped archival material and interviews to write a much needed, more thorough and nuanced, history of the momentous 1941 strike at the Walt Disney Studios.  Read more →


Want to contribute to LaborOnline? All LAWCHA members are invited to contribute. Graduate students, non-academics, and teachers are especially invited to share their stories, their ideas, interesting links, or anything else you think LAWCHA members and the general public might find interesting. To submit something, email Rosemary Feurer, LaborOnline editor.

Jane LaTour (1946-2023)

Bob Bussel, April 24th, 2023

What Would You Like to See in the Journal, Labor?

Rosemary Feurer, April 18th, 2023

Register for this zoom event Join Julie Greene, Shennette Garrett-Scott, Jessie Wilkerson, and Vanessa May for a discussion on April 20 at 7 pm EDT, via Zoom. They’ll be ready to share their vision for the journal, and offer advice on the review process. They are eager to hear your thoughts… Read more →

Kim Scipes & Jeff Schuhrke An Exchange

Kim Scipes, January 4th, 2023

We received the following post from Kim Scipes, objecting to Jeff Schuhrke’s essay about the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy, posted November 22.  Schuhrke’s reply to Scipes follows. -ed… Read more →