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VCU Union: New Hope for Organizing in the South

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Closeup of a Black woman with warm brown skin speaking into a microphone. Her hair is pulled back; she wears a BLM mask, but the slight drawing-together of her eyebrows and the look in her eyes show deep concern. A bit of a college building shows in the background.

In the capital of the old Confederacy, Virginia Commonwealth University workers organize for their rights and their community.

In Richmond, capital of the old Confederacy, workers at Virginia Commonwealth University announced April 26 that they had formed a union called the United Campus Workers of VCU (UCW-VCU). While this new union, like others, seeks to improve the conditions, pay and benefits of its membership, UCW-VCU views its mission as far more expansive and holistic than fighting solely for the interests of higher education workers. The UCW-VCU story is about defending workers, empowering students, and pushing against defunding, privatization and neoliberalism in higher education. UCW intends to bring a social justice unionism model able to push for higher education that is consistent with the expansion of democracy, and opens a discussion on what it means to unionize the South, and how public sector unions can fight against white supremacy.

VCU is one of Virginia’s 15 public universities. Public workers in Virginia lack collective bargaining rights, a legacy of Jim Crow segregation. But “that does not preclude the VCU administration from collaborating and being responsive on an issue by issue basis. It is our hope to have a fruitful relationship built on shared commitment to making VCU the best university it can be,” the union wrote in its letter to the administrators announcing its formation. UCW-VCU includes faculty, staff, and graduate student workers. It formed as a non-majority union, a bottom-up organizing strategy with a long tradition in the South. This allows it to organize, advocate, and build strength instead of starting with the difficult and often bruising National Labor Relations Board election process.

Kelsey Huelsman, a member of the steering committee of the University of Virginia chapter of United Campus Workers, welcomed UCW-VCU to the statewide union. “Just as we are stronger when we’re united across departments and classifications at one university, we are also stronger when we unite workers across campuses in order to beat back those who seek to under fund and privatize higher education,” Huelsman said. “Together, we’ll win a Virginia public higher education system we can be proud of.”

COVID-19 triggers union drive

UCW-VCU founding member Kristin Reed, an associate professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry, noted the COVID-19 pandemic was the trigger for forming the union. While she has benefits and has felt lucky, Reed realized many faculty lack healthcare, and long term organizing was the only to change things. “Over the past 12 years I have become more aware the feeling of luck is manufactured by the low conditions of our faculty workforce. I’ve had to wrestle that faculty with children don’t have maternity leave,” Reed said. “Faculty have had to leave because of cancer, and we have to cover their classes without pay. The fact we have to do it off the books… We don’t have leave, we don’t have short term disability benefits and that’s really precarious,” she added.

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The Amazon union effort in Alabama brought home to Reed the necessity of change. “I don’t believe there’s any more important area to do labor organizing than the South. The South has the largest Black workforce, a large Latinx force, and because of that some of the worst worker conditions in the country,” she said.

The VCU union has positioned itself to challenge white supremacy in public policy, anti-Black racism in Richmond, and neoliberal policies promulgated by the university. An urban university, VCU is located in the middle of Richmond. While the city leadership understood the need for the institution to serve the needs of the working class, Reed noted that the priorities have pivoted from meeting the needs of local students to becoming a world-class national institution recruiting students from out of state. Tuition rates have increased, putting a VCU education out of reach for young people in the community.  On top of that, the university has contracted out food service, maintenance, and other work done by hourly workers of color. This has forced many Black Richmonders to live with poverty wages, stripped of their pensions, benefits and security.

Under the banner #TheVCUWeDeserve, UCU-VCU invited Richmond Public Schools Senior Lux Aghomo to its April 26 rally. Aghomo, a Black student activist, noted the connection between VCU’s failure to do right by adjuncts and failure to do right by the Richmond community as a whole. In particular she challenged VCU for having a Black student population at 17% – far lower than 45% of Richmonders who are African-American.

“I want students to be in my classroom. It won’t happen with adopting corporate models of governance,” Reed said of the need to make higher education more accessible, and the work of the union to create a dedicated admissions pipeline. Students will be able to join the union to build solidarity and conjoin worker and student advocacy.

University displaces community

“We cannot have any good faith discussion about racial justice without talking economic justice, and shared community governance,” said Reed, citing the highly paid VCU administration, and the displacement of Black Richmonders as the university buys up land. “Acquisition of land reflects the power of the real estate industry, not the needs of students. As it displaces residents, “the administration is rolling out initiative after initiative that purports to address racism on campus. Structural racism will not be solved by individualistic interventions like anti-bias training. We need really significant policy changes and structures until people on the ground level have more power,” Reed said.

“It’s about worker issues, but really it’s bigger than worker issues,” says Rose Szabo, an adjunct faculty member and union organizer at VCU. Szabo characterized VCU as “a university gradually expanding to fill a city and then no longer serving the city it now occupies,” and connected the dots between university land development and low pay for adjuncts, wage theft, classist and racist treatment of contract workers, and exploitative practices such as paying staff with gift cards. “The expansion and privatization of VCU are things the union can push back against. We wouldn’t be just serving our interests, better pay and benefits, we’d also serve our community and Richmond at large,” they said.

“These things are so closely related. [The administrators] say they can’t pay adjuncts a living wage but purchased a night club and just shut it down. They have money for these expensive land grabs to sanitize the adjacent area, and doubled the salary of the president, but can’t pay a living wage to their workers,” Szabo added, noting that although they have two masters degrees, their salary is more in line with a dining hall worker than with VCU President Michael Rao.

According Szabo, the union is fundamentally about their community, the city of Richmond.  “I’ve lived here on and off for 10 years. I went to VCU for undergrad, and I see how it’s changed the community and not for the better.”  The union offers “the ability to build real power and make VCU the VCU we want it to be,” they said, emphasizing that everyone deserves an affordable, high-quality education.

Szabo shared a story of a dining hall worker who was frustrated that VCU had no tuition benefit. “He was working on campus and he couldn’t use it. He was taking a bus to community college five or six miles away when he was right there. That’s what we can do better to advocate. Students become workers, workers become students,” they said.

The defeat of the  Amazon workers’ union drive in Alabama hit Szabo hard. “We were deeply sad to see the Bessemer union defeated by the aggressive and hostile efforts by Amazon to bust the union, but it is not over. We cannot go back to pretending things are OK in the South,” they said. “I think the South’s history of these deeply racist right to work laws that are made to bust multiracial working-class unions can’t be ignored when looking at the South.”

UCW-VCU part of a wave of change

Change is coming to Virginia, driven by young people and dedicated activists of color. There are many factors at play. For example, as Rose Szabo mentioned, Gen Z is coming of age, millennials realize they cannot afford a house, and there is a growing sense of discontent among the college-educated with their jobs and working conditions. “The pandemic was a catalyst for things that were already untenable and now unsustainable. A lot of reasons why these movements are emerging right now on college campuses is because college campuses became radicalized by the Movement for Black Lives,” they said.

Progressive political leaders are celebrating the UCW-VCU effort, including gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Sam Rasoul, who is running for lieutenant governor. Their bonafides have earned them both endorsements from groups such as Richmond For All, CASA,  Working Families Party and Sunrise Movement. Rasoul attended Monday’s rally in person. Carroll Foy released two videos in support. Sean Perryman, another progressive candidate for lieutenant governor and the former president of the NAACP’s Fairfax, VA chapter also released a statement in support. Even State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a gubernatorial candidate whose hesitancy to support full repeal of right-to-work laws has hampered her campaign, released a statement on Twitter in support.

Carroll Foy described the union as “a giant step forward for true democracy.” Rasoul agreed, saying that “the unionization effort at VCU is not only historic in its own right, but will be a model for organizing everywhere by showing the power of unionism as a force that can challenge our public institutions to live up to their true democratic potential.”

A time of promise and challenge

The formation of UCW-VCU and a renewed, growing interest in labor unions in the South and beyond come at a time of promise and challenge for the union movement.

“What we have been seeing is unions receiving higher and higher favorability ratings in polls. This is due to the impact of neoliberalism and the wealth polarization, power polarization, relocation of industries and businesses,” said labor activist and author Bill Fletcher Jr.

“On the other hand, we are facing an increased level of anti-union repression. They can be public sector and private sector. We saw an example of that in the Amazon case,” Fletcher noted.

The UCW-VCU can be seen as part of the resurgence of teachers’ unions that has taken place over the past decade.  Cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee and Los Angeles witnessed “a new reform minded, progressive, left-leaning leadership emphasizing a new form of unionism, social justice unionism, where they were reaching out to communities” and bringing student and community issues into their bargaining, Fletcher said.

This approach, also called “bargaining for the common good,” can be just what is needed. “Workers live in communities. Wages and hours may not be the principal concern of the workers,” Fletcher said. “In the South, you realize if the union says they’re fighting for better wages, that might not be enough. Some people think that’s a pipe dream. If $15 an hour is a high wage in Bessemer, why do they think they can do any better than that?

“If you’re making an argument about unions, you have to be more comprehensive than wages,” Fletcher noted. “Certainly working conditions, maybe the role the company is playing in the community, the issues of potential advancement in the company, maybe health and safety issues. It could be about what are the challenges you face on the way to work.” The union needs to offer an inspirational vision of what the union stands for, and what makes it different. “People can be inspired to do exceptional things if they are captured by an extraordinary vision….

“Virginia is fertile ground,” Fletcher said, and UCW-VCU provides a vision of labor organizing where workers unite across classifications, and unions fight not only to improve their own conditions, but for justice and equity in their community.


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