NUGW hosts event to teach unionization, outline efforts to gain official recognition


Daily file photo by Cameron Cook

Northwestern University Graduate Workers protest in Nov. 2019. “Unions 101: A Political Education Even” educated attendees on the process, history and types of unions.

Yunkyo Kim, Development and Recruitment Editor

Northwestern University Graduate Workers detailed ongoing efforts to receive official union recognition at a Friday event attended by about 50.

Aimed at educating attendees on the process, history and types of unions, “Unions 101: A Political Education Event” hosted three speakers, all members of NUGW, who gave presentations and answered questions.

As of now, NUGW has neither official recognition from University administrators nor the collective right to bargain for an employment contract, meaning NUGW is not a “recognized” union. However, it fulfills other features of a graduate union, presenter and former NUGW co-chair Kitty Yang said. This includes being a pro-democracy group of graduate workers protected from retaliation that advocates for improved pay and conditions.

“The more of us there are in NUGW, the better we can protect each other,” Yang said. “If anything happens to me, I know that everyone else is going to jump in and protect me so there’s protection on both sides. And we know that Northwestern is very concerned with its image.”

For a union to be officially recognized, more than 50 percent of the unit should show interest in a vote to unionize, Yang said. If this is met with pushback from the employer, then the workers wanting to form a union should submit a petition to the National Labor Relations Board or hire a third-party arbitrator to oversee an election.

If the campaign passes, Yang said, then employees can start bargaining to create a contract with their university. While NUGW is far from holding official votes, she said, the group is following the necessary steps to achieve the opportunity for an election in the future.

Following Yang’s part of the presentation, NUGW member and Ph.D. candidate Cinnamon Williams challenged the perception of unions as a mostly-White activist entity that solely prioritizes economic inequality. However, Williams said, there is a “very rich and radical history” of people of color, particularly Black women, who contributed to the history of unionism.

“If you look at historical records, people of color (have) pushed unions to the left,” Williams said. “People of color have pushed unions to be what they are in so many cases. I do also absolutely (see that) part of the misrepresentation of unions as racist and sexist is a ploy to stoke division.“

While some unions have discriminated against people of color in the past, the stories of unions that challenge racist employment practices are seldom told, Williams added.

The event also stressed that unions are not all “good.” Ph.D. candidate and NUGW member Eli Lichtenstein said this belief persists, even among many progressives.

“Folks who are new to unions often believe that all unions are in principle, good,” Lichtenstein said. “The idea is that any kind of workers’ organization that guarantees the right of workers to continue to organize is some kind of advancement … I personally think (that is) not true.”

Lichtenstein made a distinction between “rank-and-file” unionism and business unionism. Business unionism is a belief that unions should operate like businesses, which often connotate undemocratic practices and support hierarchical structure.

NUGW should “strive to be” a rank-and-file union, Lichtenstein said, which is “ultrademocratic,” “driven by membership” and addresses broader intersectional workplace conditions, including racism and sexism.

NUGW co-chair Zorimar Rivera Montes said she hopes the event will be the start of an educational series.

It’s important to host events like this, Rivera Montes said, so attendees can see how NUGW came into its current form and more graduate workers can get involved.

“This is an exciting and beautiful time to be union-building. We’ve seen outpouring of support and solidarity from all of you,” Rivera Montes said to the attendees.

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