Sixty gather to rally in support of Labor Center

By Hannah Depin

(Jessica Picard/ Daily Collegian)
(Jessica Picard/ Daily Collegian)

Roughly 60 people gathered outside the Student Union Monday afternoon to rally in support of the Labor Center, which has been surrounded by controversy amid claims that the University of Massachusetts is aiming to eliminate the program.

Professors, students and other activists criticized the University’s cuts to the program and emphasized its fight for the Labor Center is part of a larger battle to protect the rights of working class people and keep higher education affordable.

“Our people are under attack because of the cuts to the Labor Center,” said Satiago Vidales, co-chair of the Graduate Employee Organization, who led the rally. “Let’s keep it on the horizon that this is part of a larger attack on public institutions.”

Vidales added he believes the fate of the Labor Center could determine the fate of other small, “radical” departments such as sociology, Afro-American studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies. He and others emphasized that these programs may be under threat because they are not seen by the University as revenue generators.

Organizers circulated bright-green flyers throughout the rally that read “Education not Revenue Generation!”

The controversy began in September when a letter written by former Labor Center director Eve Weibaum was circulated online. In the letter, Weibaum described gradual cuts to the program over time and claimed that the University was defunding it because it was not profitable. Weibaum’s account conflicts with John Hird’s, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Hird said the letter was full of “misrepresentations and errors.”

Sociology professor Stellan Vinthagen said labor rights and labor studies programs are being undermined across the United States at the rally. He called for collective action in the face of the budget cuts.

“Education, we say, is not for sale and not about making a profit,” Vinthagen said.

Monday’s rally coincided with a scheduled meeting about the Labor Center between Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and other stakeholders.

“This meeting is a victory on our behalf,” said former Labor Center adjunct professor David Cohen, whose position was cut this year. “But this is a first step and it’s going to take a lot of fighting. We’re not going to win today.”

Cohen added that the University was founded to educate the working class students of Massachusetts and cuts to the Labor Center and other programs are pricing those same students out.

Jon Weissman, a representative from Western Mass. Jobs with Justice, said that the budget cuts must be restored within months in order for the Labor Center to survive.

“Let me emphasize that there’s a very small window,” Weissman said.

Many of the speakers lamented the rising cost of higher education and accused the University and state legislature of making purely profit-driven decisions, such as Labor Center student and GEO union organizer Anais Surkin. Surkin believes the University’s budget issues are a “manufactured fiscal crisis” and administrators do not value the Labor Center as much as other programs.

“We have a giant new business school over there … to educate the ruling class,” Surkin said, gesturing toward the Isenberg School of Management.

College of Education graduate student Fermin Valle praised the Labor Center’s work and emphasized its need in the community.

“This is a nationally recognized program able to produce a host of leaders that will lead an entire class in this country, and that class is the working class,” Valle said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Valle led the protestors in a series of chants, including “they say cut back, we say fight back.”

Vidales addressed the crowd before the event concluded. “Contracts aren’t won by good arguments,” he said. “They’re won by people power.”

Hannah Depin can be reached at [email protected]