Undergraduate student workers attend National Undergraduate Worker Convention

Students attended lectures and workshops on digital organizing and community building

Undergraduate student workers attend National Undergraduate Worker Convention

UMass

By Jack Underhill and McKenna Premus

The second annual National Undergraduate Worker Convention was held from Sept. 13 through Sept. 17, during which attendees participated in and attended various workshops and lectures on campaign planning, digital organizing and community building.

About 65 undergraduate workers and student organizers from 18 schools around the country attended the virtual conference series over Zoom. Attendees were given the opportunity to engage in dialogue with guest speakers and share their own experiences with student labor movements and organization.

“A problem in the world of undergraduate organizing is that too often we’re isolated to our own campuses, and we’re not able to have the sorts of training that you need to be able to really successfully launch a unionization campaign, which can be really hard,” said Emma Rose Borzekowski, one of the NUWC organizers. “So, we created a week-long convention that brought together 40 people from 10 schools. It was a really successful week.”

Borzekowski helped organize the first conference last year while working as a resident assistant at Wesleyan University, where she graduated in 2019.

“I got interested in student-worker unionization and learned about [the University of Massachusetts], Grinnell College and all of these other places that were trying to organize, but weren’t necessarily in touch with each other,” said Borzekowski. “So I talked with some organizers from the [Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union], and we realized that it would be really useful to have a space for undergraduates to meet and talk together… to build these sorts of connections and to give undergraduates the organizing skills they need to run campaigns successfully on their own campuses.”

According to Borzekowski, many of the attendees hold positions working in residential life, such as working as RAs, with others working as research assistants, teaching assistants, tutors or in their university’s athletic department.

The five-day conference consisted of two to three sessions each day. Student organizers from various colleges spoke over Zoom about initiating campaigns and getting others involved in working to fight for student workers’ rights, whether economically or socially. The first session opened on Sunday with guest speaker Jane McAlevey, a “renowned organizer and educator,” according to the Undergraduate Workers Union website. McAlevey’s lecture was then followed by a social session, during which students shared their own organizing stories.

As the week continued, the convention included speakers such as members of local chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops, a student-led labor organization that centers on collective liberation to build student and worker power. Other speakers discussed leadership, how to organize when student trauma is involved and fighting for the rights of international students. Many session leaders incorporated exercises where attendees joined breakout rooms and spoke more intimately about labor organizing and their own experiences with campaigning.

Each day ended with social events, such as Labor History Trivia or creating humorous presentations to share with their peers. On the final day, Barbara Madeloni, the former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and current education coordinator of Labor Notes, concluded the convention with a closing plenary to wrap-up everything covered over the week.

Aparna Gopalan, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in anthropology at Harvard University, spoke at the convention about labor organizing and international students. Gopalan said she was surprised at the number of people who attended the session.

“I was expecting a group of people who may not know very much about unions, labor organizing or higher education organizing struggles,” said Gopalan. “So my presentation was more introductory… [I] ultimately ended up in a room with very seasoned organizers from Grinell and UMass and other places, so we could get into the topic a lot more.”

While conducting the conference remotely presented some challenges, NUWC organizers said the virtual platform had some benefits, as well, allowing audience members around the country to attend and participate.

“Even though those challenges existed, it was also really exciting to see people talk to each other, calling in from California, the Midwest and the Northeast, seeing those connections form and having people being really animated in breakout groups from a really wide range of geographic areas was somewhat reassuring and exciting, that there are all of these possibilities,” said Borzekowski.

“I think it was also really cool the way it allowed us to have a really wide variety of trainers and speakers,” said Jacob Schneyer, one of the NUWC organizers and a student at Grinnell College. “Jane McAlevey, for example. I don’t think we would have been able to get her to come to an in-person event because she’s extremely busy, as well as a lot of the other trainers in different areas of the country doing lots of different work. So, I think it was a really good opportunity to get all those people to give us their knowledge and their experience.”

NUWC organizers said they hope attendees left the conference with new skills and organizing techniques to become involved in organizing in their respective campus communities.

“We want people to come away from this convention ready to do stuff like reorganizing work on their campuses, which, depending on their situations and what makes sense for them right now, could be stuff like starting a new undergraduate union, starting campaigns around minimum wage on campus, joining campaigns around racial justice and police on campus,” said Schneyer. “I think there’s a lot of issues and directions for people to take this, but I think what we’re really hoping is that they have the confidence and the skills to actually get something started that has a real effect on their campus and their community.”

“As undergraduates, we can feel very isolated in our organizing efforts…and we don’t have access to the tools and experience we need,” said Alice Troop, one of the NUWC organizers and co-chair of the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union at UMass. “But if you are learning those things along the way, you won’t make as many of those mistakes and you’ll be ready to ask questions that will help you get to the right place.”

“I think for me, it’s like a balance between concrete skills and [whether or not] people can change their mindsets and feelings around organizing,” said Jacey Woods, one of the NUWC organizers. “If your mindset on organizing is really negative or you feel alienated, then you really can’t build on those skills. So, I feel like [Madeloni] and her pep talk made me feel more motivated, and just to have that motivation and those concrete skills are the most important for me.”

Troop said she thinks the conference was “really successful,” especially in bringing student workers and organizers together.

“I think it will keep growing and I think part of what made it so successful is just the fact that it brought people together,” said Troop. “Barbara Madeloni talked about the expression ‘When we fight, we win,’ and I think she explained it in a way that people hadn’t considered before. The fact that you fought an act of fighting means that you won, and then you continue to make progress… and coming together is starting to create that progress.”

“Starting this process has been really motivating,” said Woods. “It’s not just a small group of four students on Zoom, it’s people from across the country. It’s just really inspiring.”

As for the future of NUWC, Troop hopes the conference’s attendees will remain involved and become part of the planning process for future events, as many of NUWC’s current organizers are juniors and seniors and will soon be graduating.

“There was a significant group of people who were at most of the sessions and who will be able to be more involved in the Undergraduate Worker Union as a whole, so we’re working on strengthening those connections and getting those people involved so that they can continue on the work when other people have to move on to other things or graduate,” said Troop. “That’s another difficult thing about undergraduate workgroups… is that people leave and graduate, but whatever they learned is not necessarily passed down to the next people.”

Editor’s note: Corrections were made to include the last section of Emma Rose Borzekowski’s name. The number of attendees were corrected to 65 instead of 40. Madeloni’s correct title was added, and she is the former president of MTA.

McKenna Premus can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @mckenna_premus. Jack Underhill can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JackUnderhill16.