Narrator: Hi there. My name is Emma Goehler and I’m a student at the School of Ed at the University of Virginia
You’re listening to Talking Union, a podcast produced by United Campus Workers of Virginia. We’re a union made up of workers at universities across the state of Virginia, and here’s the really important thing: we’re what’s called a “wall-to-wall” union. That means that, for our local chapters, anyone who works for the university can join. Student workers, faculty, staff. This organizing model is all about challenging the idea that different workers at the university ought to remain separate, and instead coming together to build power for all workers. We’re also a rank-and-file union, which means the union is run by its membership—people like me, as well as the other workers you’ll hear on the podcast today.
This podcast aims to demonstrate the principle of “wall-to-wall” organizing in practice. It’s also a way of reconstructing the norms of our workplace, and doing so intentionally, with our collective aims bringing us together instead of keeping us apart. So, on this show, you’ll hear workers from different universities, and from different parts of those universities. There’s no interviewer, and no host, so you won’t be hearing much more from me. Instead, you’ll hear two people in conversation, talking about their experiences in their own words. Unions are their members, and our goal is to make ourselves heard.
This episode is called “Wall-to-Wall at VCU.” It features two workers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who ordinarily might have no reason to be in conversation: a student worker in the Anthropology department, and a faculty member who teaches on the medical campus and works at VCU’s hospital.
We were excited to bring them together as a kind of experiment: what happens when union organizing gives us the opportunity to hear the stories of people we might never have met otherwise? You’ll hear some reflections on creating solidarity across difference; you’ll hear about pandemic parenting (and dog-parenting); and you’ll hear the surprising fact that VCU’s adjunct professors actually don’t make a million dollars a year!
Okay, here’s the show:
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Jack: My name is Jack. I am turning 30 in like two weeks. My pronouns are they/them, and I am currently an undergraduate student worker. I'm working in the School of World Studies as a receptionist and my degree is going to be in Anthropology.
Elle: My name is Elle. I am a faculty member on the medical campus at VCU. And I use she or they as my pronouns. I worked in the hospital for about 10 years and I also am currently employed as a provider in one of the medical clinics one day a week at VCU Health. I was just going to ask you to tell me more about your role and what you do and your experience.
Jack: So, my role is a pretty simple student job in that I basically answer questions that people have when they come into the school of World Studies. So, it's not a particularly high stress job or anything like that, but I do like being able to get in touch with the students and professors more. Sorry, that sounded like an interview answer.
Elle: [laughs] Well, it is an interview, kind of.
Jack: That’s true! There we go. [Elle laughs]
Elle: Okay. Okay. And how long have you been working there?
Jack: I started last semester. So this is my second semester doing it. I started back at VCU after a seven-year absence. In, spring 21 so that's been kind of wild going back to school as an adult, and then also going back to school during the pandemic as an adult has been really strange.
Elle: Mhmm. Mhmm. And what made you want to join the Union?
Jack: So I actually have personal connections with people who are in the union and I was asked to join as a student worker, so that I could essentially help talk to both professors and students about it. I agreed because, essentially, even though the job that I have is not difficult or, you know, not properly compensated, that's not really the point of the union. It's not just about what I want to get done for myself, but about how other employees should be treated, basically.
Jack: So it sounds like you have a lot of different jobs.
Elle: Yes, I do. [laughs]
Jack: That's that's the big thing I was thinking when you were talking about it, I'm like, okay, so faculty. And in, what, the clinic once a week?
Elle: Yeah, I work as a clinician in one of the outpatient clinics at VCU Health, um, one day a week. So that allows me to maintain my practice and my certification, and just helps keep me sort of engaged so that I'm a better faculty member for the students. And I mentioned I worked in the hospital previously for about 10 years, before becoming a faculty member. So yeah, I kinda, I actually have three different places and roles that I go. I still am at home quite a bit now as well, so I'm kind of all over the place.
Jack: And so you said students, do you teach classes?
Elle: Yeah, yep. I teach classes and I have, cohorts of students who graduate every spring, they're graduate students. And then I actually also taught a Gen Ed course this past fall, which I developed for the new curriculum. And that was my first time doing just regular undergrads. so usually I'm doing professional grad students.
Jack: What made you decide to join the union?
Elle: I wasn't very familiar with the unions. It's not something that I had been exposed to much just always having lived and worked in Virginia. And I actually had had some people I knew who were in unions that weren't that great in like other fields and professions. So. Although I really liked the concept of it, I had more of kind of like a negative impression of what it was like, just in terms of hierarchy and more like replicating capitalism in a union or something. So I was a little bit hesitant about it, but, actually one of the other union members reached out to me. We connected through a different listserv. And they noticed that I was, asking about unions. And so that was sort of at the very early stages of UCW, I guess, maybe like a year ago. and so I ended up meeting with a couple people and decided to join. And primarily my interest is in improving working conditions for people who are not faculty. Aand it's always good to improve any work conditions, but I'm pretty interested in like improving graduate student workers. And I actually hadn't really considered undergrad student workers either. So that too, and then people who are in staff positions, facilities positions, things like that, that may not be as vocal or as known as faculty members. So that's, that's my interest, and hoping that we can expand and do more with that.
Jack: I think I might actually be one of the only undergraduate student workers. I'm not a hundred percent sure on that so don’t quote me on it, but, there definitely aren't a lot of us. Yhere's definitely been some really interesting responses, from different people about like their perceptions of the union. And it's been kind of similar to like what you were thinking about, where it was like, you know, the reproduction of these hierarchies. And as someone who has been very left for a very long time, I'm like, what are you talking about? And then I have to like, step back and think about it and be like, okay, now, we live in Virginia, we live in the, what is it? The business-friendly state. So this isn't, this isn't necessarily a standard experience. But yeah, it's been kind of interesting trying to work with the different ideas of what is a union. And then also, you know, when people talk about it, like someone was like, oh, it just seems like there's a bunch of people who are like really privileged there and just, you know, doing that. And I'm like, well then that's one of the reasons that we should join so that we can bring in these different perspectives. If you think the people who, you know, are in the union are, say, out of touch, then that's a very good reason to join an organization, to try to bring it around to what you think should be happening. Especially one that is pretty young. this isn't a hundred year old union.We're not like, you know, like ‘this is how it has to be!’. that's been an interesting challenge.
Elle: Yeah. I agree with that. I don't have as much personal experience with talking to people about that, but I'm involved with the bylaws committee that's looking at the statewide bylaws, and I think there is a tension there in terms of how to include people who may have different political views, who work in different types of roles. And whether the union should have a political stance or not, which I don't think that it should, I think it should be as apolitical as possible so that it can be inclusive of a variety of different people. But, you know, there's different opinions on that. Some of the people would prefer it to be more political and it'd be making statements about various things, to kind of go in that direction. I'm curious, like if you have any specific examples, you can think of that, like you talked to someone and what they had to say.
Jack: Yeah, yeah. Um, no, it was actually just basically that exact conversation. They have, they have this idea that professors at VCU are like, you know, like Harvard, like wearing a cap and like a little, like robes and everything everywhere and making like a million dollars a year.
And I'll admit, like when I found out what the adjuncts are making at VCU, I was like, agape. I was like, are you kidding me? Like I made more money working at Best Buy. and so that's one of the things that I've really been trying to, you know, kind of work against. One of my friends described it very well, as it's a very high prestige job.
And so people assume that because there's the prestige, there's a high pay that goes with it. And it's like, no, like there's, that is absolutely not the case. And so I think that's been kind of the most difficult thing, having to kind of work against with people's ideas. this has mostly been like grad students. Like, you know, we have much more in common with each other than we think we do. When we don't interact with each other, then we don't realize that we actually are in the exact same boat. Because you know, I was in retail for like six years, I went to school, dropped out, did retail for a long time and then came back, and it's just been interesting seeing these ideas we have about jobs and how much we think they make versus how much they actually, and who ends up actually having to be essentially the bread winner in the situation.
Elle: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Like my grad students, the vast majority of them, work either part-time or full-time while they're in school and they may get benefits through that, or they could get it through a spouse, I guess, but that's a completely different thing than someone who is getting a PhD in some science related field and they're working in the lab 40-plus hours a week. They can't have another job where they could potentially get… and I, as a single person, I don't like the idea that, you know, some people can get it through their spouses and other people can't. That's inequitable.
Jack: Right. Yeah. Cause I mean, that's something actually that I've talked about with my roommate. I have a very long-term roommate that I am not in a relationship with, which throws a lot of people off. And they’re like, “yeah, but at your age, shouldn't you be like married?” No, we're not married, but like, even though we essentially have a very similar relationship to a married couple, like I don't have access to like her insurance or any of that other stuff. And that's been a huge problem for us because until very recently I just didn't have health insurance. so I definitely understand that as like a frustrating point of like having to be part of like a system you don't necessarily want to be a part of because otherwise, what’s going to happen if you get sick?
Elle: Yeah. Yeah, no, totally. That's like a big thing that I'm, uh, talking about a lot is that the state of Virginia doesn't allow any kind of domestic partnership or anything like that for sharing benefits. And I just have a real problem with that. And your situation is perfect because it's something outside of the norm of society that we might call it. But why shouldn't you be able to benefit from having that type of personal relationship in your life? yeah, I can harp about that for a long time and it's very frustrating. So I've always been single, never married, and I'm not interested in getting married, but it frustrates me that I have these great benefits as a faculty member and I can't share them with anyone else.
Jack: Right, right, right. we actually toyed with the idea of getting like technically married, but then it was like, yeah, but what if either of us wants to get married later? it's definitely not the easiest thing. And it's one of those where, being LGBT, it's like an interesting difference for like what families are accepted as families and which ones aren't.
Elle: I'm completely with you. that kind of thing is Probably way down the road as something that maybe the union can address, but that's, I think what we should be looking at to just more equitable conditions, for everyone. How many hours a week do you work? Just out of curiosity.
Elle: 10 hours, gotcha.
Jack: because I am a federal work study student, there is a – which I find really interesting – there's a limit. So it's like my federal work student aid goes up to a certain dollar amount. And then after that I don't get any hours, essentially. So it's kind of this weird balance of keeping me under the dollar limit so that I can continue working.
Elle: Gotcha. Okay [laughs]
Jack: You sound like you're really very, very full-time. [00:25:00]
Elle: [laughs] Yeah, it adds up. Yeah, yeah. Faculty work is different in that it's more flexible and we may have time that we have to be in class or have to be in meetings or whatever. But we can often kind of flex our time otherwise, which is actually one of the appeals of it to me, because I'm a single parent and that just really helps my life a lot more. I think that that's a big privilege that we have as faculty members that maybe we get used to it and don't think about it. I'm not sure, you know, I don't want to speak for other people. But when I notice the staff members where I work, who it's much more structured, like they need to be at work at a certain time. They clock in and out and maybe you're probably more like that too; that has its own challenges associated with it. Of course you need both because even working in the hospital, you have to be there at a certain time and you have to have coverage for taking care of the patients. So we can't have everything, but I think keeping those differences in mind, like you were saying, just hearing from other people, what their experiences like is important. For example, looking at how things are different in different areas and the School of the Arts. They have a lot of adjuncts and it's really hard to get a full-time faculty position there. So there's a lot of people getting that adjunct salary for teaching… however, you know, two, three, however many courses a semester. Whereas like where I work, most of the adjuncts have another full-time job and they do the adjunct on the side. So that's completely different. They're not trying to live off of the adjunct salary.
Jack: Right. And that, that one always kind of makes me crazy is because I have heard that, even like VCU has kind of been to adjuncts, like, ‘well, why don't you just get another job?’ And it's like, like, why don't you either get a job that is full-time somewhere else? Or like, get a second job, like obviously. And it's this idea that I feel like has appeared in the last, like 10 years in the US where it's like, okay, I have one job that is actually a full-time job, but it doesn't make enough. And then it's like, well, clearly you should just be working more. [Elle laughs] And that's so wild to me, having to have two or three jobs even to make it. it shocks me when people don't see that there's like something very wrong with that.
Elle: Right. Yes, exactly. And like you were saying, because we don't have certain basic social needs met, then people do have to base their employment decisions on things like where they can get benefits or how much money they're going to make and things like that, which is more general, but definitely a challenge.
Jack: That actually just reminded me. I recently came into a situation where I was trying to get like dental insurance, but then found out that because I am on Medicaid, I can't get insurance. My options are either stay on Medicaid or buy insurance directly from an insurance company for full price. and that one also kind of was like, are you serious? And then, you know, kind of the thing in the back was like, well, just go to job that gives you insurance. And I'm like, I'm a full-time student.
Elle: Yeah, you're trying to go to school.
Jack: Like, I am spending a significant amount of money to be in school. So I can't just like get a full-time job. And then like ruin my ability to go to school
Elle: Yeah. Yeah.
Jack: Like I quit my job to go to school.
Elle: Right. Exactly. Well, I actually work with a lot of patients who are on Medicaid. And so I've seen that the dental thing and vision and hearing aids and actually hearing aids are hardly covered by any, I don't think they're covered by any insurances. that always really bothers me because dental care is extremely important for overall physical health. And they're not getting it.
Jack: I think the other part too, that I would really want to impress, upon people that I would like to join the union is that like, what we tend to think of is like, I'm doing fine is oftentimes like, okay. But like, would you, would you want like your, you know, your mom to live like that? Would you want your children to have to live like this? Or even just hearing like, you know, ‘well, you know, like in XYZ place, um, you just don't have to do that.’ I think that's one thing that has been a really big driver for me personally. You know, the things that I think are normal and acceptable are like absolutely like abhorrent to a lot of people.
Elle: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And because we just don't always know what's going on with others in society or within where we work, then sometimes it's just not having any awareness of what could be possible.
Narrator: Hey there, it’s Emma again. I’m just jumping in to mention that we recorded this conversation in January of 2022, during the difficult and depressing period when the Omicron variant sent coronavirus cases through the roof. Toward the end of their conversation, Elle and Jack took some time to reflect on the pandemic, and what it’s been like to work and study under the conditions of COVID-19.
Elle: I feel like I was sort of just in a holding pattern for the past couple of years, I'm like, okay, I don't really know what to expect. I'm learning how to be more flexible and kind of just seeing how things go. this past couple of weeks to month has been worse, I think, than the very beginning was. My child was able to go to full-time daycare last year. So I didn't have the burden of having to take care of him at home while I was trying to work and school him. So anyway, that that was something I was very fortunate that I can afford on my salary because I wasn't planning on paying for full time daycare for a year. I think the good things about it have been developing a lot more flexibility in skills and online teaching. I actually had done some online teaching previously, but everyone who's been teaching through this has learned a lot about, how to be more effective with online teaching. So that's I guess, somewhat of a silver lining. I know there's been a lot of concerns and challenges with how the university has responded and how the university has, dealt with various different situations and interacted with employees. Personally that has not affected me to a huge extent. And I did teach in person last semester and I'm teaching a person this semester, which actually, like, I feel worse about this semester than I did last semester. [laughs] I only had like, I think two students who had COVID last semester, but I already have one this semester who has it. I don't know what'll happen. We’ll see. There's like the work aspect of it and the personal aspect of it. And it's kind of fluctuated for me. Like at first I hated working from home, then I was like, oh, this isn't so bad. And then I hated it again. And then I was like, oh, well, there's some pros to this. And so it, it, yeah, it's a lot of fluctuation and change.
Jack: I can't imagine doing this with a child. Oh my gosh. Like I've been having a hard enough, this is embarrassing, but I've been having a hard enough time with my, senior dog. [Elle laughs]. Because we were essentially, my roommate who worked from home before the pandemic, but we were home for like straight two years. And now that, um, my roommate is still work from home, but it's working for home with someone who's basically in our pod. And that I'm going to school. He's like freaking out. [Elle laughs] So like, I can't even imagine, trying to deal with that with a child and like what that's been doing to like kids, cause like a kid who's like five years old is only really going to remember living like this and that's… that freaks me out. But yeah, so like big props to like literally anybody, you have kids and a job… and like that's…But the pandemic is actually what made me decide to go back to school. I actually was working in an office, a not well-paying, but an office doing third-party dispatch for a company that did trucking. we got to March 15th, they set up everything up. They bought a whole bunch of computers and they sent us all home. But then it was like, we were told we weren't allowed to tell the truckers that we were working from home. Because hen they might feel bad.
Elle: What?! Oh my goodness.
Jack: I realized very quickly that that wasn't about us and them. It was about the fact that the truckers weren't getting any protections at all. Obviously, they figured it out very quickly because honestly they expected it. Like, um, like if we'd been like, oh yeah, we're still at the office that they were would have been like, "what's wrong with them? [Elle laughs] Like you can just leave." But one of the things that really got me was just, I, I quit that job and I had off and on, was trying to work retail during the pandemic essentially. And the just absolute… lack of care, it was very much like a, um, die for the economy kind of situation. when you work retail, you know that like your wellbeing doesn't mean anything and that really wears on you. But for me, the, like the fact that like my physical, like remaining alive wasn't even important. And it wasn't unimportant to say like, you know, like a CEO who was kind of this like mysterious, you know, unreachable figure. It was people who like directly, I worked for. Yeah, my own bosses were like, yeah, ‘he died, like that's not my problem.’ And so that's what took me back to school, because I was like, "I can't do this anymore." When I was still at the call center dispatch situation, I remember there was a woman who was like, this was really early in, we had just hit a hundred thousand deaths. She called in because we weren't doing deliveries into people's houses because it's a pandemic.
Jack: Like, it seems pretty obvious, but she was really angry because she needed her stuff inside and she couldn't pick it up herself. and I was like, ma'am we aren't doing that because of the pandemic. And. What she said which has stuck with me this whole time was, um, ‘well, you know, if they didn't want to take the risks, they shouldn't have accepted the job.’And I was like ‘the risks of what, being a trucker before? Like also what?’ What in general? Um, and so that actually that conversation was it for me. I was like, "no, I can't do this anymore." And I was extremely lucky that I was in a situation in which I could quit and basically keep my house, you know, or not keep it, like staying where I was renting and still eat. But…
Jack: So like in a weird way, things have been going a lot better for me, like personally, but like watching everything kind of collapse around me. So that's been a really weird experience.
Elle: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Well, I think that that's a part of what got the adjuncts to start organizing because they were teaching and they didn't have health insurance. yeah, it's challenging because there are certain professions, like in healthcare where you do sign up for risks like that, going into those fields and, you know, we don't have the option to not take care of patients. And I think similarly of teaching, like, K-12. I know a lot of the teachers have a lot of concerns and I completely get that. But it's also like, "well, kids really need to go to school" and it's, I don't think there's a good answer. It's, it's really difficult.
Jack: Honestly, I will also say like, it makes me feel like an old person, but, the students I've been weirdly proud of, because I feel like at VCU, the students have been working really, really hard to like, not mess around. Like the other day, I was in a much smaller classroom than I had ever been in while back. And that was the first time someone sat directly next to me in like years. So that's at least been one kind of like bright spot for me, is that the students and the faculty and everyone is very serious about like trying to stay as safe as possible.
Elle: Yeah. Yeah. I agree with that. I haven't had any issues with any students that I've interacted with, with people who seem to be disregarding precautions or anything like that. And I think everyone probably is for the most part, trying to do their best. You've talked a little bit about some of your thoughts about like goals for the union, but where do you see the union going? Maybe in the next year?
Jack: My biggest goal is getting more people who have jobs that are kind of like underrepresented. Like, I'd really like to get in touch with the people who work at the food court or, the other kind of like retail food service jobs that are on campus. Because, I know for a fact like the people who were working at Shaffer, for the most part, unless they directly know like adjuncts, they assume that they make like $80,000 a year. And, I think that kind of class solidarity would be a huge boon. Like if we could get people from all of the different parts of campus to say, you know, "we're all workers, we're all underpaid. We have different needs because we're in different, arenas. But like, we have more in common with each other than we do with like a, essentially the state" or whatever, then I think that would be huge.
Elle: Yeah. Yeah. I'm completely with you on that. I'd say that would be one of my biggest goals for the near future as well. So, having kind of a cohesive plan and a way of including people from all different locations and types of employees.
Jack: No, for sure. I think that would be nothing but good for the union.
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So that’s our conversation! Huge thanks to Elle and Jack for sharing their stories.
This episode was recorded by Piers Gelly. Piers Gelly wrote the episode, and Emily Gadek edited and mixed it. We had transcript help from Erin Jordan, and production help from Stephen Marrone.
The music in this episode is by Guy Blue; you can hear more at guyblue.com.
And if you’d like to learn more about United Campus Workers of Virginia, please check out our website, ucwva.org, or say hi online. We’re @ucwva on Twitter, and on Instagram we’re @ucwvirginia.