Narrator: Hi there. My name is Brandi Ferrebee, and I’m a temp 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. Instead we have come 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 UVA.” It features two workers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who ordinarily might have no reason to see each other as peers: a student worker majoring in History, and a postdoctoral fellow who’s also in the History department.
We were excited to bring them together as a kind of experiment: what happens when union organizing gives us the opportunity to speak as equals with people who have a very different experience of the same institutional space?
In this conversation, you’ll hear about the issues facing UVA student workers at the moment; you’ll hear some thoughts on how to create institutional memory when campus activists are constantly graduating; and you’ll hear why universities are justifiably terrified of the power of mass student activism.
Okay, here’s the episode!
Sarandon: My name is Sarandon, she/they pronouns, and I am a student worker at the University. And I'm also, of course, a member of UCW.
David: I’m David. He/him pronouns. I am a postdoctoral fellow at UVA and a member of UCWVA.
Sarandon: David, I'd be curious to know, you know, if you're a post-doc, you could be doing anything with your time. why is organizing and labor organizing, like important? Why are you spending your time doing this work?
David: I was a member of the steering committee of my grad student union when I was in grad school. That was very, that was very important to my sense of identity as a graduate student worker. it was something that I devoted a lot of time and energy to. I've forged lifelong friendships from doing the work so when I came to UVA, well, two things. One, I wanted to try to continue to do that, as much as possible, even in the changing circumstances. I was hired here in 2020. So at the height of the pandemic where it was very difficult to get to know people [laughs] in a new place, you know, but also, I come from a union family. my dad and my brother are both civil servants in Minnesota. they're both members of the union there and they're active in organizing. so, for me, a big part of it is this is just sort of the norm. Right? you're in a new place, you join the union. that's just what you do. what about yourself?
Sarandon: I think it's for a couple of reasons that I think that labor organizing and UCW is so important. I think just like growing up, like Black in the south, like just seeing how workers, especially Black workers have always been like treated, and you know, really exploited. my mom was a single mom, like worked constantly. I didn't really know what to do until probably the summer, right before I transferred to UVA from community college, I worked on Martha's Vineyard as a server. Just seeing the massive amount of wealth, right? And then you have workers like servers, kitchen staff, you know, just treated like absolute garbage on the island. A lot of students come from like the Caribbean and Eastern Europe to work, on the island and they just really take advantage of students. But also it was really transformative for me to see… there was a bus strike on the island when I was there and, you know, the bus drivers, they won a lot of their demands. And I was like, wait, this is, this is really cool. Especially like being in that time when, like, I was like, again, like working really long hours, all my, you know, my coworkers were like, God, like, you know, you know, what do we even do about this? And so to be able to see that win was really cool. And then of course I transferred to UVA in the fall of 2019 and I joined the Young Democratic Socialists of America. And through that, we did a lot of political education and I learned to not only is like organizing important, but especially labor organizing and organizing again, like the multiracial working class. It's really, really crucial, I think to building a socialist movement.
David: A follow-up question. I'm just kinda curious, growing up in the South, what was your sort of exposure experience with unions? You mentioned you went up to Martha's Vineyard was sort of where it became part of your, foregrounded political consciousness. But just in general, what were your thoughts about unions
Sarandon: SO, it's really interesting because, like Virginia’s a Right to Work state. and I think especially being like in public schools, like just seeing, especially how teachers were kind of treated, there's never enough supplies, they were working long hours for not enough pay, but it was like very, very limited. And I think that even like through public school sometimes, especially when I was in high school, when we were talking a little bit more about like, you know, politics and modern day stuff, there was some times like anti-union, like anti-organizer kind of like rhetoric, I felt like sometimes, especially from some of my like more conservative history teachers.
David: Mmm oh yeah, yeah no I could see that.
Sarandon: But, but my mom is also from Boston and like, we, again, like a lot of her cousins are like, you know, trades and are union guys. And it's funny, my mom likes to joke the only person in our family that like drives a really nice car is like an electrician that's cause he's unionized. He's been a part of his union, I think, in the Boston area for like 40 years. So I think that's also was always kinda in the back of my mind, but again, it wasn't until I started entering the workforce, I think really myself is when I was like, okay, like how do we actually organize?
Sarandon: I guess something I would love to talk to and hear your feedback, because I know you said that you've again been in unions since grad school. So I feel like there's this really, I guess you can call it interesting kind of conversations about like, you know, are students workers? You know, how does that work? Like should students even be unionized? I would love to hear, like what you even think of that.
David: No, I don't think students are workers. [both laugh] So, one, students are workers. There is so much labor that goes into not just the production of knowledge at the university, but the actual sort of how universities are able to maintain and sustain themselves. I'm sorry, I mean, I sound like the historian now, but like the current design of most universities in the United States is, is more or less explicitly to suppress, the power of student organizing, both in political terms and in labor terms. And I think the reason for this is that for the past 50 years, campus officials and politicians, have been terrified of the prospect of student unrest on the scale of the 1960s. And so I think that, this is maybe the biggest reason why we have a student debt crisis in this country. It is much more easy to discipline students, when you're sort of dealing with constant precarity. I also think this is why there's a link to the explosion—I mean, I'm, I'm really glad that your, you’re a history major—but I mean, I think this is the reason for, the explosion in business programs and to a somewhat lesser extent in STEM programs because students feel, you know, given the debt loads that they're taking on, that they have to major in specific tracks that are going to get them to good jobs and, you know, go on to make the money, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And you know, that's not accidental. That is part of a very deliberate design to constrain, the sort of, limits of the politically possible. And I, and I think that, the insistence by administrators, by lawmakers, by faculty members at many universities that insist that students are not workers - graduate and undergraduate student workers - , is part of this sort of broader attempt. And it's so much easier to, maintain control. that's at least how I see it. I hate to ask you to be like a, a gen Z whisperer. But how do you feel? Where are most undergraduates? Where do you see the student body at, when it comes to that sort of sort of political consciousness?
Sarandon: Yeah, that's a really hard question. Because one thing I've learned is that everyone at UVA has an opinion, which is not surprising. but I think it's very, especially at UVA, I think it's divided. And I, especially like, as a socialist, like on grounds, I think that many of my friends had to be like leftists and, you know, socialists. So I think that there is like some sense of like political consciousness. like something we talked a lot about in YDSA, it's like, what does it mean to be like in solidarity? What does it mean to, you know, build a mass multiracial working class movement? But I will say, like, I thought the point that you just made about like more business and STEM programs was really interesting. Something that's really interesting to me is when I talk to others, especially like students of color and, you know, we'll talk about like these ideas, if, you know, like, what does it mean to like bring change to the university? What does it mean to like build change, period? I was taught like Black capitalism is like, what's going to save us. Just like trying to get students into things like Business and Commerce, obviously it's a way to succeed on the individual level, right? But I think that something that's been hard to talk to my peers about sometimes is like, okay, how do we actually liberate ourselves as opposed to individual equity and stuff like that.
David: I think there's a broader vision here for a, certainly a more equitable and just society, but also a much less hierarchical and top down driven, university. How do we get there?
Sarandon: I think that's really hard because something that I've been grappling with a bit is I don't think that universities… especially a university like UVA is necessarily going to be a liberatory space, at least in the way that it's structured right now. There's this really interesting article that I actually read for one of my courses, it's called Sally Hemings University, the course. We read this article called “Black Studies, Black Struggle.” And it was about especially black activists on college campuses. Like, you know, what does it mean to do all this work, and make all this progress and then people graduate. And then sometimes like student organizers have to like reinvent the wheel. honestly, I don't think we have any other choice, but to organize, the university is never going to give us power like willingly.
David: I think one of the things that, is. Laudatory, about the, campaign here, not just at UVA, but in the state of Virginia is actually building these alliances across the public university system here. my own experience has been that what happens on other campuses, especially campuses that are considered, quote-unquote peer institutions, has a direct effect on what's going on, here, for example, I was in New York, two months ago now. I was up at Columbia and I was on the picket lines there for a day, for the strike there. And they won. the union there. fantastic. And then I think it was like two, two or three days later, Princeton university, my Alma mater, raised the graduate student stipends by something like 25%, in order to make sure that the union effort was sort of staying at bay there.
Sarandon: CUNY, I think right now that’s doing this really interesting organizing, campaign, like CUNY For All. And I think it's basically like trying to get tuition, like just erased period, at the university. And then also seeing, like, I think it was early in the fall, like 40,000 workers across the UC systems organized. it's really incredible. And yeah, I think definitely, I remember seeing that, on like Twitter or something about Princeton, like raising the stipends. And that just tells me how like scared, frankly, universities are. And I frankly think that like, universities should be scared of,the power of organizing. it was really, really powerful to see. And that's why I'm really excited about seeing, you know, VCU getting UCW and hopefully more universities across Virginia, because I think that again, especially cross kind of state things, I think it's going to be very powerful.
David: So what are some of the major issues that undergraduate workers face when working for the university? you've had many organizing conversations with your peers and, you know, for, in my experience, there's always… on any particular campus, there's always something that is pretty much universal. When I was in grad school, it was housing, housing issue was terrible. what is it at UVA that people are talking about?
Sarandon: Oh god, there's so many there's so many. [both laugh] So I think specifically for student workers, one thing that I think has caused a lot of frustration, is seeing how RAs in the past couple of years have been treated. And they're not even really deemed “workers” under the university. And that's been really frustrating cause it's like one, they spend like so much like just countless hours of emotional labor, like physical labor, last year, during the pandemic was just exhausting to be an RA. And I know a lot of students didn’t return to being RAs. even though, a really attractive part about being an RA is the fact that you get housing. And housing, I think is another thing that's really universal across the university. not only for students, but I think for people in that community, period, UVA has just really created this housing crisis. And they wanna make it mandatory that second years, are gonna live on grounds. sometimes within the next like five years or so. Even like living on Grounds is really expensive.I think someone in YDSA did the math once and it was like consistently across like all the dorms, students are paying above market rates for, a dorm room and that they usually share with the person and then like a bathroom that share with like 10 people, which is just absurd.
David: Particularly in the context of a pandemic and I've been in the classroom now for a little over a year since they reopened it or partially, and the attrition rates are just insane. I mean, people are getting sick left and right.
Sarandon: Because the university has also really allowed, um, like the IFC and the ISC, which are like the frats and sororities to like do in-person rush stuff. Especially last year, that was just a complete nightmare because again, so many people were like sharing things like kitchens and dorms or, you know, sharing bathrooms. The university, I think said something along the lines, it's like, oh, we don't actually know how all these people are getting sick. students would be like, “well, we saw 40 people going into one house. So like you do the math.” so I think that's definitely one, housing, COVID response in general, student workers when they're part-time, I'm pretty sure that they still like don't actually get a living wage, which has been really frustrating. And I think in general, UVA does not do enough by like Black and brown students. especially like low income working class Black and brown students, which has been really frustrating and universal, I think.
David: You transferred here from, a community college. What was that experience like? And how did you find the university? Was it welcoming for students coming from community college?
Sarandon: It was a hard transition, I think. transferring especially is just hard because like, everyone's like made their friend groups and like everyone knows their ways around grounds. So it was definitely a hard transition. I transferred in the fall 2019, and then we're online in March of 2020. So that was just, like… You know, I don't think anyone was ready for that. Especially like transfer studentsI felt like I was like, just getting my footing and then they're like, okay, go home. And I'm like, okay, that's fine. [laughs] So that was very interesting, but yeah. I think it's, again, the university just doesn't do enough by like students that are, you know, not like wealthy white students. I would be curious to know, especially from like, you know, your position, how do you think UVA's like labor practices and also like the history of kind of UVA has, you know, really affected, I think like today and…
David: Well, I can't speak with, any real authority on, of the history of UVA's labor practices, or a tremendously detailed knowledge of the history of, labor struggles in Virginia. I will say that I've learned from members of the union about the, successful organizing efforts by largely Black hospital workers in the 1940s and 1950s. And I'm not surprised by that. That's a, consistent pattern, in labor organizing across the American South. It's something we talk about in my classes quite a bit. I always like to tell my students about how, the Communist party was, one of the major drivers of labor organizing in Alabama in the 1940s. Largely on the strength of, African-American, uh, not necessarily Communist, but African-American, trade unionists. You know, UVA—again, speaking as somebody who is not from Virginia, who has only been here for about a year and a half—but it's such an odd university because it's this weird combination of… I went to the university of Minnesota for my undergrad. So, big 10 state school is the, you know, the big state university in Minnesota was in my hometown, easily enough. that was a school that was very much, committed to sort of the broader education of the public of Minnesota, right? UVA, on the other hand, there is an element of that. it is the flagship state public university. but it's also Mr. Jefferson's university. It's got that sort of legacy of being the finishing school for locals and not just local, but for sort of Southern elites, along with all of the class and racial politics therein that you would expect. That is still very much a dimension of the school, which is painfully obvious, especially, when the frats congregate and the madras jackets come out. and then there is this third element of it, which is this sort of like hyper competitive, you know, Ivy League-ish style university, where you get a lot of students coming in, I think from, you know, either out of state or from Nova or wherever. And, there's that dimension of it as well. it's a university that has a very bifurcated or sort of tri-furcated sense of identity. but in terms of how, in terms of how that's affected its labor practices, my general impression of UVA has been—and again, this is very, very common, as a form of labor control across universities. People seem to like to do things informally. , in my program, we’re this sort of interdisciplinary program attached to the College of Arts and Sciences, but in this sort of weird sort of liminal space, if we need something, there's not a clear cut, procedure for how to go about doing it. In fact, it really just becomes reaching out through informal networks and eventually you will find, okay, well, you need to talk to this person or you need to talk to this person. and then usually any sort of concern or problem or grievance is dealt with very informally. one of my colleagues, in my program got his PhD from UVA. He's lived here for many years. and has a pretty detailed knowledge of how the institution works. and he's also a union member, but if it weren't for him, I would be totally lost half the time when it comes to trying to navigate some of this stuff. So that's, that's one of the sort of legacies, I think, from this sort of like weird colonial era, history here, a kind of, decentralized for the purposes of fracturing this community
Sarandon: Something that I was thinking about the other day, that there are a lot of student workers, especially undergrads student workers, but there are a lot that are not student workers. I'd be curious to know what you think, non workers that are students. what they can do to like, be in solidarity with the union and like, what does solidarity even look like? I'd be curious to know what you think of that.
David: There's one basic sort of switch, that, students who are not workers can do, to, maybe not demonstrate solidarity, but the prelude to demonstrating solidarity is to stop thinking about the workers on this campus and I'm, and again, I mean, everybody–, so, student workers, undergraduate student workers, graduate, student workers, post-docs even faculty. and of course staff, stop thinking of them as servants. stop thinking of workers as, people who, are there, for your consumer needs as it were. Instead understanding that this is a collaborative, sort of enterprise and, and at least ideally a democratic enterprise where, we are all here presumably to, learn things, to educate ourselves, but also to build something greater than ourselves. By sort of flicking that mental switch of saying, okay, well, it's not that, you know, my TA or my RA or my professor necessarily owes me anything, but rather we are here to build something together. that's a beginning. Especially for students who come from more, shall we say privileged backgrounds where that kind of mentality can be a little bit more ensconced, it's something to just rethink and I think move away from.
Sarandon: I think that until we're really like, “let's do this collectively, let's do this in community with each other. let's do things like form a strong wall-to-wall union,” until everyone's like on board with that project, we're not going to fix things like institutional racism, right? And I think UVA has really like bagged on that in a way like that they know, especially liberal students are thinking through an individual standpoint, therefore their actions are going to be as individuals. It's not going to be a collective, it's not going to be a mass movement. I think that's really what the university kind of banks on.
David: Picking up on that point. obviously everybody's different and then also bearing in mind sort of the class, racial dimensions, but how do most undergrads conceive of politics? I think the suggestion is that it's very atomistic and that sort of like, mainstream liberal sense. are there, glimmerings of understanding politics in a more organizational sense?
Sarandon: Well, I think yes and no, especially kind of after Trump, there's a couple, different trains of thoughts. I think some students have just been completely disillusioned by, especially, coming out of the Trump presidency. which I frankly don't blame students for that. I think it's been very hard, like I was talking to my mom the other day. Kids, my age, we've lived through two major recessions, a massive pandemic. we’ve seen the Trump presidency. and we've all seen this before the age of 21.
David: [laughs[ Jesus, when you put it that way.
Sarandon: I think a lot of people are just very like disillusioned. Almost jaded and they're just like, what do we even do? But I, I think it's been really exciting and I'm always talking about YDSA. We are, I think the largest, YDSA chapter at UVA in the country. We have over 150 dues paying members, We've won some really exciting campaigns. And again, I feel like I sound like a parrot sometimes because I say to almost everyone I meet, I'm like, there's no other like solution, but to, mass organize and do mass political education to massive organizing mass action.I feel like, again, I sound like a parrot, but it's true. And I believe it. And then I think something that's been a little scary, honestly see is the rise of the right on campus. I'm not sure frankly how organized the right is, but I know they have a lot of organized money. And they've been able to, really tap into their larger organizations on the national level. so that's been really, troubling, you know, even if students weren't there for August, 2017, I think we still see the effects of it and people are still talking about it and it’s still fresh in a lot of people's memories. One of the professors that I took a couple of years ago, Dr. Woolfork, she said, I think she put it perfectly like, the August 11th and 12th, it wasn't an invasion, it was a homecoming. so again, I think there's like a very wide range of thoughts and beliefs that UVA, But again, the only way we're going to change that is through like organizing.
David: What is something from the past year that you, have been most proud of, of the work that you've done?
Sarandon: I think in the past year we ran a tuition freeze campaign and we won that. That was really exciting. we also ran a credit/ no credit campaign. I think it was a couple falls ago. But I think that was really exciting. And I think it shows when there's widely felt issues on campus and when students actually do the work behind it, like we can win. And just honestly, talking to younger, members, like first and second years, and like hearing them get really excited about organizing and like all the things that are going around on campus. Again, we talked, in one of the YDSA meetings the other day a lot about like organized labor and everyone was like super excited. They're like, yeah I want to get involved. cause again, universities really bank on the fact that like, you know, student organizers, they come in and they do all this great work and then they graduate. So it's really exciting to like be able to talk to younger members and mentor younger members. You know, build up leaders within these organizations.
David: And then a follow up question to that. how do you build and maintain sort of institutional memory? It's something that it seems to me to be one of the key factors behind long-term success. And you look at some of the, grad student campaigns that have been the most successful have built upon, organizational and institutional memory. Even if it was 20 years ago, I … at the University of Chicago, for example, there was a union effort 20 years ago or 30 years I think in the 90s. That's still, you know, they have a firm sense of what worked and what didn't then, and what's changed how do we, maintain the sense of institutional memory as we go forward?
Sarandon: Yeah, I think that's [a] really hard question. I think across the country, right? Like a lot of like organizations struggle with that. I think mentorship is a huge one, I think also writing down things like, I know that might sound very basic, but something that we've done a couple of times, after we run campaigns well, write what worked and what didn't work? And you know, what can we improve on for next time? I was looking at like one of those documents from like three years ago. And I was like, you know, we should show members this more. Especially when people graduate, they're like, y’all all be easy, you know? But I think it's really on, members, like past members, of organizations even after they left to be like still checking in and be like, "Hey, you know, how are things going? You know, how can I support? Do you have any questions?" I think that's even huge. I'd be curious to know what you think.
David: No, I, I think that makes a huge difference. And I think that, the broader, stakes here are to normalize union membership, certainly across the millennial and gen Z generations, but just more broadly.in the United States, certainly in the 21st century, we don't necessarily have a common sense of civic understanding about what we owe to each other outside of the framework of capitalism, right? outside of the direction of transactional relationship. What we do need is a sort of broader civic sense of association and understanding there are ways that we can, have relationships with other people and between groups of people mediated through institutions like a union, that bind us together collectively in ways that are not hierarchical and not capitalistic. By creating that common culture, I think that does a lot of that work.
Sarandon: Yeah. I definitely, I definitely agree. One of the biggest things I think for me is just kind of making sure that when you're having these conversations is that it’s kind of baby steps that it's like, not like, you're like we need, you know, a revolution right now. It's was like, no, like that's not what we're trying to do. Just to be like, Hey, show up to this meeting. Hey, you should, you know, you should help us table tomorrow. You know? I think it also, that's huge. that's when like people can start like talking to other people that like, aren’t just you, and it's really like getting a sense of the culture of an organization.
So that’s our conversation! Huge thanks to David and Sarandon for sharing their stories.
This episode was recorded by Piers Gelly. Piers Gelly wrote the episode, Erin Jordan edited it, and Emily Gadek mixed it. We also 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.