My name is Michael Belt and I am currently working as a union organizer for the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW has a rich history organizing industrial workers, largely immigrant and minority populations at the turn of the century. Since then the UAW has become an amalgamated union, representing workers in diverse sectors and fields. I’m currently working on a campaign at New York University helping graduate employees for a union so that they may participate in decisions that affect their working condition, the teaching and learning community and overall the inclusiveness and accessibility of higher education.
The campaign at NYU started in 1998 when a group of graduate employees contacted the UAW, the union that represents the most graduate employees in the U.S. When the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC/UAW) won their first contract they saw great improvements such as an on average 38% increase to wages and paid healthcare for the first time. Since 2005 NYU has refused to baragin with the union, resulting in a lack of democracy in the workplace that has had detrimental effects to the working conditions of employees. NYU slashed the healthcare for graduate employees, increasing premiums by 33% and the cost to insure a partner and a child is 58% of an average graduate employees income, effectively making the university inaccessible for graduate students with families. These effects disproportionately affect women, and minority employees.
Without a union employers make decisions about working conditions unilaterally, with a union employees bargain as equals with the employers essentially implementing democracy in the workplace.
I grew up in a working class family and when I was 16 my mother housed an undocumented kid, who was my same age, from Ciudad Juarez. He had left Juarez because he could not find steady work and was seeking employment at a day labor center where my mother met him. I became active with the center, and in my community fighting for fair labor standards for workers at home and abroad. In high school I worked on a campaign with the Workers Rights Consortium, getting my school to be one of the few in the nation to pledge to have garments made in safe working conditions. Since that time I have worked along the border in Arizona doing youth organizing and with college students engaged in ally work or work that is led by communities impacted by various issues.
I became a labor organizer because so many problems that are caused by the ways in which resources in our economy are acquired and distributed are inequitable and unjust. In most cases oppression simply means that people do not have the same life opportunities. This results in entire communities being systematically limited in their potential to change and thrive. Though work and labor are often only one part of our ever increasing complex lives, the overwhelming majority of workers in the united states and throughout the world do not control how their labor is utilized and thus have no real self-determination. Through the formation of organization that engage in collective bargaining and collective action, those most vulnerable by inequitable systems have the ability and power to engage as equals with those who benefit from injustice.
In my experience I would say that anyone who wishes to engage in social justice work should always have a clear vision, make those who are invisible visible, and organize. Bring together the people most affected by the issue you are addressing, to lead the struggle and set tangible goals to achieve your vision. Always prioritize growing in participatory ways that allow people to engage and be empowered in their own struggles.