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'Teach-in' to educate students about labor unions this Friday


Five years ago, when UNC history professor Erik Gellman asked students in his course The Worker and American Life what words they associated with unions, the answers were “corrupt,” “take your money” and “don’t need them anymore.” 

Now, he said the responses from his students are “economic justice,” “anti-racism,” “equality” and “power for workers.” 

A recent nationwide spike in support for labor unions has pushed more than 70 universities to host teach-ins focused around labor unions, worker rights and power. UNC will host its own Labor Spring event this Friday.

The Labor Spring event will feature a variety of speakers from different labor unions and organizations. Gellman, a main organizer of the event, said these include the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union —  also known as UE Local 150, National Nurses United, the Duke Graduate Students Union and the North Carolina chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. 

This event will take place from 12 p.m. - 1 p.m. at Polk Place and again from 5 p.m. - 6 p.m. at the Love House on Franklin Street, with refreshments provided at both locations. The times are geared to be accessible for people who are working, Cristian Walk, a graduate student who helped organize the Labor Spring event, said.

Ellie Campbell, a member of UE Local 150, hopes the Labor Spring event can raise more awareness for the main goal of union members at UNC: living wages for housekeepers and graduate students.

“I hope we'll just continue to promote awareness of what we're doing on campus,” Campbell said. “And then also maybe, hopefully get some more support for our campaigns.”

Nationwide support for unions is at 71 percent, the highest it’s been since 1965, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. Some organizers believe the disruption of the pandemic largely contributed to this support, as national attention focused on the working conditions of individuals deemed essential or frontline.

“2020 is the start of the pandemic, and one of the things that happened was that it really showed the cracks in the American working system,” Campbell said. “A lot of people lost their jobs with very little notice. A lot of other people had to work under unsafe conditions without any support, really.”

Walk said the fight to preserve unions has been a “constant struggle” throughout history with many ups and downs. He said he admires organizers who have been brave in the time of little support, and that moments of high support for unions are focusing windows for change. 

Throughout this struggle, moments of support for unions can provide opportunities to educate the public on alternative business models that serve the needs of both employer and employee, Gellman said.  

“There is a cooperative business and labor strategy that’s not just about exploiting workers and trying to pay them the lowest wages by taking the low-road approach,” he said. “And that strategy benefits everyone.”

Gellman said a variety of factors have shaped many business owners’ perception of unions as inherently negative in North Carolina, a state with a historically low union density. He believes that unions benefit the economy by growing the middle class. 

“In my class on the American worker, I use historical evidence to show how the greatest expansion of the middle class in American history was accompanied by the greatest expansion of union members in the country: the two developments were interrelated," Gellman said. 

The intersection of labor movements and other parts of society, such as anti-racism, are also topics the event will cover. 

A unique characteristic of the renewed support for labor unions is its multiracial diversity. Historically, labor unions have further fueled discrimination like racism and sexism, Walk said. 

“Issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, issues of racial discrimination in the workplace, issues of transphobia in the workplace, those are all things that matter to all of us,” he said.

Overall, this unionizing and organizing happens because students believe enough in the institutions they attend to want to improve them, Kristina Mensik, a member of the Duke Graduate Students Union, said.

“And I think that what gets missed sometimes in coverage of the DGSU and graduate worker campaigns nationally is that we're all doing this organizing because we fundamentally believe in the institutions that we have chosen to come and study at,” she said.


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