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The Role of Unions in Higher Education: A Q&A with Anna Kreienberg

Region II Graduate New Professional Undergraduate
November 23, 2020 Tara Hardy Boston University

If recent news from institutions like the University of Michigan, Cornell University, and the University of Kansas are any indication, the threat to public health caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for collective organizing to ensure worker protections in traditionally in-person industries like higher education. Efforts out of the University of Minnesota
and the University of California system have also shown the power of using collective voices to further abolitionist goals on college campuses and in society at large in protest of police brutality committed against Black people in the United States.

For Careers in Student Affairs Month, I spoke with Anna Kreienberg, shop steward for the Union of Clerical, Administrative, & Technical Staff (UCATS) at New York University, Local 3882, to learn more about how student affairs professionals can get involved with labor organizing efforts, the structure of unions in K-12 and higher education, and the benefits of being in a
union.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tara Hardy (TH): Can you describe what’s involved in your role as a union steward?

Anna Kreienberg (AK): As a union steward, it's my job to make sure members who work in my department know about what the union can do for them and what our contract covers. I also take concerns from people in my department to union meetings and advocate for them to maksure the union is addressing on-the-ground concerns . . . I also try to dispel any myths about being in a union so that people know what is available to them and that it is actually a great thing to be in a union . . . So my role involves keeping people informed and supported in as many ways as possible! I applied for this role because I think one of the many benefits of working in my job is the union. I believe it's our responsibility to take care of each other (the popularization of the term/function of mutual aid is a good example of exactly what I think unions are there for!).

TH: Can you explain the structure of your union and how it’s connected to labor organizations
on a state and national level?

AK: We are a local, and we are made up of clerical and technical staff from schools and
departments all around NYU. New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) is like a "parent" union
to us, and then we are also members of a couple other labor federations — AFT, NEA, and the
AFL-CIO . . . The local represents its own members, and NYSUT (composed of many public
school teachers and workers but also folks from healthcare facilities and other university
workers) creates policy and does things on a larger level to support the locals . . . In our local,
we have shop stewards from each department who represent and assist with member issues
from each school/department, and our president, organizers, and lawyers help us with this.

TH: In your opinion, why are unions important?

AK: The main importance of unions is the labor protections and benefits they afford. The union presence, the work of past bargaining teams, and our vocal support of clerical and technical staff workers' rights on campus has gained us annual raises, good health insurance and retirement benefits, and protections from being fired from work for no reason. There are standards for our working conditions because of the union. Unions are also a vital communication network between workers — when we are communicative about our experiences and the issues we are facing, we can come together to protest these issues and
organize to address/prevent them.

This is a personal bias of mine, but unions can also be really politically radicalizing and a great way to support people on the ground . . . Our union represents a really diverse group of people, so it's an intersectional practice to be involved in union activism.

TH: What advice do you have for higher education professionals who are looking to get involved
in labor union and organizing efforts?

AK: If you are in a union, you can always reach out to your union representative or shop
steward for your local. If you don't know who they are, many unions maintain websites or list
contacts you can reach out to. We always really value hearing from members! Also, if your
union has a newsletter, sign up for it! You can find not only information on the union but also
deals/benefits specific to union membership.

The following are also my go-to resources about unions:
What is the Role of Socialists in the Unions?
The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace
A Century of Teacher Organizing: What Can We Learn?
Labor in America: A History
the university: last words
• Your union contract-- whatever and wherever you are, if you are a union member, your contract is required reading!

 

Anna Kreienberg (they/them/theirs) is an NYU student, worker, and shop steward with UCATS
Local 3882.