As graduate student workers at the University of Chicago began a three-day work stoppage this week to demand union recognition, Sen. Bernie Sandersâone of the universityâs mostÂ notableÂ alumniâcalled on his army of supporters to join their picket lines through an email and text messageÂ blast.
One of Sandersâ supporters who received the message was UChicago graduate instructor Laura Colaneri, a member of the union Graduate Students United (GSU) and a PhD candidate in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Studies.
âIt was a really awesome boost to get that message because Iâm one of the workers involved in this action,â Colaneri toldÂ In These Times. âIâm excited to see a candidate using his status to support workers directly, not just by giving us a rhetorical line, but helping us out with an action that weâre doing.â
While candidates traditionally use their extensive contact lists to focus on fundraising or bringing people out to their campaign rallies, Sanders is undertaking an apparent first in modern presidential politics: using his lists to help mobilize turnout at worker-led actions.
Last month, the Sanders campaign helped turn supporters out to aÂ one-day strikeÂ at the University of California campuses, where representativesÂ saidÂ 1,000 people âresponded with interest or committed to go to a protest.â The campaign alsoÂ called onsupporters to join thousands of McDonaldâs workers who went on strike across the country May 23 demanding a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
Sanders supporters were also recently encouraged to joinÂ healthcare workersÂ at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on their picket line, as well asÂ nursesÂ at Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio. The campaign is currently working to turn supporters out for aÂ marchÂ of McDonaldâs workers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 9 that Sanders will join.
âI think it’s fair to say this is a workersâ movement as much as itâs a presidential campaign,â Bill Neidhardt, Midwest Press Secretary for the Sanders campaign, toldÂ In These Times. âAnd thatâs exactly how we want it to be. Thatâs how you win. With a movement.â
Neidhardt noted that the Sanders team has previously used its contact lists to drive turnout for labor actions at Delta Airlines, Disney, Amazon, General Motors, Wabtec, Nissan and the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Meanwhile, Sandersâ own employees recentlyÂ unionizedÂ themselves, winning the first union contract for staff of a major party presidential campaign. Among other gains,Â the contractÂ includes a $20-an-hour wage for interns at the Washington, D.C. campaign headquarters and a cap on manager salaries. Since the announcement, three other 2020 Democratic campaigns have unionized: those of former HUD Secretary JuliĂĄn Castro, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
â[Sandersâ] objective is to strengthen unions as theyâve dwindled and been busted,â said Nanci PonnĂ©, who joined GSUâs picket lines at UChicago on June 5 after receiving an email from the campaign. She was one of hundreds of people who joined GSU for a mass picket and rally that afternoon, many of them directed there by Sanders.
âUnions bring strength and power where workers didnât have it before,â PonnĂ©, who works in the Chicago hotel industry and identified as a member ofÂ Unite Here, toldÂ In These Times. âThereâs no reason for BernieÂ notÂ to use his awesome email list to empower unions that will help bring more benefits to workers.â
The three-day work stoppage at UChicago this week comes nearly 19 months after an overwhelming majority of graduate workers thereÂ voted to unionizeÂ with GSU in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
As at many other private universities where graduate workers recently voted to form a union, the UChicago administration continuously refuses to recognize GSU, claiming grad workers are more âstudentsâ than employees and therefore ineligible for union representation. With the NLRB now controlled by anti-union Trump appointeesâwho are poised toÂ undercutÂ the legal basis for grad worker unionsâGSU has withdrawn from the formal Board process and is demanding voluntary recognition from the university.
âTheyâre stonewalling,â Colaneri said of the UChicago administration, adding that administrators called extra campus police out to the GSU pickets. âThey keep saying itâs your free speech to do this, but then theyâve sent out emails to undergraduate students and their parents telling them to report if your graduate instructor isnât in class. But weâre not letting it intimidate us.â
As a UChicago alumnus, Sanders has supported GSU throughout their fight for union recognition. âI hope very much that you will set an example throughout the world by supporting a democratic decision made by graduate students and teaching assistants,â the senatorÂ wroteÂ university president Robert Zimmer in November 2017. âTo appeal this decision to an anti-worker, Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board is not something that a world class institution of higher learning should do.â
No stranger to campus activism, while a student at UChicagoÂ in the early 1960s, the future presidential candidate helped lead a 13-day sit-in to demand an end to the universityâs housing discrimination policy, was arrested protesting racial discrimination at Chicago Public Schools, and joined the youth wing of the Socialist Party.
âMy four years in Chicago was an extraordinary moment in my life, and very much shaped my worldview and what I wanted to do,â SandersÂ saidÂ earlier this year.
With classes at UChicago now over for the spring, on the evening of June 5 GSU members voted to suspend their work stoppage. âWe have shown the university, the world, and ourselves what we are capable of as a union, and how fundamentally the university depends on our work,â read aÂ statementÂ from the union.
âThe amount of energy weâve been able to sustain over three days is really incredible,â Colaneri said. âThis doesnât come from Bernie, it comes from us, from the workers being ready to fight for what we deserve. And itâs great to be supported in that, but not overshadowed. Itâs not about Bernie, itâs really about us.â
This article was originally published at In These Times on June 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.Â
About the Author:Â Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.