HAPA: Lindsey Dayton on Graduate Workers of the World, Unite!

In this note, Lindsey Dayton, a HAPA recipient, discusses the roots of the unionization campaign for Graduate Workers of Columbia: District 65. As a result of this fascinating history, oral history is being conducted in order to document the organizing processes for District 65. Most poignantly, Dayton finds, “historical narrative—shaped for employers by antiunion consultants, or misconstrued in the two-dimensional “think-piece” analyses of vanguardist activists—affects the politics of organizing. As importantly, it asks how gender and racism shape both kinds of historical narratives, erasing the experiences and intellectual work of women and people of color.”

On December 7 and 8, graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University voted overwhelmingly to join the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC), the newest unit of Local 2110 of the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers (UAW). Local 2110, which also represents thousands of white-collar support staff at Columbia, Barnard, Teacher’s College, and Union Theological Seminary, was born out of the organizing efforts of District 65, a notoriously independent and left-led union that joined the UAW in the 1970s.

Winning collective bargaining rights for graduate workers at private universities is a fight decades in the making, and the rank-and-file leadership of Local 2110—largely women, including large number of women of color—has been involved every step of the way. The District 65 Oral History Project interviews the founders of what became Local 2110, integrating their histories in forming their own unions into the process of building the Graduate Workers of Columbia.

The District 65 Oral History Project interviews the founders of what became Local 2110, integrating their histories in forming their own unions into the process of building the Graduate Workers of Columbia, and emphasizing the relationship between rank-and-file organizing, intergenerational leadership, and late-twentieth-century transformations of union organizing, academic labor, and white-collar work.

This winter, members of the newly minted graduate union at Columbia will interview the women who expanded worker power at the university from the late 1960s on, reinventing white-collar unionism in the process.

Organizing, like history, involves the exercise of critical and contingent understanding: as historians stitch together progressive moments of change, organizers trace an arc toward justice one moment at a time, assessing and adjusting as events narrow anticipated opportunities and open unexpected doors.

At the same time, historical narrative comprises both a weapon organizers fight with and one they fight against. History is as easily the enemy as the friend of an organizing campaign: a story that delegitimizes change empowered outside existing hierarchies of power or one that explains the justice of resistance and alternative visions of power. History marks the just cause from troublemaking, social transformation from anarchy.

Engaging with Local 2110’s historical roots in District 65, the District 65 Oral History Project reflects on the way historical narrative—shaped for employers by antiunion consultants, or misconstrued in the two-dimensional “think-piece” analyses of vanguardist activists—affects the politics of organizing. As importantly, it asks how gender and racism shape both kinds of historical narratives, erasing the experiences and intellectual work of women and people of color. In particular, it asks how the urgency of generating and guarding singular narratives of organizing campaigns in the face of employer attacks misses the complex motivations that energize different communities of organizers as well as the ambivalence with which many of them participate in union politics.

Through oral history, and especially in the way the project brings together current organizers with their mentors around the union’s history, we hope to recapture a nuanced appreciation of collective organization as a process of negotiation instead of a clear path toward utopic structures that can be determined in advance of—or outside of—the meeting of minds and bodies.

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