By Evren Pallares O Laoghaire, Teamsters Local 170 (personal capacity)
On October 3rd at 10:30am, Clark University Graduate Workers United-Teamsters (CUGWU-Teamsters) in Worcester, Massachusetts went on strike after months of bad faith negotiations by Clark’s administration and legal team. The picket line, which interrupted deliveries and construction on campus, forced the administration back to the negotiating table and they reached a tentative agreement bringing an end to the strike after five days. On October 12th, CUGWU-Teamsters announced they had unanimously ratified the new contract, winning a 90% increase in wages, 100% healthcare coverage for PHD employees, as well as the same child care options that the rest of the employees on campus receive.
The Independent Socialist Group proudly supported CUGWU-Teamsters in their strike action, turning out our members and supporters to the picket lines every day. ISG applauds CUGWU-Teamsters for their fighting spirit and readiness to mobilize to defend the interests of graduate workers. The victorious strike at Clark is a model for how to organize graduate workers in campuses across the city.
The graduate workers in CUGWU-Teamsters organized a successful unionization campaign that voted 100-7 to join Teamsters Local 170 in March 2022. In response, the Clark administration attempted to weaken the new union by negotiating in bad faith and delaying the process of getting a first contract. It took seven meetings before the administration presented a counter offer to the draft contract CUGWU-Teamsters offered back in March.
Clark University’s first offer was insulting with no positive changes in healthcare coverage and a 0% raise for the first year! This counter-offer was a spit in the face of the hard working graduate workers at Clark University. CUGWU-Teamsters demanded a living wage, better working conditions, and affordable healthcare to allow graduate workers to survive and finish their degree programs.
Since the successful union vote to join Teamsters Local 170, CUGWU-Teamsters organized escalating workplace actions to put pressure on administration. Multiple rallies were held in the 8 months preceding the strike which hundreds of people attended, including undergraduate students, Teamsters from other workplaces, graduate workers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (who voted 96% in favor of joining the United Auto Workers on November 3rd), and other supporters. One of these powerful rallies was held on the same day freshman moved onto campus to show to new students and parents how the Clark administration treats its workers.
On September 12th, CUGWU-Teamsters called a strike authorization vote to up the pressure on administration to make a decent offer. 97% of graduate workers voted to strike, highlighting the rank-and-file support for CUGWU-Teamsters and representing the urgency of getting fair living conditions, wages, and benefits that graduate workers desperately needed. It is important for organized workers to be willing to take workplace and even strike action in order to build union power and win important victories for workers.
Going on strike can be a daunting measure for workers to take. It is a significant sacrifice to go without pay and withhold one’s labor until certain demands are met, and it takes a lot of energy, support, and organizing effort to execute properly. When CUGWU-Teamsters went on strike on October 3rd they quickly demonstrated to the labor movement what a good strike looks like. With so many of the graduate workers organized and energized, campus entrances were blocked with pickets with consistent chants on the first day. CUGWU-Teamsters successfully delayed multiple deliveries and shut down renovations of the campus library and the construction site for a building to house a new degree program Clark spent millions of dollars to purchase from Becker University, which closed during the pandemic. This energy continued throughout the entire strike, maintaining a picket at every entrance at Clark and preventing further deliveries. The CUGWU-Teamsters appealed to many students and faculty on campus, with entire classes walking out on the first day to support the strike.
They also successfully appealed to other union workers on campus to join the strike, like the campus electricians, part of IBEW Local 96, and the construction workers, members of Laborers 243, Operating Engineers Local 4, and Ironworkers, who all walked off to join the picket line. The powerful workplace actions combined with building broad support with students and other campus workers were fundamental in winning the strike.
The Independent Socialist Group, which has members and a group on campus, did our part to raise the profile of the strike and the demands of the workers through our media and turn out many of our members and supporters to picket every day of the strike, especially the 5am shifts to block the construction.
Winning this strike was only the first of many battles to defend the union, the benefits won, and the unity of the workers. As many unions like the Teamsters have experienced before, the bosses will always try to undermine the union in any way possible. This is evident in how they handled the negotiation process.
It is important for CUGWU-Teamsters to stand in solidarity and support other graduate and campus workers, as they have done with supporting WPI graduate workers and the Clark dining hall workers in their respective struggles for a union and first contract. All campus unions should be ready to defend each other and discuss strategies, tactics, and coordinated workplace action. Worcester has twelve universities and colleges, which make up a significant sector of the local economy. Campus unions should coordinate to unionize new layers of campus workers and launch union drives on new campuses.
The graduate student unions should also turn their attention to supporting other strikes in the region. Amid a wave of union struggle, with four new unions winning recognition and two major strikes occurring in Worcester, MA alone, the Clark University strike is a great example for local workers to follow. It shows the potential for the labor movement to unite and win significant victories for working class people.