DSA in Office: Interview with Erika Uyterhoeven

By Ricky Crano

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

Ricky Crano (RC): So, you’ve just been elected to serve as a State Representative for the 27th Middlesex, covering much of Somerville. You brought up labor issues frequently throughout your campaign. Can you share why you care about the labor movement?

Erika Uyterhoeven (EU): Great question! For me it starts on a personal note. My mom worked a union job. She was a flight attendant, and she raised me on her own as a single mom. A lot of why I’ve been able to do the things I’ve done has been because she had a union contract from before the Reagan wave of neoliberalism carved out the American working class and busting unions in the 80s. Growing up I watched that carving out happening in real time, watched what was happening to my mom’s coworkers. I was too young at the time to fully understand what was going on, but it was all very tangible to me even as a kid. Eventually my mom was pushed into early retirement; her manager said they could hire two or three flight attendants for what she cost them with her union contract. 

In adulthood, prior to running for office, I worked as an antitrust economist, where I saw the other side of that coin, which is how corporations – the heads of corporations – are not only breaking the rules of the market but taking control over our governments and the policies that are meant to protect labor. So I’ve seen firsthand, and from multiple perspectives, this active undermining of the labor movement. That’s the path that brought me here today, and some of why labor issues –like progressive revenue, holding corporations accountable and having them pay their fair share – are critical issues for me as a representative.

RC: As we read in the news on pretty much a daily basis, Covid has been crushing the real economy, exposing a wage crisis, a jobs crisis, mass immiseration… Do you feel like there’s an opportunity here for labor – and for socialism? 

EU: Yes, absolutely! The Covid crisis is a labor movement issue. This public health crisis has clarified what’s been going on for the past few decades, which is that those who hold and control capital want workers to work themselves to death for the sake of greater profits. This has become so clear with the Covid crisis, because the safest thing for us to do right now, apart from doing everything we can to make sure essential work happens safely, is to use our resources to pay for people to stay home. And that’s the complete opposite of what we’re doing. Instead we’re saying, “Oh, there’s no choice; we just have to send everyone to work.” We’re forcing working people to choose between their health and their ability to put food on the table. This is a completely solvable crisis that we as a society are choosing to bungle at all sorts of levels.

To me it’s a tragedy but also an opportunity because it really does open more people’s eyes to what we should have been seeing all along, far before the crisis, which are the underlying motives and oppressive structures of capitalism. That clarity provides an opportunity. We’re coming to see that housing is a human right, and that healthcare is a human right. Look at our extremely inefficient health insurance apparatus, at how the whole medical system is crumbling before us. We haven’t had a proper vaccine rollout, or adequate testing, let alone universal access to healthcare. Instead, I’ve had constituents tell me they’ve had to pay $200 to get a test so they could go to work. The failings of our system have really been amplified through this crisis. To me, that’s what makes this an opportunity for organizing our labor movement. It’s not a coincidence that the crisis came alongside one of the largest racial justice uprisings, and with new unionization drives like at Google. If the need to bolster the labor movement wasn’t clear for many people before the pandemic, it should certainly be clear now. 

RC:  Over the past election cycle there was a lot of discussion about national-level legislation that could change the lives of working class people for the better – things like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. What can be achieved for workers at the state level, where you’re sitting?

EU: The necessity for better protections for workers is really clear, and that is something state-level policy can do a lot on. One of the big things that the AFL-CIO has been pushing, as simple as it sounds, is protections on wage theft and vicarious liability. We should have done this years ago, obviously, but we didn’t, so we see things like the painters union, IUPAT DC 35, fighting to ensure their workers weren’t having wages stolen by Cranshaw, the contractor Somerville brought in to develop Assembly Square. They’re having to fight that battle as a consequence of state law. It’s the same with the right to strike. Right now it is unlawful for public sector workers to strike; the state can come down and impose fines on unions for striking and it creates an atmosphere of total fear. I think part of the reason the school reopening was so botched has to do with the way they’ve tried to take away from public sector workers this fundamental tool for collective bargaining, which is the threat of a strike. 

Beyond those immediate sorts of issues, we should have fully funded worker centers; we should provide training and resources at the state-level, but instead we’re doing it all on a piecemeal basis. Another thing that’s hugely important for the labor movement is progressive revenue. This is really where state-level legislation can have a lot of impact. Right now municipalities are stuck in terms of the taxes they can raise. They have pretty limited avenues, the biggest one being property taxes, which is kind of ridiculous because it’s among the only equity working class people hold. It’s absurd that this would be the one thing we’re taxing when there’s so much wealth in the world that gets let off the hook. This progressive revenue point is really something that can only happen at the state level and the federal level. 

In Massachusetts we have some of the worst legislation on this; the biggest problems in our state really stem from this lack of progressive revenue. Without progressive revenue, we have to take off the table things like equitably funded schools, public transportation, affordable housing, statewide single-payer, renewable energy, all these things just so the wealthy few can get off with their profits. We’re stuck in this austerity mindset at the state level; they say the things we want are too expensive. But they’re not too expensive; in fact they’d save the state money, and save people money, but they say we can’t afford it, which is a complete lie. In Somerville we’re told we can’t afford to build this affordable housing development with union labor. So we’re left thinking that we just don’t have the option to pay prevailing wage to our workers, even though we’re here in one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It’s a complete absurdity. The state house’s refusal to raise revenue leaves us with some of the worst human rights outcomes, like around health disparities, food insecurity, unemployment insurance filing. It’s especially devastating because we actually do have the resources to fix it so that everyone can thrive. 

RC: It’s ironic of course that this is all going down in a state that is perceived as being liberal or even progressively minded.

EU: A state that likes to view itself that way, yeah. 

RC: For socialists, it’s not hard to imagine a more just world in which our government prioritizes the dignity and wellbeing of everyone, but in reality there are a lot of things standing in the way of that. What or who do you see as being the biggest obstructions to making the kind of gains that we’re talking about and what can DSA members, and working class people generally, do to help overcome these obstacles? 

EU: The obstacles are systemic, but surmountable in a democratic society. And really there’s nothing new here. I’ve been in this job for one week and who am I getting emails from? Lobbyists, those who represent the moneyed interests, who always outspend working people. We’re not going to stop that until we change the kind of government we have. More specifically, I’d say there are two systemic obstacles that maybe aren’t quite as obvious as corporations coming down to the state house with their high-paid, well-dressed lobbyists. One is accountability for reps, for my colleagues. There are so many reps who run on so-called progressive issues, but then they’re never actually pushed to fight for those issues. So holding my colleagues accountable to constituents, not just to lobbyists, is so important, particularly to get us out of our defeatist mindset that says we’re going to lose anyway so we just need to work within the hierarchy. 

Another big obstacle is the movement itself – not just the labor movement but the progressive advocacy movement as a whole – being resigned to defeat, not believing that it has any power, saying “we’re not going to win anyway.” We need to stop operating on the assumption that we’re doing our best and we’ll ask for favors and just “rah-rah-rah” as much as we can. In reality the power dynamic is the other way around, but we can’t recognize it until the progressive movement and the labor movement says, “No, you guys work for us,” and changes strategies accordingly. Around the state house it’s very common to see this incrementalist attitude that says, “don’t ask for too much or you won’t be taken seriously.” This is a huge challenge to overcome. We should ask for what makes it so that we can all live with dignity and respect. It’s as simple as that. And we have to stop framing those things as impossible dreams. We’ve seen some breakthrough on this over the last few years, starting with Occupy, then with Bernie’s 2016 campaign, which broke the spell of neoliberal inevitability and made Medicare For All a viable policy, made the climate crisis the biggest national security threat rather than all the hawkish nonsense that tags alongside neoliberal policy. Continuing to build on these breakthroughs at both the electoral level and in issue-based advocacy is so important, and it starts with believing that we can win and that we are ready to win. 

 RC: A lot of labor activist attention, within the DSA and elsewhere, has been on the changing face of work over just the last few years. The Boston DSA labor working group has lately been collaborating with the local rideshare workers’ union, the Boston Independent Drivers Guild  (BIDG). From a legislative perspective, what’s achievable in Massachusetts for independent contract workers? 

EU: This gets to the big question of what employment means, the definition of employment, and we’ve seen Uber and Lyft and other platform apps abusing our common definitions. They claim this is all entrepreneurialism when really they’re just sidestepping employment laws that were designed to protect workers. In Massachusetts, we write the rules on how Uber and Lyft get to function. We can set a minimum wage for drivers rather than letting it be whatever cut the apps decide to pay on a given day or at a given hour. We can restore bargaining rights for these workers, which is certainly something that’s on the table. I think we’re also likely to see something like what we just saw in California, putting a ballot question up for voters and then the corporations trying to buy the election. That fight is coming here, and we have to be ready because there’s going to be corporate money piling in as with every labor struggle. Since we can’t outspend them, it will be a question of out-organizing the corporate money. 

RC: I’m curious to know about your current working relationship with unions. Some unions can be fairly conservative. Others are notoriously undemocratic. How are you navigating working with union leaders who have different political perspectives? 

EU: There are limits to what you can do in your role as a State Representative in terms of your power and what you’re able to influence. I think that when it comes to the narrative and the issues even the more conservative leaning unions are still pushing for things that are good for their workers and good for working people overall. I want them to push more, to want more. For example, take the AFL-CIO wage theft bill. Of course I’m behind it. And I’ll do everything I can to make that pass. Another part of my job as a Rep, though, is to think about how we push the Overton Window further. Right now we’re negotiating things like emergency paid sick leave, wage theft, things that I wholeheartedly support, of course, though I’m shocked they weren’t achieved long ago. So we need to push that window even further. Who does one turn to? How do we challenge the movement to be braver and demand more? 

Those are questions that I think we as elected officials have to ask ourselves; it is very easy to say “I’m with you” on those hard-to-disagree-with asks and stop at that, and that’s what a lot of reps do. I want to use my position to actually support organizing in the labor movement that is pushing the window further. I’m very inspired by what the Somerville educators have been doing, demanding the wage increase for paraprofessionals. That was a huge win. And they negotiated the contract collectively, so the administration couldn’t split the paraprofessionals from the rest of the educators, which is a common tactic. A lot of reps get skittish about standing up for things like that, and there are a lot of fiscally conservative constituents who aren’t happy with these gains for low-wage public employees. Which is why it’s so important to be able to recognize when the labor movement is doing great things and really fighting and pushing the limits of discourse and expectation. I think we can all do a better job pushing and challenging each other to fight for things like housing for all, Medicare For All. But I also believe in respecting and supporting the institutions of our democracy, unions being one of them. I don’t believe in the kind of leadership that says “I know better than you all so I’m going to decide your priorities.” For me it’s more a matter of identifying and uplifting the boldest elements of the movement that are already there and helping that spirit spread. 

RC: I’m glad you mentioned Somerville educators. Somerville is one of the few school districts in the area that hasn’t had any in-person schooling since the start of the pandemic. If you go to a school council open meeting, it’s hours of callers lamenting how far behind their kids are falling, how much their families are suffering by not having kids in school, whether it’s parents unable to go to work or young special needs kids unable to get the critical intervention or therapy they need. It’s really tough; obviously we don’t want education workers forced into unsafe classrooms, but at the same time we have to take into account all these struggles of working families. How do we respond to this? Is it possible – politically possible – to reconcile this tension? 

EU: I think that tension stems from failure of leadership outside of the educators and the parents. Everything parents are saying is totally spot on. We live in this capitalist society that says you have to keep going to work, and without in-person school and without childcare this isn’t possible. On the other side, I think the demands of the Somerville Educators Union – saying, look, we just want clear thresholds to know when we go back, when we go remote – make complete sense. I don’t think it’s a parent-versus-teacher conflict so much as a failure of the governor for not having those thresholds in place statewide. His form of leadership is to say to districts: “figure it out.” So we have this situation  where everyone is on their own to come up with a “competitive” plan. Nevermind the fact that there are educators who are also parents with kids in different school districts from the one they teach in. What are they supposed to do? The fact that there was zero leadership from the top was the first failure. 

The second failure was the legislature not holding Governor Baker accountable, not stepping in and saying, “no, there will be standards and thresholds and here they are.” The state could have also provided  robust funding for testing and tracing, instead of just telling municipalities to figure it out for themselves. The main problem was in not even getting resources to the school districts to solve the problem to begin with; then it got reframed into a narrative about educators not wanting to go back to school. The educators do want to go back to school; they just don’t want to do it without clear answers on risk mitigation. Again, the failure started at the top, with the governor and the legislature failing to actually provide the resources for all of us to function. Instead their answer was to wait for Joe Biden to get elected, wait for a new Senate, then we’ll have resources. Well, all of the sudden six months go by in increasing misery because you all didn’t want to move to raise any revenue to pay for this to actually work. The capitalist system completely puts the burden on both the workers and the parents who are left with few-to-no options. 

RC: Many working class folks in this country feel (quite rightly) that the Democratic party has abandoned them.What can be done to get politically disaffected working class people on board with a democratic-socialist agenda? How should left-wing candidates address more socially-conservative working-class voters? 

EU:  I think a race-conscious approach and a class-conscious approach have to go hand in hand, because it’s too easy for the Right to separate them and use one or the other as a wedge to keep people divided and misdirect their anger, which should be directed at the evil twins of capitalism and white supremacy. While I don’t think a movement centered entirely in electoral politics can go very far, we can use electoral politics as a tool. Anytime you have movement candidates running against the neoliberal establishment is an opportunity to reach out to those abandoned voters. I want to be absolutely clear that this isn’t to say we should be appealing to white supremacists, but the Left has a lot to offer working people regardless of their ideology or their pre-existing voting record. In my race there was this impression that, because I was running as a socialist, there was no way I could win all of Somerville, no way I could win over “old” Somerville, the blue-collar working class. My conversations with those voters one-on-one were centered around my beliefs about the labor movement and our shared frustrations with the tired policies of the neoliberal oligarchy. Moderate Democrats don’t have the answers for these voters. 

The other thing we can do to appeal to more conservative voters is strengthen the labor movement. It’s not a coincidence, when you look at a place like Ohio, that it’s turned reliably red right alongside huge drops in union memberships. When you remove the union, you remove a vital space for community organizing and conversation, you leave people vulnerable to demagogues. This comes back to the fundamental point that with any investment, whether it’s infrastructure or housing or education, we can’t compromise on the fact that whatever we’re building has to be all with union jobs. That’s what we have to be vigilant about with every policy that we pass, and it’s a long-term strategy, but this is how we reach out to those fellow comrades who don’t know they’re comrades yet. 

Erika Uyterhoeven can be contacted at erika@electerika.com. Follow her on twitter at https://twitter.com/erika4rep and visit her website at https://www.electerika.com.

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