WORCESTER — On Wednesday members of Clark University Graduate Workers United (CUGWU-Teamsters) unanimously ratified their first contract by a vote of 71 to 0.
The mood was upbeat on the third floor of Clark’s Jefferson Academic Center as grad workers signed in at 12 noon, talked about catching up on lost sleep, and listed beneficiaries for their new union life insurance policies. Business agents from Teamsters Local 170 cracked jokes with Shannon George, the local’s principal officer, and chatted about their dogs in the hallway in between answering questions from workers, who reviewed the full agreement together in Jefferson 320 before voting.
The CUGWU bargaining committee negotiated the tentative agreement with the university on Friday afternoon, five days into an indefinite strike, and the union suspended their 24/7 picketing at 5 p.m. that day. The workers remained on strike until the three-year contract was ratified by a vote of their membership Wednesday afternoon.
Clark grad workers voted in September to authorize a strike after continued stalling by the university and disagreement about compensation. With no sign of movement from the administration, they then walked out on strike the morning of Monday, October 3.
The workers succeeded in winning a first contract 203 days after they won their union. This length of time, from NLRB election to contract ratification, is less than half the national average and a testament to the strength of CUGWU.
In the words of William Westgard-Cruice, a member of the organizing committee, “We built a culture of solidarity here that didn’t exist before.”
Bad faith negotiations push workers to strike
After announcing their intent to unionize on February 9 of this year and overwhelmingly voting to do so on March 23, CUGWU has been in negotiations with the university administration over a range of issue areas since April 19.
According to a member of the bargaining committee, the university dragged out negotiations across six meetings over the summer, intent on spending time discussing absurdities like the definition of a graduate worker.
On July 8, in response to the grad workers’ choice to unionize, the university withdrew a previous commitment to provide grad workers a 100% subsidy for health insurance, surprising them with an added $1,200+ expense before the start of the academic year. On August 15, Teamsters Local 170 filed an unfair labor practice charge against the university with the National Labor Relations Board for bad faith bargaining in response to the administration reneging on its commitment to a full health insurance subsidy and refusal to make any counter-offer on wages, paid leave, and health insurance.
When the university finally did make an economic counter-offer on August 24, CUGWU called their terms “insulting.”
Gia Davis, a fifth-year PhD worker and member of the bargaining committee, told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that the administration’s offer would have “enshrine[d] pay cuts in real terms, offered no healthcare coverage for members’ spouses or dependents, and provided no healthcare premium subsidy for master’s student-workers.”
The next day, move-in day for incoming first-year undergraduates, grad workers rallied for a first contract outside Clark’s main gate.
Grad workers then took a strike authorization vote on September 12, with 97% voting in favor based on Clark’s refusal to make “a serious economic offer.”
It seemed the university was not taking the growing militancy of the graduate workers seriously either, with one bargaining committee member saying Clark lacked “any will” to negotiate at the bargaining meeting that followed the vote.
“The biggest issue is this administration is convinced that paying poverty wages is OK and that we should take a year to a year and a half to negotiate a contract while they’re still making poverty wages,” said Eli Gillen, Teamsters Local 170’s business agent for the Clark grad workers.
“So while our members are worried about whether or not they can pay rent every month or whether or not they’ll actually get three meals a day, they just want to keep going along with business as usual, and they think we should be patient about it,” he said.
“Our goal was to have a contract by fall,” Gillen explained. “That is not their desire. Their lawyer, who has negotiated other college contracts, has them absolutely convinced that a year or year and a half is a reasonable timeline, and we don’t have the patience for that. These workers are not going to spend another year living in poverty just so that this university can cling to the status quo.”
One grad worker said that when the bargaining committee notified members of the unit the week beforehand that they were calling for a strike “there were people I had never met before who were like ‘Fuck yeah!’”
Fighting poverty wages
On Monday, September 3, graduate workers emailed their professors and students explaining the situation and then walked out together at 10:30 a.m., chanting “Living wage now!” to the blare of horns from Teamsters Local 170’s Big Blue tractor-trailer and Little Blue pickup truck.
“The stipends that PhD workers receive qualify the vast majority of us for food stamps,” said a teaching assistant and member of the bargaining committee, addressing the crowd that gathered with the grad workers outside Clark’s main gate. “What we are demanding here and now is a living wage, a living wage!”
“And I want to be clear, we are proud of the work that we do here. We do not want to be here. I want to go back to teaching my class! My colleagues want to go back to pushing forward the research that makes this a premier research institution as well as an educational institution. But we cannot do that while we are struggling to meet our basic needs,” they said. “This is not just a rally; this is a strike — because we believe that we can win. We believe that we deserve a fair contract, and we are counting on our power and the power of our community and the care that we have for one [another] to make this university a place that respects its workers and ensures dignity on the job.”
Rich Kruger-Delgado, an organizing committee member, then led chants of “What’s disgusting? Union busting! What’s outrageous? Poverty wages! What’s appalling? Admin stalling!” that rang out on Main Street.
In a move that some speculated was meant to intimidate workers and undergraduates intending to picket, the university’s first response that morning was to send out a mandatory “policies and procedures quiz” on the student code of conduct.
Speaking at the picket at the main gate on the first day of the strike, Lester Carver, a course assistant and second-year master’s student in geographic information science (GIS), told Working Mass, “I’m feeling energized and hopeful. I got here at 8 a.m. this morning to start handing out flyers [announcing the strike to passing undergraduate students]… and I’m out here because I work three jobs, two of which are with the university, and I can barely pay my rent. And that doesn’t even account for the other costs of living I have.”
“Among grad students, some of us have undergraduate degrees from Clark University, and I think the fact that we are not making a living wage — and for master’s students are making minimum wage — I think that says a lot about how Clark values its own degrees, about what they think those of us with Clark undergrad degrees are worth,” Carver said.
“I am in solidarity with everyone else here. We’re demanding fair wages, affordable healthcare, and dignity as graduate workers who are providing an essential service as educators and researchers for the university. It’s also not just about me; it’s about everyone here right now and the people who are here after us. It’s about the future of Clark.”
Carmen Marazzi, a second-year PhD student in social psychology and member of the bargaining committee, also spoke about the difficulty of meeting the cost of living on a Clark grad worker’s salary.
“The fact that I go to the grocery store, and I see the price of fruit skyrocket, it’s becoming so difficult for me to buy food, just to live really,” she said. “And when the gas prices were increasing that was also a big deal. Inflation is making it very unlivable here, and on top of that, my rent has increased.
“Look, I love my undergraduate students — I love all the students I’ve had so far since I’ve been here — and I feel sad that I can’t TA for them right now,” Marazzi, who is a teaching assistant for qualitative methods, stressed. “But I need to do this because I need to advocate for myself and also for my colleagues. And the fact I’ve seen so many students on the lines today in solidarity and seeing faculty out here, for me it’s everything.”
Holding the picket lines
From Monday on, the union maintained half a dozen picket lines: one for visibility at the university’s main gate on Main Street, one for deliveries at the loading dock behind Higgins University Center on Maywood Street, and four more for new construction and renovations happening at two on-campus work sites on Woodland and Hawthorne Street.
Shawmut Design and Construction of Boston is managing the ground-up construction of a new four-story, 70,000-square-foot academic facility, the Center for Media Arts, Computing, and Design, which broke ground in April. And Consigli of Milford, MA, is managing renovations underway at Clark’s Goddard Library to replace an aging, leaking roof.
Clark President David Fithian, who CUGWU says owns seven horses, has gone on a buying and building spree since taking office in July 2020. He is in a rush to finish the new building, with the 13-month project “on a fast-track schedule” and overlapping the design and build phases to save time for completion by next fall. It is needed to house the Becker School of Design & Technology, the remnants of Becker College, Clark having absorbed programs from the now defunct institution last year. Clark is currently leasing part of Becker’s old campus in Worcester, an arrangement Fithian in April 2021 said the university intended to continue for only “a year to 18 months.”
On this first day of the strike, construction workers were already on site when picketing started. Some finished their shifts, but others packed up and left.
“I love what I do, but coming here and starting with poverty wages has made trying to focus on my work really difficult. If we could get a living wage, I could do what I do better,” said MK Speth, a first-year graduate worker picketing the new building site on Woodland Street. “But I don’t feel like the administration respects us. They don’t see us as workers, even though we contribute a significant amount to the university, and they’re trying to invest in things that are just going to bring them more money, instead of investing in their workers.”
“We are very lucky that a lot of the construction workers are unionized so what we’re trying to do right now is just to let them know that we are striking and ask them not to cross our picket line,” Speth said. “You can see it’s slowed down a lot, and hopefully we’re going to keep this up and not only shut down classes and labs but shut down everything on campus to show we have a lot of freakin’ support.”
In a statement, the university defended the lack of progress in negotiations, repeatedly citing a damning analysis by Bloomberg Law that showed it now takes an average of 465 days for newly unionized workers to win a first contract. In this article, on increasing stalling by employers, the author noted that “longer delays in first contracts correlated to lower wage hikes for workers.”
On the second day, workers were ready at 5:30 a.m. with dozens of picketers stationed at entrances to the construction sites on campus. This was especially important because there was a planned concrete pour for the new building scheduled for the morning, and the concrete pump truck arrived shortly after that time, as expected.
When the building trades workers showed up that morning, there was a somewhat tense discussion between the two sides that lasted for nearly an hour as the Carpenters and Laborers worked out what was going on with Teamsters Local 170 business agents, and picketers chanted “Rats in the building! Rats, go home!”
“All the things that we benefit from, from being in a union, that’s what these guys want,” said Jim Marks, a Local 170 business agent, to the Laborers’ steward. “We need you guys’ support, man; we wish you’d walk off for the day.”
“We wanna fucking support you guys too; we’re all one entity here,” the steward replied.
“These are primary picket lines; every one of these is a primary picket line, and you don’t have to cross a primary picket line,” said Sean Foley, another Local 170 business agent. “These are all Clark University, and the strike is against Clark University.”
Refuting the university, which according to the building trades workers, had told them that these were merely protesters and not a recognized union, Marks added, “And these are all members, members of Teamsters Local 170.”
“I know, I know. I work with you guys,” the steward said.
Turning to the pump truck driver, also a union worker, he then shouted, “Hey, start this thing up, and get the fuck outta here. You don’t wanna set up; get outta here.”
The driver gave a thumbs-up and drove off to cheers from the picketers.
“We appreciate it,” Marks said to both. “Thank you.”
Not long after, having made some calls to higher-ups in the union, the roughly three dozen other union workers from the building trades decided to follow suit, with many joining the line, breaking out jokes and an air horn as they picketed.
“We’re union, and we feel that we ought to stick together because we’re also united as brothers,” said José Otero, a steward for Carpenters Local 336. “What affects you guys, affects us as well as union members.”
An indignant Clark administrator came over to protest that grad workers were “illegally blocking” the builders from the work site by picketing, a claim later repeated in a university statement. This drew laughs from the construction workers.
One of the graduate workers picketing on Woodland Street, José Rosario, a teaching assistant, underlined the importance of the pickets around the two work sites.
“All this new construction happening on campus — it speaks to where their priorities are. If you’re not prioritizing the well-being of your employees, then what are you as an institution? So we’re hoping to disrupt because the only way that we’re going to see change is to show that not only are we essential workers for your university, but we will also make sure that you cannot function if we are not treated equitably.”
“It’s about time that we’re out here,” Rosario continued. “Many of us, we’ve been graduate students for several years, and the pay just isn’t where it needs to be. You’re asking people to commit to you, to make a sacrifice and commit to your institution, and then you’re not supporting them. It’s just manipulative, and we need to be better.”
Shortly after 2 p.m. that day, the campus experienced a roughly 30-minute power outage. One picketer joked to Working Mass that the university had lost power because the grad workers had it all.
At this stage in the strike, Clark also asked faculty to inform the administration about which grad workers were not working.
On Wednesday, many union workers in the building trades were diverted to projects elsewhere but came back to get their tools from campus.
Clark had called the grad workers’ bargaining committee to meet with the administration’s negotiators at 9 a.m. in the Alumni and Student Engagement Center (ASEC), a mixed administrative and academic building across the street from the main gate, and large numbers of workers and supporters turned out in the rain to make sure they could hear them from outside.
The university was clearly upset about the disruptions to construction and deliveries and unsuccessfully attempted to argue that these things was not part of the dispute. After making their offer and receiving CUGWU’s economic counter-proposal, they left the meeting to confer, leaving the bargaining committee in the room for two hours before emailing them to say they had left for the day, a move CUGWU called “disrespectful.”
The administration then emailed out their economic offer, seeming to think that releasing it publicly would pressure the union to agree and end the strike.
While some workers asked questions about the email, a bargaining committee member said “no one” trusted what the administration said.
“People are immediately skeptical [of what they say],” an organizing committee member added. “And that’s probably a good thing!”
One supporter of CUGWU also received a reply, signed off with President Fithian’s initials, to an email sent in support of the grad workers the previous day. In Clark’s own spin on alternative facts, the reply closed by saying, “We gave the union what they asked for this morning and they rejected it. You, of course, can and will believe what you want. But I can assure you that at Clark facts and truth still matter.”
In its own email summarizing the results of the bargaining meeting, CUGWU wrote, “While we have forced them — in a matter of days — to cede major concessions, we must not neglect the details and have to continue fighting for the final outstanding issues… The strike is working, and we have a responsibility to build on our momentum…”
“Fundamentally, our campaign is about four demands: 1. A living wage now [not by January] for all graduate workers, 2. Affordable healthcare for all graduate workers and their dependents, 3. Benefits commensurate with dignity on the job, and 4. Ensuring the long-term success of our union beyond this first contract.”
The bargaining committee continued to resist the university’s attempts at “limiting our Local 170 representative’s access to campus,” undermining grievance filing over abuses like unpaid work hours, and opening the door to “exploitative fees… [that could] whittle away contract gains.”
“If the university does not wish to be disrupted, they know what they have to do,” CUGWU wrote. “The university’s offer also provided no stipend increase for one of our departments, which the bargaining committee deemed completely unacceptable. We will not submit a contract to you that does not benefit us all.”
On Thursday, a number of non-union construction workers crossed the picket line at the library for the roof renovations, but they were left without a crane after picketers chanting “Picket line means: Union on strike!” and “If we don’t get it [a union contract], shut it down!” successfully turned the crane away.
The crane operator, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 4, got out to “take a shit” at the work site and then drove the crane away at 7 a.m.
The union also pivoted slightly from the chant-heavy first three days of the strike by introducing music, bubbles, and chalk to the picket line. One could get the sense that the workers were preparing to continue for the long haul if necessary, as they asked people to sign up for shifts for the long weekend, Clark’s fall break.
The university had asked the grad workers to return for another bargaining session at 9 a.m. on Friday, and supporters again rallied outside the ASEC building on Main Street.
That morning management from Shawmut appeared at the new building site, though no work took place, and at Consigli’s library site, a non-union operator was brought in to bring a different crane across the picket line.
A picketer told Working Mass that the new operator had said matter of factly, “I don’t know what I’m doing, and this crane is a piece of shit.”
In the early afternoon, after about 4 hours inside, the bargaining committee came out of the building to cheers from the crowd. It was announced that they had reached a tentative agreement with the university.
The grad workers suspended picketing at 5 p.m. and also announced the agreement would go to a vote of CUGWU’s membership for potential ratification on the afternoon of October 12, giving time for their members to review and discuss the terms.
Support came from all across campus and beyond
All day and night during picketing, a chorus of honks and cheers could be heard on the picket lines, with both pedestrians and passersby on bikes and motorcycles and in cars and pickup trucks all showing their support, joined by passing drivers in Worcester Yellow Cabs, a Penske rental truck, tractor-trailers for US Foods and Yellow Corporation, assorted vehicles from the City of Worcester’s Department of Public Works and Parks, and trucks from Verizon, Eversource, FedEx, DHL, and, of course, UPS.
A familiar and favorite refrain on the picket line was chants of “How many horses does one man need? Well, how many horses does Fithian have? One. Two. Three. Four. It can’t be more! Five. Six. Seven. Seven horses?! Seven fucking horses!” and “Pay your TAs for their courses, or we’ll take away your horses!”
On the picket line, one worker, referencing the university president’s horses, remarked, “I’m sure they’re eating better than we do.”
The chant was so ubiquitous, Working Mass overheard a conversation between two people walking down Maywood Street in which one person said, “Seven horses? Who needs that many?” and the other replied, “Not Fithian.”
People brought their cats, dogs, children, babies, siblings, and partners to the picket line. Others brought pots and pans to the main gate, and at least one person walked up, asked what was going on, and then rummaged through their pockets to make a cash donation to the strike fund.
Many more brought coffee, clementines, donuts, soup, hot chocolate, paneer kathi rolls, bagels, Rice Krispie treats, falafel, cookies, homemade apple pie, granola bars, banana bread, and hummus and baba ganoush with fried pita chips.
And though Clark is a small university, over 100 undergraduate students joined the picket on the first day alone.
“Union organizing is all about solidarity,” said Meridian Stiller, a first-year undergraduate student worker.
As a high school senior back home in Virginia, they organized the country’s 24th unionized Starbucks with Starbucks Workers United.
“I’m here — and I see a lot of other first-years and undergraduate students as well — to show solidarity with the union and let the university administration know that everyone cares and that they need to do something because we are not going to accept this,” they said.
Other university workers driving golf carts, riding mowers, and shuttle buses beeped and pumped their fists, and a few of Clark’s dining hall workers, employed by Sodexo, who themselves have been organizing with UNITE HERE, stopped to talk with the grad workers, with one giving a honk and a wave while driving off from a shift.
A number of faculty members from several departments showed up at the picket line too in spite of threatened retaliation for supporting CUGWU, which the grad workers’ union said included unpaid leave and “insinuated consequences for pre-tenure faculty.” Clark also instructed faculty to scab by performing striking workers’ tasks.
Some professors brought contributions of food with them, and others brought their classes. They held a teach-in in Clark’s Red Square late Thursday morning with a discussion of how “a frequent strategy of the power structure is to create a perceived divide between those of us who provide services (labor) and those of us who receive them (learners/students, etc).”
At one point while Working Mass was on the line, an administrator even visited the picket to show support.
And with Clark’s annual Family and Friends Weekend scheduled for October 14 to 16, a strategic boon to the grad workers with the timing of the strike, parents expressed their intent to come out and join the picket.
“If the grad student workers are still striking, this Clarkie Mama will not cross the picket line on Family Weekend, but [I] will be happy to bring my own pot and wooden spoon to bang and chant with them!” one mother wrote in a comment on the university’s Facebook page. “Pay them a living wage with decent health care benefits and paid sick days — our kids deserve that for their teachers.”
“WPI GWU stands in solidarity with CUGWU as they fight for a fair contract,” said Jake Scarponi, a teaching assistant and an organizing committee member in the WPI Graduate Workers’ Union. “It’s empowering to see how determined they are to help their fellow workers by demanding that the university take care of their teachers and researchers.”
Other militant members of the labor movement offered support as well.
“When I saw that this was happening — Clark University graduate workers going on an open-ended strike — it brought back memories of our open-ended strike, and I just felt I needed to come down and support them,” Bill Lahey, a recently retired member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, told Working Mass.
Lahey worked as a nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester for 44 years and was a member of the bargaining committee there during last year’s 301-day strike.
“Really all they’re asking for is a decent salary and healthcare benefits that go along with that, and I don’t think any worker should be without this,” he said while walking the grad workers’ picket line. “I think what you’re seeing here is this swell of frustration and anger from workers across the board. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living; people have just had it. I’m more hopeful now than I was maybe even a year and a half ago when we were out in the thick of it.”
Brittany Delaney, co-chair of Worcester DSA, said, “As someone who has been organizing in my workplace, I’m glad I could come out to the picket and that DSA members from our chapter — including Clark faculty, students, and alumni — came out every day of the strike. Our members, alongside those from Boston DSA, River Valley DSA, and Providence DSA, spent a combined 100 hours on the picket line and donated over $500 to the workers’ strike fund.”
“We know the power of workers withholding our labor and honoring each other’s picket lines. That’s why our members have stood with striking St. Vincent nurses, with Iron Workers picketing a site using non-union labor near Polar Park, and with baristas at the E Central Street Starbucks during their strike,” she said. “Solidarity forever.”
Striking, solidarity, and strategy get the goods
Graduate workers were universally thankful for undergrads who came out in large numbers to help maintain the picket lines and for other union workers who respected them, including members of Carpenters Local 336, Laborers Local 243, IBEW Local 96, Operating Engineers Local 4, and Teamsters Local 25. Many credited solidarity from the building trades with putting significant pressure on the university and strengthening the grad workers’ hand, and a member of the organizing committee talked about the importance of standing with the building trades in turn and advocating for union construction jobs on campus going forward.
Teamsters Local 170 was a constant presence on the picket line — all four business agents, not only the grad worker’s own Eli Gillen but also Sean Foley, Ken Bergen, and Jim Marks, joined by organizer Shawn Stevens. Bergen went so far as to park his car at Clark and sleep in it so he could stay close to the line and jokingly told Working Mass, “I gotta get a better job,” one night.
The Local provided meals and a $150-a-week strike payment to grad workers on the picket line. Local 170’s Big Blue tractor-trailer and Little Blue pickup with trailer were on Main Street 24/7 too, and a Teamsters Joint Council 10 tractor-trailer joined the first day of the strike.
Shannon George, secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 170, also spent a substantial amount of time on the picket line and expressed his admiration for their fight.
“With what’s going on in the economy, workers are finally realizing that they need to fight back,” George told Working Mass. We’re seeing this movement all around the country. We’re seeing it with these Clark graduate student workers, and we’re starting to see it more and more in every field of work. These younger workers are really learning that they have a voice and that the money made by these big corporations — and schools — is because of the work they do.”
One organizing committee member emphasized that the Teamsters were a key part of the grad workers’ victory and shared how glad he was the grad workers had organized with a union that has 4,000 members in Central Mass.
Among all those members, UPS workers in Local 170 refused to cross the picket line and a number of them came out to join it. Multiple grad workers expressed their intention to return that solidarity during UPSers’ 2023 contract fight.
From aiding the Clark grad workers’ successful unionization and now their strike for a first contract, Teamsters Local 170 has demonstrated how valuable established unions can be when they use their resources to actively support and engage in organizing. While the impressive work of the grad workers themselves — as the ones who shouldered the ultimate risks — should not be overlooked, there is a well-documented lack of this kind of commitment from much of the existing labor movement, and Local 170’s impressive work at Clark is a credit to their union.
And other workers on Clark’s campus have expressed great interest in unionizing themselves, and there was some discussion among picketers of other campus workers and undergraduates wanting to organize.
Resident advisors at universities elsewhere have started unionizing, with RAs at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, filing a petition for a union election on September 29, which indeed may signal the approach of another wave of student worker organizing following that of graduate workers.
One picketer told Working Mass they had learned so much from the strike and said it gave them for the first time a clear-eyed understanding of class struggle. A member of the organizing committee, meanwhile, laid out his expectation that class struggle in higher education will only intensify.
Savoring a win
Workers on Friday had emphasized that the tentative agreement still needed to be ratified but celebrated the amazing progress they had made with a gathering on Friday night that saw them break out inflatable hobbyhorses, a keg of Lagunitas IPA, and Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” There was a palpable sense of exhilaration and relief.
Workers talked about how they looked forward to getting some sleep after so much time on the picket line, but many also talked about the future of their union and shared their belief in the importance of remaining organized and continuing to build the union for all the fights to come. There was a perception that Clark miscalculated this time, but no belief that workers could simply depend on their doing so again.
Earlier that Friday evening, a van packed full of waving little kids had passed by the picket line on Main Street with a supportive honk, and a passing UPS worker had stopped briefly to say “Congrats!” as the picket wrapped up.
One grad worker commented to no one in particular, “What a perfect day to win a contract.”
Cory B is a Clark alum and former undergraduate student worker, a member of the Steering Committee of Worcester DSA, a correspondent for Working Mass, and a member of the Massachusetts DSA Labor Committee and DSA’s National Labor Commission.
Thank you to all of the Clark graduate workers who shared their time and thoughts, on and off the record and on and off the picket line, during the strike.
Featured image credit: Viewed from across Main Street and the hood of Big Blue, a large crowd of Clark grad workers, undergraduate supporters, UPS workers, and Teamsters Local 170 business agents gather outside Clark’s main gate shortly before 11 a.m. on the first day of their strike. Cory B/Working Mass