Labor Spring 2023 brought together workers, including student workers, from Madison and Milwaukee on Saturday to share their experiences organizing in their workplaces. The event took place at The Crossing Campus Ministry and served as a hotbed for different labor efforts, with discussions on motivations for labor organizing as well as the fight for fair compensation and better working conditions.
The event — part of a collaborative effort led by the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor — brought together a panel of labor organizers and workers from across the state. They aimed to highlight the current labor campaigns and the importance of this moment in labor history. In addition to the panel, the event included a training led by organizers on the fundamentals of unionizing.
“They invited us out because we give this [unionizing] training a lot,” said panelist Robert Christl. “Because of our connection with workers who've been organizing, I think that the organizers of this event wanted to hear from immigrant workers who are on the front lines of the struggle, making sure that those voices are heard.”
Christl, who serves as program director at Worker Justice Wisconsin, provided the training at the event.
“Worker Justice Wisconsin has a worker center on Park Street, and we dedicate ourselves to three things: educating workers about their rights, helping them get organized and ultimately unionize if they want,” he said. “We help incubate worker owned cooperatives, and all of our organizers speak Spanish fluently.”
During the event, members of the University Labor Council (ULC) passed out fliers promoting their workers’ audit at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The University Labor Council is a coalition of most of the unions on campus. We've worked with basically all campus unions,” said Harry Richardson, a member of the ULC. “We’re doing this outreach effort, the workers’ audit, to try to get workers on campus to talk about what's good about their job as an organizing tool to help get workers on campus thinking together and working together.”
According to the ULC, their workers’ audit has three main objectives: creating a safe environment for UW-Madison workers to express their experiences, connecting with workers on an individual level to gather more information while identifying common themes related to workplace issues across campus.
UW-Madison employs over 21,000 people, and the ULC hopes to “build a better university for everyone.”
“We've been together as a coalition for several years, trying to organize people on campus,” Richardson said. “[The ULC has] worked with blue collar, technical workers, TAs, all different campus workers.”
According to Richardson, the ULC has achieved some of its goals, such as a “base pay increase to $17 an hour for the blue collar workers on campus.”
During the event, student workers Omonefe Osifo and Olivia Ligman participated in the panel. Osifo, a student worker at Gordon Dining and Event Center, discussed the dining hall’s “really bad history in terms of workers.”
“It's not the best environment to work in, and it would be really nice to see some change,” Osifo said. “We've gone from being fully staffed at the beginning of the school year to being very understaffed right now.”
Osifo explained she recently lost the ability to get a meal after work.
“Having constraints and all these rules regarding access to food that we're going to be throwing away at the end of the day, It's been hard, especially with someone like me who's struggling with food insecurity,” said Osifo. “Work is where I get food most of the time.”
The event gave hope to Osifo’s goal for “a better work environment.”
“As someone who's part of the working class, you feel so small, and your bosses and the people who are in power put you so low that you don't feel like you have the opportunity to move forward,” Osifo explained. “Being able to hear that there are actual real people today who are making change really kind of inspired me.”
The aura of labor organizing could be felt through the retractable walls of the event as panelists voiced enthusiasm for unionization.
“Colleges run on student labor. I think that students as workers get taken advantage of, and that they have tremendous power to build a more just higher ed system,” said Christl. “Get organized. There's a ton of organizations that exist to help. Reach out to Worker Justice [Wisconsin], reach out to the University of Labor Council, reach out to the South Central Federation of Labor, there are labor movements here to help anyone get organized.”