This past February, the South Sound General Education Union (SSGEU) appears to have won its first campaign: administrators at Evergreen State College are no longer filling a vacant campus police officer position, and are hiring two new faculty members. Evergreen State is a small liberal arts college in Washington State, with a total enrollment of about 4,000 students. Jason Koslowski interviewed a member of the SSGEU, Syndi, for their perspective on the campaign.
What is the South Sound General Education Union?
The South Sound General Education Union is a union to encompass pretty much anyone in education, ranging from pre-K to higher education (the universities). That includes faculty and staff, but we also include students in our union, which is a pretty big part of our success, actually.
So you consider students to be education workers?
Yes we do. We consider them to be part of the wider working class, even though students generally are not making a wage as students in the United States. They are basically doing work. They’re working sometimes 30 to 40 hours a week, training to be workers of some kind. And even if they may not be producing any commodities, they are becoming workers. And that’s a really important area to organize, too.
I’m also thinking about how, just by showing up to class, doing assignments, joining student groups, etc., they’re doing the work of constantly legitimizing, building up, and sustaining the school. But how did South Sound General Education Union start out? Could you say a word about that early history?
The organizing began late March of last year, about a year ago. Essentially, it was a few people that were really inspired by the West Virginia teachers’ strike and then the [other] teacher strikes that followed. That teacher strike, to me personally, was one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in my life.
And some of us, we thought it was actually possible to organize education industrially, as an industrial union, rather than organizing it by craft. So a group of us started meeting up and making plans for a union.
On a campus there are lots of kinds of workers, some of them in tension with each other. When you were starting out, where did you find a “foothold”? Was it with students, or teachers, or campus staff workers? And what were some of the major challenges of bridging different kinds of workers?
The most interest was with the people who were unorganized on campus, like students. We don’t have a real student union at Evergreen. It was actually very hard to get a lot of faculty on board, because, one, they’re already in a union, and two, even that union was hard to organize. Because the school says, “Hey, we’re a progressive college. We give you all these tools to teach freely. You don’t need a union.” So it was really hard for that union to come together with us.
In terms of faculty — honestly, it’s hard to organize them, because when they teach, they’re not really seeing students as equals. I also think that’s due to the material position of a lot of faculty. With the job market in that craft being really cramped, and the material well-being that some of them get, they don’t want to risk repression.
I think it’s worth noting that adjuncts at Evergreen generally get paid 90% of the salary that the tenured faculty gets, which makes them unusually hard to get on board. It’s been easier to get other workers on board — I mean the janitors, the cafeteria workers, all of them — because they’re not taught to see students as below them in some way.
One group we’ve been building relationships with is staff workers that are paid a wage, like janitors, who are organized by AFSCME. In fact, last month they did a march on the boss with thirty of them. We brought five of our members to that action. One of us got in contact with a rank-and-file member who was spreading the word about the action. We showed up for that march on the boss. I mean, they were way less antagonistic to the admin than we were, but the wage workers were not compensated for the snow days. And they did a march on the boss to get compensation, which is huge for a union like AFSCME. We partook of that action, and we built relations through there.
For other staff workers, a lot of it is just having one-on-ones, just building relationships with people, and over time agitating them using the AEIOU style (agitate, educate, inoculate, organize, unionize).
Are there any differences between organizing on campus and how organizing is taught in the IWW’s Organizer Training 101? I mean: mapping relationships in the workplace, doing one-on-ones with co-workers, and generally using the “AEIOU” model? Do these same principles apply?
The OT 101 strategy is crucial. Absolutely crucial. The OT 101 strategy in general is good for getting people on board with a union, period.
Can you briefly take us through the struggle? What happened?
Basically what happened was this. One of the departments, the political economy department, taught a lot of Marxism and things that are very critical of capitalism. Evergreen used to have a really thriving political economy department, but they had been negligent in hiring political economy faculty. Not only that, but budget cuts were happening around this time.
This is a tangent, but I think an important one. Enrollment has been dropping since 2010. [It] dropped between 2010 to 2017, [and then dropped by] that same amount between 2017 and fall of 2018. Because in the summer of 2018, they cut over 20 positions, primarily in the arts.
So we decided to use this first campaign to build the union. We made it clear that enrollment significantly dropped because a lot of core programs of the college were not there. We found out the police budget was 1.6 million dollars. And even though there are a good amount of people on campus who, sadly, like cops, there’s also a really strong presence that does not like cops, luckily. A good amount of people are skeptical of them. So before we did a first rally, we posted propaganda all around campus. And we decided to go pragmatic. Go in a way that is accessible to people who are centrists. One of the most popular pieces was this piece talking about the 20 positions that were fired while the school tried to hire another cop. We basically said, “Instead of hiring a cop, who is paid more starting salary than a faculty member, we demand that the school hires two full-time positions, one in political economy and one in the arts.”
Because of this campaign, we managed to build a pretty decent-sized base and get some workers down with the union. We agitated those workers into organizing their section of their shops.
Then we did a rally. We got over a hundred people — quite a few people from the community as well. We did a demand delivery inside the office of the president and provost. That gave quite a scare to them. There have been quite a few demand deliveries organized by leftists in Olympia since late 2017, but that was probably the biggest one as of lately.
Why do you think that that rally was the biggest one?
We flyered the campus heavily, and we handed out flyers directly to people. Because you can’t ignore them as you’re going to hand them something.
How were the demands crafted for the campaign? There was a positive demand — hire two new full-time faculty members — paired with a negative one: no new cop position. Was that on purpose, to help get numbers out and mobilize a base of support?
Yes. Because you’re reaching out to two different kinds of demographics in Olympia that really could use organizing. In terms of getting rid of the cops, there’s a good amount of people with anti-cop views, which is good. But a lot of them don’t really have a positive program. They are pretty much against things but not really for things. And then you have people that don’t really have much of a negative program at all, but they definitely have a positive program: “Hey, we should have more faculty.” We were able to get these demographics to come together through these demands. That allowed for a pretty big turn-out.
What tactics did the administration use against the campaign?
After the rally and demand delivery, the admin tried to meet with one of the faculty who was openly in favor of the union, and even spoke at our rally. They tried to negotiate with him first. But then, two days before the meeting, the provost invited the head of finance, the head of outreach, the head of students, the head of faculty, a steward of the faculty union, and the head of the student government — trying to intimidate him. But we convinced the provost to allow for one other member of the General Education Union to attend the meeting. And we brought another [third] person without asking.
And they were not able to get us to agree to anything. Because we have a democratic structure of decision-making, so we couldn’t agree to anything on the spot. And they were highly intimidated because it was five of them — as in, top admin — versus three of us. And the steward of the faculty union was definitely not on our side, but was not on the side of the admin, either.
So it didn’t work out well at all for them. After that, their strategy was to try to redirect people to official committees on campus. And we ignored that. Then we did a phone zap after they met with us. And the last action we did was an information picket. We had about 30-plus people. It was a really rainy and dark day, and because of the weather, the turnout wasn’t the best. But it showed that we were not going to give up and they couldn’t co-opt us. So they decided it would be easier to give in.
Say a little more about the value of having a union that works democratically. Why is that helpful?
Why that works really well is because, one, it would be much harder to make decisions that screw over other members of the union. It means that everyone who’s in the union has a say in what happens. Also, when the boss tries to negotiate, and tries to get people to decide for the union, that’s just talking to one person. And one person does not have the power to make those decisions. It’s the union, when they meet together. That’s where decisions are made. So it tends to be much harder to shut the union down.
What did you win?
Instead of not having a cop hired, they essentially asked a cop to leave, which in most situations means they fired that cop. Evergreen police are used against protests that happen in Olympia in general. Olympia PD has something called a “mutual aid pact,” appropriating that term from leftists. It means they’ll call in all the cops from the local area to come assist them if there’s a protest in downtown or whatever. So having one less cop that can partake in that is huge.
Not only that, but they’re going to hire a full-time political economy faculty member. They only went half-way with one of our demands, which was the arts faculty demand. They’re hiring someone in community media, which is general arts, and only a part-time position. It wasn’t fully what we wanted, but that’s a huge victory.