Bread and Roses hosts panel to support labor unions

Local workers and labor organizers discussed issues surrounding organized labor at a panel last Wednesday in Griffin 6. Three nurses from Berkshire Medical Center (BMC), one Wild Oats employee and one staff organizer from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) spoke on the panel, hosted by the club Bread and Roses and moderated by Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies Andrew Cornell.

Formed earlier this semester, Bread and Roses is a student group seeking to expand student involvement with issues of organized labor in the local community. Through consultation with workers and organizers from UFCW, the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) and the New England Regional Council of Carpenters (NERCC), Bread and Roses has explored the ways in which students can support workers’ organizing efforts.

“We formed Bread and Roses to have a student group that is committed to social justice and also to building connections and solidarity between students and local unions,” Alexandra Griffin, ’18.5, one of the group’s founders, said.

Last week’s panel was part of an effort to inform students of present labor issues and facilitate discussion about what kinds of support students can offer. Griffin said that it was planned in part as a celebration of May Day – International Worker’s Day.

“We wanted to create a space for students and faculty to learn more about organized labor directly from union members and organizers,” Ashwin Dasgupta ’20, another of Bread and Roses’ co-founders, said. “Our biggest goal was to learn more about how students and faculty could best support the efforts of workers in our community.”

At the panel, workers shared their experiences in unions, described recent labor campaigns and negotiations and discussed how community members could support workers’ efforts.

“Union activity has never been more important,” BMC nurse Mark Brodeur said. “Elevating the profession of nursing through union activity, as a collective unit, is crucial to countering the power that large hospital conglomerates and insurance companies have amassed. As union members, we are afforded rights and protection to fight for what we believe in.

“It is great knowing that more and more young people are getting involved in their future, whether it is through unionized activities or social movements for positive change. Unity in any effort to create positive change is essential… We are our future.”

Bread and Roses previously supported nurses at BMC in their campaign for safer staffing and better healthcare plans by circulating a petition. Negotiations between BMC and the 800 union nurses have been contentious since the expiration of the MNA’s contract with BMC in September 2016. Nurses held a strike last fall and planned another this spring. However, the spring strike was canceled after negotiations progressed (“Berkshire Medical Center nurses cancel strike after progress in talks with hospital,” Feb. 28, 2017).

A recent increase in patient volume has led to concerns over unsafe patient care. Between Oct. 1, 2015 and Oct. 18, 2017, nurses filed 462 unsafe staffing reports, which nurses use to record conditions they judge to be “inconsistent with safe patient care,” according to the MNA. Nurses have also expressed discontent with BMC’s provision of healthcare. The MNA said that BMC has proposed doubling nurses’ monthly healthcare premiums.

UFCW represents the unionized workers at North Adams’ Stop and Shop and Williamstown’s Wild Oats Market. The union is currently seeking to help Massachusetts co-op workers to unionize, and it collaborated with 40 workers at Wild Oats Market Co-Op to ratify their first union contract on Jan. 4.

On Feb. 1, Griffin worked with Feminist Collective and Converging Worlds to organize a Claiming Williams Day panel on equitable construction hiring. Titled “Breaking Barriers for Women and POC [People of Color] in the White, Male World of Construction,” the panel addressed NERCC’s campaign for women and people of color to achieve greater representation in construction (“Students explore equity in construction at the College,” Feb. 14, 2018). NERCC has been making appeals to many institutions, including the College, to get contractors to combat underrepresentation in construction.

Executive Director of Design and Construction Rita Coppola-Wallace, Associate Vice President for Finance Matt Sheehy and Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Fred Puddester have said they will take students’ and NERCC’s concerns into account when considering how the College can achieve greater diversity in its construction hiring.

Dasgupta and Griffin both expressed a desire for Bread and Roses to continue its attempts to promote education and discussion of labor justice issues on campus. “We would like to continue to establish and grow links between students and labor groups in our area,” Dasgupta said. “Trying our best to spread what we learn as an organization to the broader campus through events, campaigns, posters or otherwise will be a good start.”

“Our group is interested in speaking to this particular moment where anti-union sentiments are being challenged,” co-founder Wylie Thornquist ’20 added. “People are beginning to understand that labor organizing is not a thing of the past or something that is separate from this campus and region.”

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