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"This is Not Just My Own Life”

Interview with Dorothy Nelson, conducted by Amy Todd, Anthropology


You once belonged to the International Union of Electrical Workers.  What do industrial unions and academic unions offer besides benefits and job protection?

Unions encourage people to work together, something that is basic to human nature.  My first union job was as a floor boy at the Sylvania plant in Salem. I had to lift and load 90 pound buckets of threaded metal pieces into a machine, something I could never have done alone.  There were many times that things could have fallen on my head, when I could have been injured.  But people noticed I needed help; they saw me struggling and stepped in.  Unions foster this kind of community.  If someone is tired or can’t work as fast on an assembly line, others pick up the slack. I learned about stewardship as an IUE member.  I also saw management’s tactics, like speed up; vocal union members would find the belt going a little faster.  When necessary, unions can withhold their labor and strike. The right to strike is a core value of unionism.

In academia, there is so much focus on individual productivity. Teachers must make time to build good relationships and show that they care about each other. Unions help foster community because we know that we are working for the benefit of others, not just ourselves. When you are concerned about the rights of all of the  faculty it is likely you will be more interested in the workings of the university as a whole.  When you feel that your union work is integral to the success of the students and the institution, you become a more effective teacher. Unions should provide a sense of dignity and confidence. This can be true at UMass Boston as long as the union is strong.

How did your early work in community and industrial organizing influence your academic unionism and educational philosophy?

I became more active politically during the Vietnam War and more aware of working class and labor issues while working for the East Boston Community News, a non-profit community run newspaper.  Dr. Paul Epstein at the East Boston Health Clinic was treating shipyard workers for asbestos exposure.  I wrote a story about it and it resulted in a major inspection of the Bethlehem shipyards. From there I took a job with Urban Planning Aid editing a newsletter for unionists on occupational health and safety.  I also started an unemployed workers group in East Boston where we showed labor films and read labor history. 

Around that time I took a job supported by the National Lawyers Guild to represent miners with black lung disease. My young sons and I left for Northern West Virginia. Once a week I was teaching older miners about their rights under the Black Lung Law, spreading the word among miners and their doctors about how to fill out forms correctly and representing miners in court who were contesting decisions.  What I saw, the extreme poverty, the disrespect toward older miners who were very sick and had been working since 8th grade, really changed my life.  It’s a longer story I hope to write about at some point.  Community organizing in East Boston and West Virginia convinced me that education is important across the board. What we should be trying to do, whether in industry or academia or in the communities, is to get people to think beyond their immediate situation, to see themselves in a broader context.

Over the years, I have been proud to work with this great faculty and to be part of this wonderful university.  UMass Boston is on par with those colleges and universities that encourage one-on-one engagement between teachers and students,  value small classes and are willing to break away from the traditional lecture format.

I always thought this university was in the vanguard of education so proposals to shift toward a “research agenda,” which seem to be connected to the movement from small to large classes, in my opinion, are not progressive.

What do you think unions need to do to be more effective?

All unions should embody democratic principles, which means countering our individualistic culture. A strong union must engage the rank and file. Sincere activism, challenging the status quo, speaking out in union publications, these things should be encouraged. The rank and file must be deeply informed in all unions. Training should be available for those who would like to be more active.  Efforts should be made to involve people who may be nervous about being active in unions.  Union officers and the rank and file should talk on local radio stations, write letters to the editors of local papers, and maintain a strong presence. I also believe union officers should be rotated.  People should take turns running meetings and share responsibility for orienting new members.

All of us are standing on the shoulders of those who have dedicated their lives to building a more equitable society. Our dues pay for grievance officers who represent people we may not even know. The idea that this is not just my own life is at the heart of the union.  Without unions, democratic principles in this country would be in danger.

With the support of Catherine Lynde, you were able to found the Union News and develop a substantial  publication.  What do you think makes a good union publication?

Newsletters are often a collection of reports and items collated by one individual.  The Union News is different because it depends on input from members of the FSU and other campus unions. The Union News needs to be read by our members and members should write for this publication. This collaborative approach helps to raise people’s consciousness about the issues, about struggles on campus and around the country in higher education.

Dorothy Nelson taught writing and literature at the college level for 25 years. She was a Senior Lecturer in English, an active member of the NTT caucus, and editor of the Union News from 2009-2012. She retired from UMass/Boston in Spring 2011.