Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Susan Moir's Fight For Labor Equality and Education

At age 19, Susan Moir, ScD, was a single mother in need of a job. That is, until she got one in a bakery that was organized by the Teamsters union. That initial encounter with a union proved to be the start of a decades-long relationship that has brought her from working in a bakery to driving a Boston school bus to her current position as director of UMass Boston’s Labor Resource Center, a position she has held since 2004. Previous to working at UMass Boston, Dr. Moir spent twelve years as the founding Director of the Construction Occupational Health Program (COHP) at UMass Lowell.

“I am the rare American worker who has almost always had a union job,” says Dr. Moir. Indeed, union membership has never reached huge proportions in this country--peaking at 28% of the workforce in 1954--but involvement in unions is becoming more and more uncommon in this age of globalization, outsourcing, and economic instability. Union membership is now at 12%. “I think it is very scary,” says Dr. Moir of today’s labor realities. “Hours are longer. Productivity is up dramatically which translates to hard work all day with little recovery time. Wages and benefits are dropping. Work is very insecure because the global workforce has put great pressure on the American standard of living.” This sort of pressure is what Dr. Moir spends her days challenging.

Since coming to UMass Boston’s Labor Resource Center, Dr. Moir has successfully strengthened the undergraduate Labor Resource program and has lobbied--successfully--to institute a Labor Studies minor at UMass Boston. It will be open for enrollment next Fall. Currently, UMass Boston is the only university in New England where students can receive a bachelor’s degree in Labor Studies. With the advent of Dr. Moir’s newly designed Labor Studies minor, these issues will be brought to the forefront in a new way. Dr. Moir believes the future of the labor movement lies with young people, and the minor is a step in that direction.

“What we talk about in our Labor Studies courses is the need for a new type of labor movement— one that sees the need to think globally, to organize across industries and across borders and to be in solidarity with everyone who is getting the short end of it--youth, immigrants, poor women, workers in sweatshops around the world.” Instituting the Labor Studies minor is not only an attempt on the part of Dr. Moir and others in the Labor Resource Center to educate students about labor-related issues, it is part of a larger effort to involve young people in an area where they are underrepresented.

“The average age of union members today is over 45 and fewer than 1/4 of union members are under 35. My people are going to die off and the workers movement in the US will die with us if we don’t bring in more young people” says Dr. Moir. “The problem is not that young people do not want to be in unions because studies have shown that the vast majority of workers— if they feel they will not lose their job— would prefer to have union protections at work. The problem is the changing nature of work in the US.”

The sectors where young people typically work, like retail, food service, IT and tech jobs are generally not unionized. Dr. Moir attributes this to a lack of vision in the labor movement, but says “the country’s very weak labor laws” bear more of the responsibility, adding that they “make it very hard to win a union even when the majority of workers want it.”

Typically, the students in the Labor Studies major are not of traditional college age because they have often spent significant time working in unions or organizing before they decide to return to school. These students are unique in that they have experience with the issues they are studying and come in with an informed perspective. The traditional undergraduate likely doesn’t have the same perspective.

“Sometime ago, I was on the phone with someone like myself, a lifetime in the labor movement and almost finished,” says Dr. Moir. “We were whining about the need to get more young people involved in the labor movement. That was the day I opened my eyes and saw the 10,000 or more young people around me every day I go to work. Duh! We never had a minor before and our program was virtually unavailable to traditionally aged undergraduates. The Labor Studies minor will close that gap. I hope that we can provide a place where young students can learn about the history of labor, our accomplishments and mistakes.” Dr. Moir piloted a class with undergraduate honors students last Fall entitled “Are Unions Necessary? Labor and economic transformation in the US since 1945” in preparation for teaching students within the Labor Studies minor who may not have direct experience with unions. When asked what she hopes to accomplish by targeting young students she replies, “that some will be inspired to come along and take it over from the grey heads.”

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