Rutgers Summer School Helps Women Build a More Perfect Union

The program offers moral support and bolsters skills needed to meet the challenges of today's labor movement

By Carrie Stetler, Rutgers Today


It didn’t matter that Rutgers teaching assistant Megan Geerdts belongs to a union set in academia, and the other women she met on Monday were postal workers, transit workers, and plumbers.At the Northeast Regional Summer School for Union Women, held last week at Rutgers Labor Education Center, she felt an immediate sense of solidarity.

“Their saying is, ‘never let a sister walk alone. From the beginning, there was so much camaraderie,’’’ said Geerdts, 24, a member of the Rutgers Council of the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers. She was attending the program as a winner of the Berger-Marks scholarship for young union activists, awarded by the Berger-Marks Foundation, which helps union women organize.

A broad range of union leaders, academics, and rank and file members from across the Northeast convene at the annual conference, which began in 1975. They attend classes on the global economy, collective bargaining, leadership skills, and labor history.

This year, the school will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 workers, most of them immigrant women, and helped jumpstart the U.S. labor movement.

But the program also arrived at a time of widespread anti-union sentiment, when politicians from New Jersey to Wisconsin have sought to curb the bargaining power of unions and slash benefits and pensions for public sector workers. They have portrayed unions as greedy and out of touch with the average taxpayer.

“It’s really important for women to know the history of their own unions and the source of some of the attacks that are being perpetrated,’’ said Janice Fine, assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, who teaches a class at the summer school. “There are no easy solutions to the fiscal crisis, but public sector unions have been targeted.’’

This year especially, the summer school was a place to find moral support and inspiration, she said. “It’s good for them to come together and encourage each other and acknowledge that it's been a tough year.''
Jenelle Blackmon, an instructor and former student at the school says it arms students with a renewed sense of purpose.

“Whenever you bring together a source of strong-minded women, not only do you create a sense of unity, you create a sense of focus and drive,’’ said  Blackmon. “We come together and solve problems and come away with a sense of direction about what we need to do.’

The summer school  was modeled after the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, founded in 1921 by the president of Bryn Mawr college, M. Carey Thomas.

“This was really radical at the time. Not only to have a summer school on a college campus for workers but for women workers,’’ said Donna Schulman, librarian at the Labor Center’s Carey Library and a program organizer who has also taught classes for union women.

Today’s summer school switches to a different college campus each year. In the past it has taken place at Penn State and Cornell University, among others. To host the program, schools must have a labor education center. The school has been held at Rutgers every five years since the year 2001.

Although she’s relatively new to unions, Geerdts, who is pursuing her doctorate in developmental psychology, wanted to attend because she's troubled by the sense of “apathy’’ among her generation. She said she realized it was important to take an active role when she grew concerned with health insurance issues and salary freezes at Rutgers. “I want to get students on my campus involved,’’ said Geerdts.

Blackmon knows how much today’s women workers owe to union organizers of the past. But when she mentions the word “union’’ to young women who say they want a voice in the workplace, many aren’t interested, says Blackmon, a staff representative for Local 1040 of the Communications Workers of America.

That’s why its important to remind the public of lessons learned from tragedies like the Triangle Fire, say participants. “The fire really acted as a spark toward activism on a lot of different levels. For workplace safety regulations, health regulations and just the right to be able to work for a decent wage,’‘says Schulman.

Fine cautions against a nation without unions  “Issues that were raised by Triangle are issues that are still with us now,‘’ she said. “It’s just as important for us today to help defend workers’ rights.''