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As graduation for the Class of 2022 rapidly approaches, Commencement speakers, deans, professors, and parents alike are all preparing their grand speeches encouraging us to go forth and change the world. Last year, University President Lawrence S. Bacow conveyed his hope that the Class of 2021 would “hasten the world to better days.” Similar calls for new graduates to make an impact and improve our world will reverberate across Harvard Yard this month as students complete their coursework, collect their diplomas, and pack up their things for the next chapter in their lives.
But as the heady excitement of graduation wanes and we all settle into our new careers, will we really be changing the world? Some of us may do work creating a positive impact; some of us may not. Some of us may love our next job; some may just need it to pay the bills. There is one surefire way, however, in which every new graduate can make a huge impact and change the world for the better: by unionizing your new workplace.
Unions are for everyone. Despite popular imagination that only industrial workers need and deserve unions, every workplace can benefit from unionization, and every worker deserves a union — even Harvard alumni. After decades of right-wing attacks on workers’ rights, union density in the United States sits at historically low levels. In all likelihood, you will be entering a non-union workplace upon graduation — but you can fix that!
Despite the lost ground of the labor movement, we are living through a historic moment of renewed labor organizing and victories. Workers across all sectors are fighting for their rights, and they are winning. From nurses to teachers, Kellogg’s to Google, Hollywood to John Deere, workers are organizing and demanding more from their employers. In the last year, workers at Starbucks and Amazon successfully formed the first unions within these behemoth corporations, with more soon to come. Public support for unions is soaring, now at its highest point in the United States since 1965.
Unionization is also surging in white-collar professional work, such as nonprofit organizations, journalism, architecture, tech, media, and academia — the type of work that many Harvard graduates will pursue.
By organizing in our new workplaces after graduation, we can achieve a meaningful material impact on our lives and the lives of others — and not just those of immediate coworkers. Unionization has ripple effects across the economy at large, raising wages and standards for both union and non-union workers. Additionally, organizing your workplace can help others organize theirs. As Alex Press writes for The Nation, “[n]ewly unionized white-collar workers provide dues to increasingly cash-strapped unions,” supplying critical support to other workplace struggles across various sectors.
The change you can achieve through a union is not limited to pay and benefits. In July 2020, tens of thousands of workers walked off the job as part of the union-led Strike for Black Lives, committing to “withhold our most valuable asset — our labor — in support of dismantling racism and white supremacy to bring about fundamental changes in our society, economy and workplaces.” The Writers Guild of America, which represents TV and film writers, has flexed its muscles in opposition to Georgia’s 2021 racist voter-suppression bill and its 2019 anti-abortion legislation, threatening the withdrawal of Hollywood crews from the state, a popular filming location.
Our very own Harvard Graduate Students Union, of which I am a proud member, fought and won new protections against caste-based discrimination and sexual harassment in our new contract. Although the Harvard administration remains recalcitrant on providing real recourse for survivors of sex- and gender-based harassment, discrimination, and violence, the union has been a powerful voice in continuing to demand justice.
Unions also meaningfully strengthen democracy and give people more immediate democratic control over their lives. With democracy under siege worldwide, and American institutions and politicians increasingly unresponsive to the needs and desires of their constituents, the grassroots democracy that unions provide is essential. In addition, unions foster broader political participation. The labor movement was essential to the passage of some of the most important legislation of the 20th century, including the Social Security Act. Today, a revived labor movement can strengthen our collective power to dismantle white supremacy, combat climate change, and defeat right-wing authoritarianism.
These are massive undertakings that would undoubtedly “hasten the world to better days.” They are also too big for any of us to tackle alone. In mere months, however, we can take action to begin this process of truly changing the world. To start, simply talk with your coworkers to understand the issues they care about and imagine how your workplace could be better. With a few colleagues on board, identify some unions that might be a good fit and reach out to a representative. With their help, you and your colleagues will be well on your way to a democratic workplace. Wherever we go after graduation, we can take these steps to change the world. All it takes is talking to your coworkers and bravely demanding more together.
Joseph G. Leone is a second-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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