JACKSONVILLE, Ala. (WIAT) — On August 14, United Campus Workers (UCW) Alabama chapter announced the start of a union chapter at Jacksonville State University, the third public university in the state to do so.
Unlike private sector unions, public sector unions like JSU do not hold a vote. Rather, they “take the temperature of the room,” garner support and go public when it’s time. For JSU, this process took nearly a year.
Alabama is a “Right to Work” state, which prohibits companies and institutions from requiring employees to join a union in order to have a job. Sarah Donley, associate professor in Sociology at JSU, said this often puts a “stigma” around the topic of unionization in the state of Alabama.
“The main thing [was] just making sure we had enough people, enough interest to actually go public, to see if it was a viable thing,” said Donley, a founding member and part of the union organizing council.
JSU is still in its early stages of unionization. Donley said they had polled staff and faculty at the university and are still working to see what the major issues are that need to be addressed.
When asked if there were any entities or individuals the union is up against in particular, Donley said it will “depend on what issues shape up” from the polls.
“But I’ll just generally say, the folks who make the decisions,” Donley said.
Equal wages and adequate benefits are some of the issues they anticipate, according to Donley.
“I think, for me, the appealing thing about a union is being able to share the similar experience,” Donley said. “Like, ‘These are some obstacles that I have encountered, I know that this isn’t just my experience; This is probably common to several other people.’ And then finding that solidarity and sharing those experiences and being like, ‘Hey, you know what? There’s things we can do to make this better.’”
JSU’s union is just one of three unions at public universities in the state – alongside the University of Alabama and Auburn University. These unions, just a few years ahead, may give insight as to where JSU’s union is headed.
Otis Williams is a graduate research assistant at Auburn’s environmental engineering department. He sought out a union when he came to campus for some of the same reasons Donley did – a sense of solidarity.
“One of the benefits I see of being in the union is being able to be there for people in other departments,” Williams said. “If I have an issue with my advisor or I have an issue with someone … It feels very lonesome. It is very isolating.”
Williams said talking about issues at work can often be “taboo,” but in a union, he knows someone has his back.
“Being a part of the union gives me the knowledge that if something were to go wrong for me or if something were to go wrong for someone else, there is an entire network of people who have my back and who are by my side to support me,” Williams said.
Auburn unionized in 2021. According to Williams, Auburn’s “insistence on forcing everyone back to campus very early on into the pandemic” is what served as a catalyst for its creation.
Now, the union at Auburn is focused on lab safety and work safety.
“The main reason we focused on that over this past semester [is because] two years ago a grad student in Fisheries was electrocuted to death on a job site,” Williams said.
In early 2022, David Pardo Hernández, an exchange student from Columbia studying shrimp production aquaculture, was fatally electrocuted, according to a GoFundMe set up to support his family.
“He was on a job site late in the night alone, and he was required to work on electrical work – something that a professional electrician is actually qualified for, something he was not qualified for,” Williams said.
Williams said Hernández was found dead at the site the next day. Auburn University honored him at a memorial service a year later.
“It was a chilling reminder to a lot of the grad students there that a lot of the work they do is unsafe,” he said.
According to Williams, it is easy to be “retaliated” against if you bring up issues within your own department – such as suddenly no longer being considered for a scholarship you qualified for or missing out on a postdoctoral position. However, if someone in an entirely different department brings the issue to attention, Williams said, then there is a layer of protection.
The union did this for the fisheries department after Hernández’s death.
“[The fisheries] were able to write down all their worries and grievances and then we delivered it at one of their town hall meetings and were able to bring this up and get the department to acknowledge these safety issues, to acknowledge any kind of the lack of accountability and to promise to make changes. And we’re still keeping track of it to make sure they’re actually making these changes and not just saying they are,” Williams said.
In addition to safer working conditions, the union is currently working on pay disparity.
“The university prides itself on caring about its employees and yet … doesn’t care enough to pay them even a livable amount,” Williams said.
Some of Williams’ friends who work in English and History departments cannot afford to even pay the $8 a month charge to be a part of the union, he said.
“We’ve even seen universities in the same conference as us, like LSU, who this past year set a minimum wage that they would pay all employees $23,000 a year,” Williams said. “I’m a betting person that not even 80% of grad students at Auburn University make anywhere close to that kind of minimum.”
As for JSU’s future, Williams said “it’s a pleasure” to see other colleges in the state unionizing.
“I look forward to there being a new UCW chapter at every university in Alabama,” he said.
For anyone who wants to join the JSU union, they can do so by visiting their website here. Monthly payments are based on a sliding scale of the income of the individual joining.