Rediscovering a Past Community through Present Labor Struggle

By Phil O’Connor, UMB Alumnus and Lynn Public School Teacher

Sauntering down Boylston Street on the last warm day before fall takes hold, I am filled with a mix of feelings as I head to the Solidarity Rally with Local 26 Striking Marriott Workers. Not a hotel worker myself, I am a union member (Teacher, Lynn Teachers Union), and I empathize deeply with the demands of this three-week strike: adequate wages, essential benefits, and the job security necessary to afford to live where you work. Such conditions have caused many full-time hotel workers to work multiple jobs, leading to the strike’s slogan, “One Job Should be Enough,” a message that resonates with countless Boston area workers, teachers like myself included. For this, I am willing to expose myself to a large, potentially raucous crowd, despite my longstanding anxiety.

It’s easier knowing I won’t be alone. I plan to reconvene with my former UMass Boston Professor, now mentor and friend, Joe Ramsey, who has spread the word of the strike through social media posts and his informative, Dig Boston article, “If we don’t get no contract–you don’t get no peace.”

I arrive at the scene, where several hundred hotel workers and supporters, adorned in vivid red apparel commanded the courtyard, chanting the strike’s slogan to the background of classic fight songs. Dozens of strike supporters have created their own drumline using orange, all-purpose buckets from Home Depot, adding rhythm to the chants.

Inspiring as the rally is, my uneasiness begins to set in. Normally, at this point, I would escape without hesitation. Determined to stay, I retreat to the outskirts of the crowd.

Just then, I spy a tall, slender man, donning a grey shirt reading “FSU: Faculty Staff Union, University of Massachusetts-Boston.” I approach him, pointing to the shirt and blurting: “I went there!”

Without pause, the man reveals himself as a Professor of American Studies at UMB who is attending the rally due to the social media posts and article by Ramsey. I tell him I am a class of 2016 alum who now teaches middle school science in Lynn. Thrilled to meet a former UMB student, now teacher, he tells me about a summer “institute” at UMB for educators seeking to develop their teaching.

As we chat, a colleague of his approaches, asking him to join the rest of the UMB contingent present at the rally. The Professor graciously invites me to join.

We join a group of about 20 UMB folks, some with their own homemade signs supporting the struggle. Ramsey arrives with his partner and fellow professor-activist, Linda Liu. While we embrace, I notice another familiar UMB face, Jon Millman, my former Economics Professor and academic advisor. Unsure if he would remember me, I reintroduce myself, reminding him the year I graduated while offering my hand to shake.

“PHIL! How are you doing?” Millman replies in a brisk, Brooklyn accent, ignoring my handshake and coming in for an affectionate bear hug. He asks if I am still teaching and whether I enjoy it, to which I reply that I am—and it’s true; it’s what I believe I’m meant to be doing. His happiness for me is obvious, and he asks for my contact info to join him at the year-end Economics Department dinner.

My anxiety about large crowds has dissipated. I am no longer alone, rediscovering a community from my past. Rather than view their students as mere consumers seeking to “invest in their personal capital” so as to get a “good job,” UMB faculty have always made clear to me the importance of a holistic connection within pedagogy: one predicated on a genuine desire to develop critical thought, not solely for academic exercises, but for broader social issues outside the classroom that inevitably impact our lives at work and beyond.

Perhaps my K-12 colleagues and I can learn from this, changing how we interact with our students. Too often, as the result of the ever-growing influence of standardized testing, I feel pressured to associate my students with some kind of demeaning numerical score or label. Such categorizing pushes us to view our work (and subsequently, our students) as a means to an end, numbers that can either benefit or hurt our careers. But teaching should be so much more than that. What if we saw our students not as short-term means to a bureaucratic end, but as life-long partners in learning and shared efforts to change the world?

No longer their student, I realize I still have much to learn from my UMB Professors. Together, we take photos and share thoughts, not merely as students and teachers, nor even just as colleagues, but as allies.

As the rally shifts to the streets we begin to march.

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