Video of FSU Election Candidates Forum

Couldn’t make it to the Candidates Forum? No problem: just watch the video of it here:

From left to right: Tim Sieber (Tenured Representative for Reelection), José Martínez-Reyes (Candidate for Tenured Representative), Steve Striffler (Candidate for President), Marlene Kim (President for Reelection), Monique Fuguet (NTT Representative for Reelection), Linda Liu (Candidate for NTT Representative), George Kelley (Candidate for NTT Representative), Travis Johnston (Candidate for Pre-Tenure Representative)

Steve Striffler’s letter asking for your vote for FSU President

Dear Colleagues,

My name is Steve Striffler.  I’m a professor in the Anthropology Department and Director of the Labor Resource Center.  I’m running for President of the FSU and writing to ask for your vote. 

There is an ongoing attack on our urban mission at UMass Boston.   To confront this, we need union leadership that facilitates member mobilization while adopting strategies and approaches that are up to the current challenges. 

We need, in short, to reimagine the FSU. 

The FSU has traditionally worked from a leadership model in which a couple of leaders make all the decisions, with very limited involvement from the rank-and-file, or even the Executive Committee. This type of unionism will no longer serve our needs.  We need a union that is far less defined by its leaders – a union that is rooted in our collective action and power.  During this period of political and economic uncertainty, a mobilized and energized union is absolutely necessary for advancing not only our interests, but those of publicly funded higher education.

To usher in a new era of union mobilization, I have been working with the Caucus for a Democratic Union, a group of UMB faculty members and librarians who are promoting greater democracy, empowerment, and participation in the FSU.  By establishing majorities on both the Executive Committee and (more recently) the Bargaining Team, we have made significant gains in transforming the FSU into a more transparent, democratic, and engaged union.  For example,  

  • Despite opposition from FSU leadership, the CDU brought “expanded” or “open” bargaining to the union, which opens the bargaining process to all FSU members while constituting a Bargaining Team that supports open, rank-and-file bargaining.  All faculty and librarians are now members of the FSU bargaining team. 
  • We are also working to repair the FSU’s strained relationships with the other campus unions and our sister union at UMass Amherst – which have been undermined over the years and most immediately by the FSU’s go-it-alone strategy on parking bargaining. 
  • We are also holding the FSU accountable and responsive to the needs of faculty of color, are prioritizing NTT equity, and believe that we need a more engaged union to face ongoing threats to our urban mission. 

As President, I will work with others to ensure that these (and other) important changes are nurtured over time and translate into gains at the bargaining table.

But more than that, we must build on this movement.  It is essential that we build a stronger union now, one in which members are working together, not just to defend the broader urban mission, but also to demand adequate funding for: salary raises, improved benefits, our Centers and Institutes, better facilities, smaller classes, improved maintenance and administrative support, the rolling back of parking fees, and more.  We also need to demand fiscal transparency on the part of our Administration. 

There is still a lot of work to do.  Please join the majority of recent and current members of the FSU Executive Committee and Bargaining Committee in supporting my candidacy for President.  In addition to having served on the FSU Executive Committee and the current Bargaining Team, I have been involved in the labor movement as a scholar and participant for over twenty years.  

As FSU President, I will help lead a collective reimagining of our union, one that transforms the FSU into a democratic union where member initiatives are encouraged, and help build a mobilized body with the capacity to confront the challenges that faculty, librarians, and the university as a whole face.  


Steve Striffler
Director, Labor Resource Center and Labor Studies Program
Professor, Anthropology
University of Massachusetts, Boston

Reality Check

Originally published at DigBoston.

By Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center and professor of Anthropology and Avi Chomsky, professor of history at Salem State University

Screen Shot 2020-01-29 at 11.18.14 AM

Massachusetts as a failed state, Boston as a failed city?

The idea that Massachusetts is a failed state and Boston a failed city sounds a bit absurd on the surface. Massachusetts is one of the wealthiest US states, boasts a highly educated population, and has a robust economy driven by technology, financial services, biotech, and some of the leading universities in the world. Massachusetts is also known as a liberal bastion, touting a commitment to the public good while boasting a progressive social agenda. And, in many ways, the city of Boston leads the way. A thriving metropolis, Boston sees itself as a leader in intellectual innovation, climate change initiatives, and healthcare reform, and is also proud of its progressive values.

And yet, it is precisely Massachusetts’s wealth and progressive character that makes the failure of government so glaring. Two of the defining features of “failed states”—something typically associated with conflict-ridden countries in the Third World—are the inability to provide public services and the lack of democratic institutions that allow for meaningful citizen participation. In many cases, as in Massachusetts, these two failures are directly connected. The state’s inability to provide core public goods such as transportation, housing, education, and healthcare is a result of a closed political system that serves entrenched interests and undermines the political will of the people. And, here again, Boston is the leader. The city’s unrivaled economic inequality, its reputation for racism, its traffic, and its crumbling system of public education are all tied to state and local institutions that are effectively closed boxes shut off from public input or influence (whether it be the legislature, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the MBTA, etc.).

This failure has been a long time coming, but its visible manifestations have recently become particularly acute for a simple reason: All of our fundamental public goods and services—transportation, housing, education, and healthcare—are simultaneously in crisis. And crisis in one area tends to compound or expose crisis in others. A crumbling transportation system, for example, puts further stress on already debilitated systems of education, housing, and healthcare. We are in a downward spiral that is making the path out more difficult by the day. What is even more troubling is that despite the clarity of the crisis, our government remains closed off from meaningful popular participation and therefore not only lacks the will and capacity to fund public goods but to pass legislation that addresses the fundamental issues at stake. Massachusetts is a failed state.

Take transportation. Massachusetts political leaders have for decades doubled down on a car-first vision, leaving Boston with the worst traffic in the nation and a system of public transportation that is inadequate, unreliable, out of date, and even unsafe. Failed public transportation, in turn, forces more people into cars and onto roads, intensifying a race to nowhere that has us stuck in place while breathing toxic fumes. It also serves to undermine the state’s limited efforts to combat climate change.

To the extent that we are moving at all, it is in the wrong direction. While other states and cities are confronting transportation crises throughout the nation, Massachusetts political leaders are either missing in action or driving us off the cliff. Gov. Baker and Mayor Walsh have essentially abdicated leadership, in effect opposing efforts to incentivize people to drive less and use public transportation more. Under current conditions, taking the bus, subway, or rail is to run the risk of arriving to work late, getting stranded completely, or falling off the tracks altogether. Political leadership is precisely what is needed if we want to make the changes necessary to make public transportation a realistic option for most people.

On the one hand, congested roads and dysfunctional public transportation serve to raise housing costs in urban areas as people concentrate in certain locales to avoid soul-crushing commutes. On the other hand, outrageous housing costs force working people out of the city and farther from work sites, driving cars they cannot afford greater distances in order to secure rents that allow them to survive. Yet, despite the fact that voters throughout the state consistently point to the housing crisis as the most important issue facing the Commonwealth, politicians have done little to address the problem in any systematic way. Last year Gov. Baker proposed a bill that lawmakers failed to pass because it didn’t go far enough—and so they did nothing.

Mayor Walsh has at times talked a good game and helped create over 30,000 homes with tens of thousands more in the pipeline. But far too few are affordable, and there seems to be little political will to confront the problem or even recognize that government has a responsibility to ensure people are adequately housed. The consequence of inaction—of letting the free market and backroom deals through an old boy network reign—is a development landscape that reproduces inequality through glittery monstrosities such as the Seaport District while forcing more poor people into homelessness. The state’s homeless population jumped 14% in 2018. Working families are struggling to survive as their income is devoured by rent and the dream of home ownership slips away, and even the upwardly mobile are leaving the region for more affordable and transit-friendly locales.

Nor can we take solace in our educational system. To quote a Boston Globe headline, “Beacon Hill lawmakers have been shortchanging the education of students nearly $1 billion a year,” a fact that has disproportionately hurt low-income students, students of color, and recent immigrants. Less than one in three black and Latino fourth graders read at grade level, and only 28% of low-income eighth graders are on grade level in math. This is not entirely surprising. Massachusetts “is no longer among the states that direct more state and local dollars to the districts serving the most low-income students,” and Boston schools are more segregated than they were when the tumultuous process of desegregation tore apart the city decades ago.

Nor are those students likely to catch up if they manage to make their way to the state’s underfunded public colleges and universities. Our political leaders cut funding for higher education by 14% between 2001 and 2017, the cost of which was passed on to students who now leave college with around $30,000 in debt. Average student debt has grown faster in Massachusetts than in all states but one, and the state ranks near the bottom in terms of higher education support per $1,000 of personal income. What that means is that despite being a relatively wealthy state, our political leaders have been very stingy when it comes to funding public higher education. Massachusetts is failing the students of working families at every stage of the educational process, from preschool through college.

Finally, if there is irony in an educational system that fails our students while boasting the best universities in the world, this is no less true when it comes to a cutting edge healthcare system that many people simply cannot afford. Passed in 2006, Romneycare—Massachusetts’s failed attempt at universal healthcare—was so plagued by increasing costs that legislators were forced to address it again by 2012. They whiffed the second time around as well. Healthcare costs continue to balloon, and although Massachusetts has among the lowest percentage of uninsured people in the country, more than a third reported going without needed healthcare despite having insurance, nearly half have trouble gaining access to care, and about the same reported financial problems due to healthcare costs. Despite the transparency of the crisis, the state’s policy makers continue to fail to take steps to address the fundamental contradictions in our healthcare system.

What this means, in short, is that the progressive reputation of Massachusetts and Boston is largely a facade that hides a meaner reality and helps allow the state and city to disregard their responsibility for the public good. The convergence of crises—the simultaneous failure of all our major public services—obviously impacts people with lower incomes disproportionately. Yet, in different ways, pretty much everyone who works for a living depends on publicly supported healthcare, education, transportation, and housing to survive and thrive. Even for the more affluent, who have become particularly adept at insulating themselves by opting out of public services (through private schools, healthcare, etc.), there are consequences. Fancy cars and private services only get you so far if you cannot breathe the air or get from one place to the next. More than this, we have to ask ourselves: Do we really want to live in a failed state where the rich and powerful ensconce themselves in a world of private schools and gated communities while a sea of dispossessed serve their needs and are locked out in every other way? We are on our way.

This failure, moreover, goes beyond lack of funding for basic services. Boston was quick, for example, to declare itself a sanctuary city in 2017, but the state still cannot pass common-sense pro-immigration laws (in-state tuition, drivers’ licenses, safe communities). Nor has Massachusetts managed to pass a wage theft bill to ensure that all workers get paid and immigrant workers in particular are not preyed upon. Likewise, Massachusetts is generally progressive on legal rights for the LBGTQ community and was the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. And yet nearly a third of LBGTQ youth of color are unemployed and food insecure. We are at times able to pass progressive bills with important symbolic implications, but legislation that even moderately challenges the status quo or confronts powerful economic interests rarely sees the light of day.

This failure is not due to a lack of financial or human resources. We have the money. And there are plenty of hardworking nonprofits, labor unions, and other progressive organizations that have relentlessly agitated for meaningful public policy. They, in turn, have been supported by sympathetic legislators.

How, then, is it possible that these progressive forces nonetheless find themselves continually pushing the legislative rock up Beacon Hill only to see it roll back down year after year? Why can’t we pass and implement the sorts of policies we need and that most Massachusetts citizens support?

The answer is multifaceted and is not disconnected from entrenched interests who seek to control government for their own benefit. It lies at least in part on Beacon Hill and in a legislative process where power is concentrated in a few hands that prevent progressive legislation from making it to the floor for a vote or even debate. Progressive legislators have been trying for years to transform the rules in order to loosen the authoritarian grip of a small cadre of leaders such as House Speaker Robert DeLeo and essentially free up the legislative process. Similar efforts have been tried (and largely failed) with respect to the other major institutions that run our systems of healthcare, transportation, education, and housing. Our collective inability to democratize state institutions that remain closed off to public participation has contributed to a failed state that lacks the capacity to provide even basic public services. We deserve better. We should demand better.


The Music, the Mayor…and the Urban Mission: Reflecting on UMB Convocation 2019

By Joseph G. Ramsey, English and American Studies

convocation walsh

In preparation for this year’s Convocation guest speaker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, UMass Boston music professor and chamber singers conductor, David Giessow, prepared a special program of music and an accompanying slideshow. Framed by harmonized Irish blessings–in recognition of the Mayor’s Irish immigrant heritage–the heart of the presentation was a moving rendition of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus,” set to music arranged by Irving Berlin.

While the chorus sang, their words appeared on the projection screen above: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” As the undergraduate soloist’s melody cascaded into blended waves of choral harmonies, the slideshow above moved to powerful images accenting the song’s theme.

convocation chorus

First: black and white photos of Irish and other European immigrants coming ship-bound to American shores at the turn of the 20th century. Then second: color images of contemporary refugees, mainly from Latin America, seeking asylum in the USA, some locked behind cages of wire. And then after that came quotes from the Boston Globe, and then from Mayor Walsh himself, about the importance of making Boston a “sanctuary city,” a place that is welcome to people from all across the world–in stark contrast to the nasty xenophobic border fascism being pushed by the current US Executive-in-Chief.

convocation slideshow

It was an incredibly moving way to start 2019’s Convocation ceremonies here at UMass Boston, where our student body hails from 140 different countries, and where we try to take ideas like inclusion, diversity, equity, and social justice seriously. What a terrific blend of musical performance, history, education, and ethical principles. What a powerful reminder of what UMass Boston is supposed to be about–and why folks like Marty Walsh should be doing all they can to support us, being himself a child of working-class immigrants, and a first generation college student.

convocation chorus giessow
But then, after presenting this humanistic, moving musical/visual/historical montage, Professor David Giessow did something else. He spoke, briefly, about how this very chamber singers’ course that had just done UMB proud and moved us to tears, how this very class–as of a few months prior–was on the verge of potentially being cancelled for “low enrollment.” Earlier in August, when he was first asked to have his chamber singers present at Convocation, there were only 8 students enrolled, a fact that–in these days of bean counting and budget cuts–too often puts liberal arts classes at UMass Boston, our state underfunded, debt-burdened public university–on the chopping block. Luckily, for us all, the chamber singers were not cut–at least not this time around—and, even luckier, Giessow was able to recruit another dozen diversely talented singers to his course. And we all benefited today, from the Mayor on down.

But what about next time? What about the coming round of “belt-tightening” that we have been promised?

With this mix of music, images and timely comments, Prof. Giessow offered us a powerful testament to what is so precious about the mission of UMass Boston–a mission that goes well beyond the current dogma about “workforce development.”  And he also reminded us of something else: how the very music that moves us is being put at risk by the climate of austerity and cutbacks that continues to reign on our campus.

enough is enough