This week, we focus on our coverage of the Washington University Undergraduate and Graduate and Workers Union’s (WUGWU)’s recent Workers for Black Lives march in conversations with Student Life staffers and WUGWU members.
“Editor’s Note Episode 2: WUGWU takes to the streets” can also be found on Apple Podcasts and Soundcloud.
The transcript of the episode can be found below. It has been lightly edited for clarity:
(0:00-0:17): Audio of march crowd chanting “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
JADEN SATENSTEIN (0:18-1:18): The Washington University Undergraduate and Graduate and Workers Union, or WUGWU, has often captured the campus community’s attention with demonstrations like the 2019 Martinville sit-in, fighting for a 15- dollar minimum wage. Even in a mostly virtual semester, the group continues to take to the streets.
I’m Multimedia Editor Jaden Satenstein, and you’re listening to Editor’s Note, Student Life’s weekly podcast breaking down our biggest stories with the reporters and editors that covered them.
WUGWU held a Workers for Black Lives March last Thursday, Oct. 8, seeking to influence the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations between the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Union and the city. I’ll talk to two WUGWU members later in the episode, but first, we dive into Student Life’s recent coverage of the march with staff reporter freshman Julia Robbins and Senior News Editor junior Em McPhie.
JS (1:19-1:33): So, Julia, to start off, you wrote this piece, so could you tell me a bit about how WUGWU organized this protest? Like how did they first decide on this specific action and what people and groups came together to make it happen?
JULIA ROBBINS (1:34-2:29) Yeah, sure. So WUGWU started having this conversation focusing on, you know, the issues of police abolition and police reform this past summer during the national call for… A lot of people were calling for police reform, some were calling for police abolition, and so they wanted to make their voice heard as part of this larger national conversation. And WUGWU worked with several other on-campus groups and off-campus groups. One of the on-campus groups they worked with was the Black Law Students Association and another one was White Coats for Black Lives, which is a medical student advocacy group that supports the Black Lives Matter movement. And then one of the off-campus groups that they worked with was Expect Us, which is a local St. Louis advocacy group.
JS (2:30-2:38) Great, and in your piece, you mentioned that turnout was lower than expected. Why do you two think that this might have been?
JR (2:39-3:10) One reason that was pointed out by one of the organizers was that it was on a Thursday. And so in terms of the busy schedules of undergraduates and graduate students, weekdays are not always the most readily accessible days to go out and be marching, and so I think that maybe if they’re looking for higher turnout, they might turn to Fridays or weekends to attract more students in the future.
JS (3:11-3:15): To McPhie, the turnout reflected a larger pattern for Wash. U. students.
EM (3:16-3:35): Something that I’ve also heard from various student organizers is that sometimes it can be difficult to get Washington University students to show up to these sorts of protests and direct actions, and a lot of people feel like there’s an issue of apathy among Wash. U. students.
JS (3:36-3:48): Still, about 75 to 100 students showed up for the four- hour action. As participants marched from the School of Medicine all the way to City Hall, Robbins noted that they were accompanied by police vehicles.
JR (3:39-4:45) One thing I did think was interesting that several people talked about in their interviews was the fact that there was a police presence at this march against the police, and there was, of course, this, you know, dark irony there. And I’m also curious to see whether or not, you know, how that police presence will either stay the same at future marches and future actions that WUGWU or other organizations put on or if it will change at all, and if the police might show up in smaller numbers or—, I mean, I doubt that they won’t show up at all because that doesn’t seem to be the way that that works. But I just thought that was a pretty interesting juxtaposition that you could see between like these marchers and the police that were escorting them, who they didn’t ask to escort them.
JS (4:46-5:14): Over the summer, WUGWU added to its platform demands that the University divest from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department as well as disarm, defund, and disband the Washington University Police Department. To get more insight on how WUGWU has developed as an organization recently, I talked to two WUGWU members, law student Madison Wiegand and immunology Ph.D. candidate Emma Walker. Wiegand highlighted how these new demands align with their main goals as a workers’ union.
MADISON WIEGAND (5:15-6:25): First of all, as a union and representing union members, that means all of our union members and all working people in general, and Washington University does employ a lot of Black people, often as service workers. And so it’s important that, as a union, we are advocating for our most vulnerable. There’s a long history of the overlap between racial liberation and working class liberation, and at times these groups have been, unfortunately, pitted against each other, but this has been an opportunity for WUGWU to work in conjunction with racial justice groups towards those common interests, which are liberation for all, including liberation for working people and liberation for Black people. And that’s also highlighted in our coalitions with, for example, the Black trade union.
EMMA WALKER (6:26-6:36) I just wanted to highlight something that I guess I didn’t know about the union before I joined. So, you know, when you think of unions, you typically think like electricians’ unions or something like that, where I heard about this union but didn’t really know how it would affect me. And something I didn’t know is that WUGWU is really committed to driving Wash. U. to be kind of a good steward of the community and really getting involved in kind of community-wide action. So I think obviously there are some troubling statistics regarding the St. Louis police force and a lot of that was kind of brought to a head this summer with the killing of George Floyd. But something that I actually didn’t know before we had a meeting with Chancellor Martin this summer was some stories that students from Wash. U. told about how they had had traumatic interactions with Wash. U. PD specifically. So I think that there is a lot to be done both with Wash. U. PD and St. Louis PD.
JS (6:37-7:54) Yeah, thank you for bringing that up, Emma. That actually brings me to my next question about something that a source, Jessica Yu, said in the story this week about, in her own words, WUGWU’s “commitment to go beyond just our school from now on.” Has there been any recent or gradual shift in WUGWU’s goals or areas of focus?
MW (7:55-8:54) I think WUGWU has focused on actions that are specifically directed towards Black liberation more in the recent months than it has previously and, as Jessica put it, I think it’s a great thing. Washington University is in St. Louis. It’s a powerhouse. It’s one of the, if not the, largest employers in St. Louis. And so, Wash. U. has a responsibility to the city that houses it and to the greater community… And I also just want to say that being at a primarily white institution or being part of a primarily white organization, even though I’m a Black woman, comes with responsibilities. And so, how can we advocate for the livelihood of all workers who include, you know, Black people, if we’re not advocating for their lives?
JS (8:55-9:04): So what’s next for WUGWU? Wiegand highlighted how the financial consequences of COVID-19 have heightened the need to continue to fight for student workers.
MW (9:05-9:56) Who could have predicted 2020, you know? We’ve been putting out a lot of fires and responding to a variety of issues that plague our students and graduate workers, varying from the Trump administration’s various xenophobic policies pertaining to international students, that’s come up several times, and I expect will continue to come up again. Again, I do anticipate issues with worker safety and health and safety with COVID will continue. We had concerns about corporate immunity, or the University’s liability or lack thereof if workers or students do contract COVID. And then we’ll always have the other concerns that have always been there before COVID pertaining to worker conditions, worker payment and, you know, the furloughs of the University.
JS (10:02-10:11): Editor’s Note will be back next week to break down another developing story. For Student Life Media, I’m Jaden Satenstein.