In Conversation with Miles Meth

Miles Meth, JOIN Jewish Organizing Fellowship alum ’16-17

After years of organizing, Harvard graduate students voted to unionize. Miles Meth, organizer with Harvard Graduate Students Union – United Auto Workers, was instrumental in helping achieve this landmark victory. We caught up with him this month to hear the full story.

JOIN: Congratulations on the Harvard Graduate Students Union win! How did this happen?

MM: Sure, so about 4 years ago there was a group of grad students at Harvard who came together to organize around a specific issue, which was teaching section sizes. Teaching fellows were getting overwhelmed with the size of their teaching sections, and figured they would be able to do their jobs better and have their lives be more manageable if they had smaller teaching section sizes. So they ran a mini-campaign and won that fight, and were able to reduce their section sizes. And after that it was a moment of realizing their own power. And so people started to come together and look at examples of what’s going on in some other schools, thinking about, “Hey, maybe a labor union is really the way to consolidate and formalize this power we’ve seen from this small victory.”

So I think it was in the summer of 2015 that this group of grad workers that was informal formed an organizing committee, had a vote on if they wanted to affiliate with United Auto Workers, and that was over 90% yes. My understanding is the reason it went that way is because the UAW, out of the unions that they had reached out to, was the union that showed the biggest commitment to actually providing resources, and showing that they really meant business, in terms of supporting them. And in 2016, the grad workers at Columbia University overturned a precedent that said that graduate student workers at private universities were not workers. Before, when it said they weren’t workers, they technically didn’t have the right to unionize through the official legal and National Labor Relations Board.

The UAW threw support behind those workers at Columbia, which was quite a risk, because they didn’t officially have the right to form a union. They went through every step of the National Labor Relations Board process. It’s kind of like taking something to the Supreme Court – the Supreme Court of labor – and they overturned that precedent. So the UAW was supporting those grad students at Columbia who took a risk and flipped the precedent, and the UAW, funny enough, it sounds strange – United Auto Workers, grad students, what do they really have in common, but there’s a pretty rich tradition of academic organizing in the UAW, and more grad students are organized with UAW – about 45% – than any with any other union in the country.

What does it practically mean for Harvard Grad workers? What are the tangible results?

That’s a good question. This teaching section sizes thing happened, organizing committee decided to go with the UAW, and then since then, that was in late 2015, since then there was a long process that involved two separate union elections, the first of which was invalidated because Harvard left off several hundred names from the list of voters, so that was in fall 2016, that election happened. The NLRB basically said, that election is null and void, you have to have a new one, and that is what happened most recently.

In terms of getting to your second question of what does this mean, I mean there are a couple things this means. This campaign was really an issues driven campaign. Probably the most important things to focus on are, one, to think about the question of who decides. Before having a union, every single decision about pay, health care, working conditions, what kinds of resources grad students are going to have, whether that’s a Title IX office or resources for international students or whatever, were decisions being passed down from high level administrators. So when grad students come into school they get a letter that says this is going to be your pay your first year and then anything can happen in the years after.

With a union, grad students now have a mechanism to collectively bargain, so Harvard needs their consent to make any changes to pay or healthcare. So now when a grad student comes in for grad school, they’re better able to plan for their future by knowing, hey this is what my stipend will be year to year, this is what my raises are gonna be.

So in terms of long-term planning, it gives grad students that stability and security of knowing what their pay is gonna be year to year, and knowing that they’re gonna have raises built in. For instance, last year Harvard said the endowment didn’t do as well as they would have liked, and so they raised the cost of housing for everyone living in Harvard housing by 3%, which is pretty typical and keeps up with the cost of inflation. But they only increased grad students’ stipends by 1.5%. So for anyone living in Harvard housing they effectively took a pay cut. That’s one example of the kind of thing that couldn’t happen with a union contract, and we know that’s true because the unionized workers at Harvard all got their regularly scheduled raises.

So that’s the stuff around pay specifically. I think another big piece of this that’s an issue around the country right now that we’re seeing through the #MeToo movement is the issue of sexual harassment. Harvard is no exception to this. There recently was a big case that was brought back to national attention through an article in Chronicle magazine, of a professor in the Department of Government, Jorge Dominguez, who in the 80s had been accused of sexually harassing some students, and had been reprimanded by the university. And then since then, it was just a slap on the wrist, he had maintained his post and continued to be harassing people, and it was just shown that comments from students on evaluations and stuff were getting swept under the rug. And so a lot of, especially, women on the organizing committee made sexual harassment protections really a central issue to this campaign. So there are a couple of ways that having a union can provide protections.

In the case of sexual harassment, any victim would have the right to a third party arbitration process. So having somebody who’s not connected to the union, not connected to the university, oversee that process in a fair way. As it stands right now, the Title IX office can have the best intentions and have a Title IX officer who’s competent, kind, and do everything right, but ultimately they’re answering to their boss’ boss, who is the president of the university, or who is on the board of trustees of the corporation of Harvard. This is obviously a conflict of interest, as these people are interested in protecting the Harvard brand. If it comes down to professor vs. grad student, there’s a power dynamic there in which the university has an interest in protecting the name of a professor or somebody who brings in a lot of grants rather than one grad student. So having a third party arbitrator can be a really powerful process, and we’ve seen that work at places like the University of Connecticut (another UAW school), where a woman who left her position because of harassment got her job back by using a third party arbitration case through the union.

What were some of your personal organizing efforts to help make this happen?

Probably my biggest success or gratifying experience I had was with the Physics Department. So in the previous election that was invalidated, the Physics Department was a very tough place to organize. One of the most vocal anti-union grad students came out of the Physics Department. He created a whole blog, and basically the culture of the department was such that it was extremely unpopular to be publicly supportive of the union.

So when I came in about nine months ago, there was one grad student in physics who was willing to be publicly pro-union. And even he was very nervous to send emails to the department, or talk to his coworkers about it, just felt extremely nervous about that. And so, I mean it was a process over a series of months, bit by bit, working with him to start by – “OK, who’s one other person that you know that’s pro-union that we can talk to?” And then having that conversation, working with them to build a smaller network and talk to that person’s friend that they know is quietly pro-union. And by the end of the campaign a group of 11 grad students signed a letter to the department expressing their support and telling people to get out and vote. So going from one person to 11 was an extraordinary process, and ultimately, you know, there’s nothing fancy about organizing. It’s people talking to one another over time, having multiple conversations, figuring out what issues matter, and realizing that when they come together they have some ability to change them. But it’s just a lot about building trust. I think just something that feels really cool, being at the vote count, there’s just this feeling of sitting across from Harvard’s lawyers, who they hired from Morgan Brown & Joy, who are a thousand bucks an hour, and in the face of the power that Harvard has through organized money, knowing that actually there’s only so much they can do through that. They have a lot of power in money, but we have power in our relationships with one another. And having thousands upon thousands of conversations with each other, and in this case that was enough to beat out that money and win this election. It’s a really great feeling.

Did you use any of your JOIN training in this campaign?

Absolutely. I think about the trainings I got from JOIN and how they’ve been embedded in my organizing all the time. Everything from power mapping to how to have an effective one on one. I think a big piece I took from being a JOIN Fellow was what I would call relationality, or relational culture. Under times of extreme pressure, maintaining your own humanity and the humanity of the people you’re working with. So I, as a staff organizer, was making a lot of asks of grad students who were volunteering their time for the most part, to this effort and to this movement. In that sense the leadership development piece, I definitely remember those trainings, and thinking about how, bit by bit, what are small specific asks that I can have of people that I think they can do, that are asks that I’m not asking them to do something that I wouldn’t do, that I think are reasonable, and that I feel that I can actually support them in. So I definitely remember components of that leadership development training that we had, that just showed that if you make a huge ask of somebody, especially if it’s broad and unspecific – the worst that you can ask somebody is, “Hey, do you want to get more involved in organizing?” People are always gonna say no, I’m too busy, I’ve got all these other things going on. If you come to somebody with a list of people in their department and say, “Hey, are there three people here who you think that we can pick out and have conversations with in the next week?” That more specific, more targeted, more reasonable, is always gonna be what gets people to actually feel like they have a stake in it, first of all, and also that they’re able to contribute.

Miles Meth is an organizer with Harvard Graduate Students Union – United Auto Workers, and a JOIN Jewish Organizing Fellowship alum ’16-17. Read more about the vote to unionize in the Boston Globe and the Harvard Crimson.

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May Day, May Day, May Day

by Rachel Plattus

Rachel Plattus, JOIN Jewish Organizing Fellow ’17-18

May Day is International Workers’ Day – a day of solidarity and resistance. In Puerto Rico, thousands of community members took to the street united against cuts to retirement benefits, rollbacks of labor laws, school closures, and pitifully inadequate hurricane recovery efforts, more than seven months after Hurricane Maria tore across the island. In response, colonial government police used tear gas on the crowds, including many children who have just lost their access to public education.

May Day is an ancient festival of fertility and springtime. May from the Greek and Roman goddess Maia, one of the Pleiades Seven Sisters, an earth goddess whose spring warmth urges the plants to sprout and grow, even after four April Nor’Easters! Maia lived alone in the caves outside of town, and mythologies describe her alternately as “shy” and “solitary,” though never “lonely.”

Mayday is a maritime distress signal, from the French “m’aider” – help me. The signal is to be used only when people or craft are in immediate danger, repeated three times. Help me, help me, help me. So we know you mean it.

Growing up, the weaving of many colored ribbons around a maypole was a rite of passage, 8 and 9-year-olds at my elementary school wearing flower wreaths and uncomfortable dress-up clothes skipping around the pole to old English music. Did our teachers—so many of whom are my age, now—laugh about the fact that these kids were skipping around what is widely said to be a phallic symbol of fertility?

May Day is so full of possibility for teachable moments. May Day could have been for marching, for stepping outside of our mostly wealthy, white bubble and into the infinite complexities and possibilities of solidarity. It could have been for nurturing the seeds, for putting hands in the soil. It could have been for learning the difference between solitude and loneliness. We could have learned to say “help me.”

It’s so much harder to learn to say “help me” now.

And we need so much more help.

This year in JOIN has created many teachable moments, some expected, most not. And the one that is sitting with me now is that—almost wherever we started—the world for which our educations were meant to prepare us doesn’t exist anymore, and that the disconnect between worlds is actually killing us.

I learned early that civic engagement was a little bit about “community service” and a lot about voting. I was an eager participant, first in paternalistic, tokenizing service work that perpetuated assumptions about class, race, and who gets to decide what will meet a community’s needs—and later, in years of electoral organizing which while more structurally grounded in representation and voice, lacked a true analysis of the systems that stood in the way of self-determination.

Even later, I stumbled into protest politics, into resistance against the systems of domination that set the terms of our economy, our government, our culture. Into recognition of the ways in which those systems are upheld by force (war machines, police, prisons) and by my own consent. I learned what it could mean to withdraw that consent, individually and collectively, that solidarity makes our collectives powerful enough to pull down the pillars that hold up the systems. I learned a little bit about how to ask for help, a little bit about how to say “no,” and the barest hints of what it might mean to say “yes” to other ways of being in the world together.

Since then, I’ve been on a messy journey of learning how to interrupt systems of domination, maintained by violence, by saying “yes” to systems of interdependence, maintained by love, in public and private. In fighting for community, for participatory governance, for the expansion of the commons, for solidarity economies, for reparations and restoration that acknowledge and take action toward healing the violent seizure of land and life from black and indigenous peoples all over the world.

My circuitous path from service, to electoral politics, to protest politics, to popular education has been a deeply joyful and deeply painful peeling back of masks, some of which (whiteness, wealth, woman-ness) I’ve worn since birth. Others, like the one that says “I’ve got this, all by myself,” I’ve constructed.

We, none of us, have got this, all by ourselves.

I keep learning from my own organizing praxis in popular education about how many of our answers live in our bodies and our communities, and what it looks like to peel back the masks and make those knowledges visible. Part of this peeling back for me has been an uncovering of my Jewishness, of my family’s migration story and the stories and worlds left behind to make way for a life in the capitalist, white supremacist, heteropatriarchal world in which we were taught to measure our success.

In JOIN, and in the spaces opened up for me by my experience in JOIN, it has been a peeling back of stories of isolation and self-sufficiency to make way for authentic solidarity and real community.

I’ve been in circle with our JOIN cohort, digging deep into who we are and could be as organizers, what our Jewishness has given us and what it has taken away, what right action and emergent strategy and accountable leadership look like in the world we’re living into. We’ve learned together about how the institutions within which we organize hold the contradictions of dependence on philanthropy, violent forms of hierarchy, and an aversion to hard conversations with the deep desire to support communities where everyone is valued, everyone has what they need, and hard conversations about race, gender, class, and Palestine are an opening to transformative action. We’re learning hard lessons about sickness and healing and how to be okay in this complex and contradictory world, lessons that play out not just in our work but in our families, our communities, and our spiritual lives. About the support and healing that are available when we call “mayday, mayday, help me” into a circle of love and trust.

I’ve been in circle with an intergenerational group of Jews making personal and collective meaning of old Jewish teachings in our contemporary reality. I’ve felt space made in our bodies and our brains and our hearts for these teachings, brought to life by community, to form a taproot for right action.

I’ve been in circle facilitating workshops with leaders from across the country as we surface what we already know about our communities’ path to self-determination, and expand our imaginations about possible paths to get there.

I’ve been in circle with graduate students seeking a deeper “why” for their scholarship and with meditators seeking sangha from which to more deeply understand their roles in interrupting and dismantling white supremacy to make room for beloved community. I’m writing this from a gathering where I am in circle with dozens of young leaders working and fighting and loving for a livable future for their communities in the face of catastrophic climate change, grieving what is already lost and strategizing about what can still be saved.

Recently, I’ve been in circle with a community of sisters and seekers, “Nuns and Nones,” who are wrestling with how to create systems of mutuality and support to steward centuries-old institutions of radical hospitality and transformative social action into the present and future world while offering young leaders the soul care, connection, and elder wisdom they yearn for in an age of social isolation and deep economic, environmental, and cultural instability.

The sisters speak about “hospitality” as a driving force for their work to provide education for school aged children and the formerly incarcerated, to house and accompany immigrants, refugees and asylees, to pass the Affordable Care Act, to support communities on the frontlines of climate chaos to access government funds for rebuilding in their communities.

Hospitality isn’t a lens through which I typically understand my work, but if we consider that we’re all guests of this land (and most of us beneficiaries of its violent seizure and enclosure from its long-term stewards), it is worth thinking about the radical hospitality extended to us by the land underneath our feet and all of the beings who have called that land home—and what we’ve done with that gift. I learned from the sisters that radical hospitality is reciprocal, and that at its root it is about a willingness to be transformed by one another. These women have been warriors in the fight for a better world for decades, and still they find room to be genuinely amazed by the young people trying to fight alongside them. This openness to transformation, to adaptation to the needs of the time, has allowed the sisters to sustain their communities for hundreds of years, even as the church that they serve erases their role in its formation and questions their faithfulness.

We change each other, and in the process we change the world. That part is inevitable.

There is another interpretation of the symbolism of the Maypole as the sacred tree of the world, the world axis. A sort of tin can telephone between earth and sky, a liminal space where the boundaries blur between the mortal and the sacred and messages are easily received in both directions.

And there is eight-year-old me, skipping in time in the collective project of adorning this symbol. There is eighteen-year-old me, wanting so badly to believe that stepping into my power is as simple as giving or getting votes. And there is twenty-eight-year-old me, wrestling with how our displacement and disconnection from our roots, Jewish and otherwise, have made us incapable of asking for and receiving the help we need in a world where interdependence is literally the only thing that can save us.

Rachel Plattus, JOIN Jewish Organizing Fellow ’17-18, is the Co-Editor of Beautiful Solutions, a web platform, book, and grassroots popular education program designed to support people to imagine—and create—a democratic, just and sustainable future.

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Turning up the heat on ICE


JOIN Clergy Fellow Rabbi Batsheva Meiri on ABC News 13 in Asheville, NC

The tradition of strong women of faith leading on justice work in North Carolina runs deep. So its no surprise that in response to a series of ICE raids throughout Western North Carolina, JOIN Clergy Fellow Rabbi Batsheva Meiri of Congregation Beth HaTephila in Asheville is stepping forward with her lay leaders, and becoming true partners with their undocumented neighbors — beyond the ally and sanctuary support role they’ve played up to this point. Among Rabbi Meiri’s lay team leading with her are two women in their 70s who, with their undocumented partners, have been literally chasing and tracking ICE as they barreled through Asheville in the last week. This past weekend Rabbi Meiri gave testimony at a county commissioner’s meeting about the basic inhumane premise of the raids, in addition to organizing with other clergy partners an interfaith clergy statement released to the public and press, turning the heat up on ICE for their abusive treatment of undocumented immigrants. She is refusing to stay silent while her neighbors are being rounded up and thrown into detention centers. Speaking with ABC News 13 on April 18 (see video above), Rabbi Meiri challenged the underlying dishonesty of our immigration system, which she says prohibits illegal immigrants yet benefits from their work in certain sectors of the economy.

Far from standing idly by — Rabbi Meiri is making waves.

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Anger to Action: Youth Organizing Against Gun Violence Training in Montclair, NJ

JOIN is deeply moved by the youth organizing and mobilizing nationwide in response to gun violence. On March 11, JOIN’s New Jersey Clergy Fellowship cohort, led by Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, sponsored a community organizing training to support teens from their synagogues and other congregations who were organizing actions including school walkouts and the March for Our Lives.

A diverse group of 40 young people from throughout New Jersey gathered at the First Congregational Church of Montclair. It was multiracial and multifaith with Jews, Christians and Muslims participating. The ground rules asked that the 12 adults who also attended leave the conversation, organizing and strategizing to the teens.

In their evaluation at the end of the training, the teens used words to describe their feelings like: equipped, powerful, energized, needed, and heard.

We’d like to acknowledge Rabbi Elliott Tepperman and Rabbi Ariann Weitzman of Bnai Keshet, Montclair, NJ, Frank McMillan of New Jersey Together, and Archange Antoine of Faith in New Jersey for leading the training, managing to connect and cover a ton of material on how to take action, build power and prepare for a specific action all in just a couple of hours. Thanks to Rev. Ann Ralosky for hosting, and to our NJ Clergy Fellow cohort, Rabbis Joel Abrahams, Faith Joy Dantowitz, Jesse Olitzky, and Jen Schlosberg for helping organize the event and generate turnout. Special thanks to lead JOIN trainer Jeannie Appleman and the Do Not Stand Idly By initiative to stem gun violence, one of the key initiatives that the NJ Clergy cohort is engaged in.

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“Time’s Up Wendy’s March”: Action for Coalition of Immokalee Workers

by Hannah Silverfine

I hate sitting still. And spending 12 hours on a bus in one day is not fun for anyone. But that was far from my mind when I signed up for the Northeast bus to New York City to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in their “Time’s Up Wendy’s March” on March 15th.

Time’s Up Wendy’s March, NYC

As a freshman in college, I was drawn to groups that seemed to make a difference in the world through creative and practical strategies. The Real Food Challenge (RFC) was one such group — a movement of students nationwide working to shift the purchasing of food in university dining halls towards more sustainable and fair sources.

Hannah at first Wendy’s boycott

Which is how I found myself shivering on a cold day in March outside a Wendy’s fast food restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland at my first boycott. Our weekend-long RFC training was focused on student power and building campaigns at our schools, and rooted the work in systemic problems, connecting our purpose to that of our allies and partners, such as the CIW. I learned about the mistreatment of farmworkers, and the deep organizing that had been done for generations to create initiatives like the Fair Food Program, calling for fair wages and humane working conditions.

At the same training in Baltimore I met and marched with another Hannah. She and I stayed in touch, each organizing at our respective campuses in New England, and intersecting in the world of food justice. Years later as a senior, we marched together again, this time in Columbus, Ohio, with the same purpose — “Boycott Wendy’s”. I was working on growing the real food movement and organizing students to attend actions with allies, and Hannah was applying to the JOIN for Justice Jewish Organizing Fellowship program.

JOIN alumni Hannah Weinronk (’16-17), author Hannah Silverfine (’17-18), and Rachel Leiken (’16-17)

All of a sudden it’s 2018 and I’ve been here before, but I’m not glad about it. Standing among beautiful, bright, yellow banners, surrounded by masses of people from different walks of life, chanting the refrain that speaks for itself: “Boycott Wendy’s”. This time, a five day fast culminated in 2,000 farmworkers and their allies marching down the streets of Manhattan. This time specifically targeting Nelson Peltz, the decision makers and shareholder for the company. I march as a current JOIN Fellow, alongside JOIN alumni, and watch as one of our JOIN trainers, Rabbi Toba Spitzer, stands at a podium with other faith-leaders supporting the farmworkers. In that moment I marveled at the many ways JOIN has intersected parts of my life, both intentionally and unintentionally, reflecting the deep community of relationships it fosters.

There is a lot to learn about power and hope from the incredible organizing that the CIW has done over the years. One of the central things I have internalized from their work is how to be a good ally. I don’t want to ever have to chant “Boycott Wendy’s” again, but if the CIW asks me to, I will.

Hannah with group of Clark University students she organized in 2016

Hannah Silverfine is a current JOIN Organizing Fellow living in Somerville, MA.

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