Being a Department Steward for the GEO presents a unique set of tensions and challenges. On the one hand, stewards are tasked with collecting and reporting on the various concerns of colleagues in the department. Simultaneously, however, stewards also impart critical information in the other direction—namely, from the GEO leadership to the general membership in individual departments. My own department (Anthropology) has a generally supportive disposition towards the GEO. We have a history of strong attendance at meetings, rallies, and GEO-sponsored social activities. This support, however, is naturally counter-balanced and mitigated by the pressured demands of graduate school. This particular tension has led me to view my stewardship position as one primarily concerned with facilitation rather than political proselytizing.
When it came to my attention that the GEO’s database did not have listed many colleagues I was sure were interested in being card-signing members of the union, I drafted the following letter politely requesting that the recipients fill out a new yellow membership card. Below is a slightly edited version of that letter:
If you are receiving this message, it means that the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) does not have your membership information in their database. Although many of you support the union, GEO does not currently have a record of you having signed the card. If you have not signed a card, but are interested in becoming an active member, we would really like to have you. If you have filled out a card previously, I apologize for the inconvenience. Nevertheless, please take the time to fill out the yellow membership card I have enclosed, even if you have already done this before. These cards give you a voice in the union, so you are not accepting additional responsibilities by filling them out. The union represents you whether you support it or not; these cards simply ensure that you can vote and make your opinions heard.
This should be a quick and easy process, so please take a few minutes and fill this out at your earliest convenience. When you have completed the card, please return it to me ASAP. In person, on my desk, or in my mailbox are all fine. Thanks, and please let me know if you have any questions or concerns. I am happy to answer any questions or concerns you may have about becoming a card-signing member of GEO.
Graduate Employee Organization
Department Steward for Anthropology
I placed this letter in the recipients’ office mailboxes. While many (most?) of my anthropologist colleagues harbor generally union-friendly attitudes, the same can certainly not be said for all departments at UIC. Stewards in other departments face a different set of challenges, and these might be better met with more proactive organizing efforts. However, for many of us, stewards must carefully choose their battles. Many of our departmental colleagues are highly engaged and highly informed, though not always supportive of GEO. For this reason, antagonistic rhetoric aimed more at fashioning support through antagonism has limited value. Despite my own enthusiasm for the GEO, I must actively avoid the temptation to over-saturate the inboxes of my friends and colleagues. Many humanities and social science departments (such as Anthropology) do not represent the frontier of our organizing efforts; rather, it represents a standing army of supportive GEO members. My own efforts aim to grease the wheels of participation. Stewards in similar situations can write letters like this to make participation in union proceedings easier. Where support already exists, the steward’s role is primarily one of constant maintenance. Where support does not exist, reaching out to colleagues by direct, personalized contact will work.
When I left the above letter in my colleagues’ mailboxes, I enclosed a yellow card with personalized fields (Name, Department, etc.) already filled in. In addition to making this easier on the recipient, it simultaneously gives the (accurate) impression that I put some amount of time and effort into this mini-campaign. These are, after all, friends and colleagues. They respect personal outreach more than impersonal listserv emails.
Within a couple of days of initiating this strategy, over half of the recipients returned completed cards. Many more continued to trickle in over the course of the next two weeks. In the GEO’s continued outreach efforts, the union wants to avoid mass emails in favor of personalized forms of communication. Keeping the big picture in mind—social justice, fair contracts, safe workplaces, public universities, etc.—is crucial. But most of my time as steward is not spent discussing the big picture. The day-to-day efforts of stewards do not always require appeals to such lofty ideals. Sometimes, participation is about the signature on the yellow card. By tailoring our efforts in this way, I’m confident that we can engender the continued support of department – this is certainly the case for Anthropology . This is critical as another round of contract negotiations looms just over the horizon. When the negotiations resume, Anthropology will be there to provide input and support. By undertaking a few concerted but relatively simple tasks, we can incorporate more of our members’ voices. We would encourage interested members to take moment to send out a similar letter to the one above to their colleagues.