Linking our struggles at UMass Amherst

May 3, 2016

Kate Nadel reports on climate-justice actions in Western Massachusetts that ended with a forum featuring Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and a Verizon striker.

GREEN PARTY presidential candidate Jill Stein stood with the UMass Divest campaign at an April 20 rally calling on the university to divest from the fossil-fuel industry.

After the rally, Stein joined campus and community activists for a panel discussion featuring a striking Verizon worker and a UMass Divest activist--and the following day, University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan issued an encouraging promise to student activists.

A week earlier, members of the UMass Divest campaign risked arrest by organizing a weeklong sit-in at the Whitmore Administration Building. The sit-in caught Stein's attention, and she took to Twitter to show her support. "The students risking arrest w/ divestumass today are giving us hope for the future," she tweeted. Stein called on UMass to "divest from fossil fuels now!" On April 15, the Green Party officially endorsed the actions as well.

After the sit-in concluded the first week of action, activists shifted their attention to a protest outside Whitmore to keep up the pressure on the administration for a second week. The actions outside the building revolved around community building and creating a space where participants could call their legislators and the office of the university president to pledge support for full divestment.

Dr. Jill Stein speaks at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration
Dr. Jill Stein speaks at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration (Paul Stein)

Following the April 20 rally, the UMass branch of the International Socialist Organization held a panel discussion titled "Orange, Red and Green: Climate Justice, Corporate Power, and the Fight for a 99 Percent Future" to discuss the interconnected issues of climate justice, workers power and building an independent left. The panelists included Stein; Filipe de Carvalho, a member of the Divest Campaign; and Rufus Chaffee, a striking Verizon worker.

On April 21, the day after the rally and panel, President Meehan came to the flagship campus in Amherst to discuss plans for fossil-fuel divestment with three of the core Divest UMass organizers. Following this meeting, there was a final celebratory rally where those in the meeting told the crowd that Meehan had issued the following promise: "I want to make UMass the first public university in the country to divest our direct holdings from all fossil-fuel companies."

There will be a vote on full fossil-fuel divestment on June 15 by the Board of Trustees, and a vote by the UMass Foundation no later than June 22. The divestment campaign will continue to put pressure on Meehan to stay true to his promise by showing up to the Board of Trustees meeting in June.

AT THE panel discussion, De Carvalho, a member of the Center for Education Policy and Action at UMass, discussed how climate injustice stems from other systematic injustices, specifically racial and economic inequality.

De Carvalho explained that the people who end up drinking contaminated water, like in Flint, Michigan, are the same people who need a livable minimum wage and fair labor contracts with benefits. He stressed that this sit-in was the result of years of planning, meetings and strategizing. "We are winning," De Carvalho said. "We want to make sure people know that."

Chaffee discussed why the Communications Workers of America Union (CWA) felt that Verizon workers had no other option but to strike after making no progress at the negotiating table since their contract expired nine months ago.

Verizon plans to drastically cut workers' benefits and pensions for retirees, and outsource call-center jobs across the world. Chaffee stressed that workers are not striking for increases in benefits, but rather to keep the terms of their prior contract.

Job security is the key issue for Verizon workers all over the country, who fear that Verizon is preparing to eliminate more jobs in addition to the 5,000 that it has already outsourced overseas. Verizon plans to eliminate job security protections for technicians and call center jobs, as well as eliminate Article 8 from the contract, which would allow the company to uproot workers from their communities and families and transfer them elsewhere for up to two months at a time.

Not only would these contract terms destroy families and communities, but they would also keep whole communities in the digital dark age. That's because Verizon needs more workers to install its fiber optic services--known as FiOS--throughout its already established service footprint, but instead of hiring more workers, Verizon prefers to cut jobs and benefits in order to increase their already outrageous profit margins.

Verizon makes more than $1.5 billion a month, while CEO Lowell McAdam rakes in $18 million per year (more than 200 times what an average Verizon worker makes). Verizon's greed is hurting customers and workers alike, explained Chaffee, and CWA members have no other option but to put their bodies and jobs on the line and strike to stop these attacks on their rights as workers.

Jill Stein discussed how the logic of "lesser evilism"--supporting the Democrats as a "lesser evil" to the Republicans--has delivered all the social ills that we oppose, specifically the continuing climate crisis and huge corporations chipping away at workers rights.

Instead of accepting the limitations of the two-party system, we need to aspire to a greater good in politics, Stein said. She stated that issues such as the climate crisis and workers struggles are problems with solutions, but that the "powers that be" want us to think they are inevitable and therefore accept them.

Building an independent left--and real grassroots power to back up our aspirations for something better--is crucial if we aim to save the planet and create a system where workers are compensated for their work rather than dehumanized by corporate greed.

In the current presidential race, Verizon has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clinton Foundation and paid Hillary Clinton a quarter of a million dollars for a speech in 2013. Meanwhile, several Verizon executives have personally donated thousands of dollars to her presidential campaign.

An independent left won't gain popularity overnight, but holding panels like "Orange, Red, and Green" serve as an essential platform for discussing how various struggles are connected and propagated by capitalism and greed.

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