Building a Community of Disabled Workers Changed My Relationship with My Union

Unions aren’t just for fighting for better pay and benefits. They can also be tools for disabled solidarity.

Student at Michigan Institute of Technology is pushed in a wheelchair by classmate. (David L. Ryan / the Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Before I started graduate school, if you asked me how I felt about unions, I would have enthusiastically told you how much I loved them. Having been a teacher in both unionized and nonunionized workplaces, there was no convincing me otherwise: unions are essential for ensuring workers’ rights. As I started graduate school in 2020, I was excited to find colleagues who were as invested in and committed to unions as I was. By spring 2021, I was an active member of our growing organizing committee.

Together, we read about rank-and-file unionism, spoke to as many graduate students across Boston University (BU)’s sprawling campuses as we could, and built a democratic worker-led movement that was committed to improving the lives of graduate workers. It was our issue-based campaign about COVID-19 safety at the height of the Omicron surge, however, that deeply changed my relationship with my union and the larger labor movement.

I am disabled. My disabled identity is core to how I understand, move, and experience a world that is built for nondisabled people. As a worker, existing in this world means most jobs assume that those with disabilities are not a part of their workforce, which too often results in deeply hurtful comments and actions that position disability as shameful or something to overcome and fix. It also fosters isolation and an overwhelming feeling of not really belonging.

I felt this isolation deeply during my first year of graduate school. I was experiencing intense chronic pain from a serious back flare-up that landed me in the emergency room, while simultaneously watching my university administration fail to protect students and workers who are disabled, immunocompromised, and vulnerable from a mass-disabling pandemic. It became increasingly impossible to separate my needs and fears as a disabled person from my graduate student work and union organizing.

By the end of my first year, I turned to my fellow union organizers and nervously shared my fears, anxiety, and anger. There were no blank stares or “it will be fine” responses. Instead Zoom chats and screens lit up with heart emojis. Demonstrating solidarity with disabled people should not be exceptional, but the way the world should be is quite different from how the world actually is. I will never forget that moment. It was the moment I knew what authentic solidarity felt like.

By early 2022, just as the spring semester was about to start, Omicron was surging and Boston University was moving full steam ahead toward a completely in-person semester without providing effective personal protective equipment or adequate social distancing options for students and workers. This time, I knew I was not alone.

Together, while still quietly organizing our union and building power, we decided to organize a COVID safety campaign. Almost immediately, I found myself swapping stories and experiences with a couple of other disabled and immunocompromised grad workers who were also leading the fight for a safer BU. The joy and community I felt in those moments was overwhelming because, for one of the first times in my life, I did not have to explain myself or apologize due to my own self-consciousness. Being in community with other disabled people through my union meant that not only could I be my whole self, but that others saw, accepted, and understood my whole self.

In their book, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about “crip emotional intelligence,” a concept that gives voice to how our experiences provide us with a deep understanding and culture that is unique to our disabled identities. In my experience, it’s also about having a mutual understanding of how deeply discriminatory toward disabled people our world is, while also giving space for our own varied stories, challenges, and needs. Being in community with disabled people has sustained me at times when I have been exhausted, burnt out, and felt hopeless.

It has also given rise to the question: How do we celebrate and fight for disability justice in our unions? Because I am not going back to a life of isolation.

As our union grew through organizing conversations with grad workers across campus, so did our connections with disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent grad workers, which led to our union building its first caucus for this group of workers. While we are relatively new, this caucus is building a space of support and interdependency and organizing to fight for the needs of disabled workers. Instead of just saying “I am a disabled grad worker,” now I can say “we are disabled grad workers.” It might seem small to some, but for me, it’s the most important thing about our union.