October 2021 Student Spotlight
In this month’s student spotlight we speak to MPA student and Program Coordinator at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, David Unger about his work as a labor union organizer, the labor movement in general, and his Marxe MPA experience.
You worked for 15 years as a labor union organizer and representatives and worked in a labor education program at what’s now the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. What got you interested in the labor rights movement?
I am the fourth generation in my family to work in the labor movement. I grew up not only learning the history of worker’s struggles for rights and dignity, but also with an understanding that we all have a responsibility to fight for justice. I was lucky enough to figure out my own place and path while an undergraduate—and became a union organizer immediately after graduating college. So, I have had the honor of continuing my family’s legacy of being part of the movement and the struggle.
What do you see as its biggest modern obstacles?
The labor movement is close to historic lows in terms of the percentage of working people who belong to unions. We have just come out of four years under a viciously anti-union administration, and inequality and the concentration of wealth in the hands of few are at record highs. However, these are not new obstacles—working and marginalized people have always fought from a disadvantaged position.
How do you predict it will evolve over the next decade or so?
We are already seeing some of the signs of what the labor movement can become. Over the last few years, all over the country, teachers have organized, protested, and struck—not only for their own interests, but in solidarity with and coalition with the students and communities they serve. They are fighting “for the common good”. We see tech workers and gig workers, farm workers and domestic workers standing up, organizing, fighting for and winning changes in the workplace and the halls of government. And just in the past few years, we have seen in #BlackLivesMatter a multi-racial, working class, Black-led movement that is the largest civil rights mobilization in generations, if not in American history. All of that is part of what the labor movement can be, and hopefully will be.
What drew you to the Marxe School MPA program?
I have learned over the course of my career that being a good organizer does not automatically make someone a good supervisor or director. Being an effective leader, running successful teams, programs, and organizations takes work; it takes practice, training, theory. So often, our organizations are weakened by the lack of attention paid to how we develop staff and programs. I came because a Master’s in Public Administration at the Marxe School seemed like a place where I could focus on that in a community of adult learners, in New York City, all dedicated to making a difference.
What has your MPA experience been like?
I have been lucky to find a school and a program that understands that each student needs to take their own path. I work full-time at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, I adjunct in SUNY Empire State College’s Labor program, and have a small child. Though I have only been able to take a single class a semester, I have been supported and encouraged throughout.
How has it influenced your approach toward labor unions and initiatives?
Each class I take, I bring something with me. It is a new lens or way of looking at a situation at work, or a new framework to apply when analyzing why a campaign succeeded, or why an organization failed to uphold its mission or values. From the faculty and my classmates, there is always something to learn!