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A Great Summer as a Harvard/UNCF/AFSCME Union Scholar

November 03, 2011

Ruth Cano
AFSCME/UNCF Union Scholar Ruth Cano

This post is from Ruth Cano, a student at Emory University who participated in the AFSCME/UNCF Union Scholars Program in the summer of 2010. She returned to help out at AFSCME Headquarters during the summer of 2011.

Although I was no stranger to social justice, I did not know much about the labor movement until last summer when I had an opportunity to learn valuable skills and understand how young people like me can make a difference.

You see, I’m from Texas, a state where unions are constantly under attack. Growing up, I heard stories of how workers get unfair wages and few benefits and have bad working conditions. Using budget cuts as an excuse, bosses sometimes cut workers’ hours while demanding continued high productivity. Those same bosses did not think twice about giving themselves bonuses or raises. The workers in Texas hated their situations but kept quiet because they were afraid of losing the jobs that supported their families. When I read about the AFSCME Union Scholars program, I learned that unions help workers organize themselves to stand up for their rights and for fair treatment.

As a Harvard/UNCF/AFSCME Union Scholar working in California with AFSCME Local 3299, I had a chance to contribute directly to that important work. I worked with very skilled organizers who showed me the ropes. They encouraged me to jump into the process of helping workers organize for better futures for themselves and their families.

I learned so much, gained valuable skills and came to understand the true meaning of grassroots organizing. I saw, up close, inspiring examples of why social justice and organizing is so important. The organizers I worked with are a close-knit group determined to win the fight for justice. Attending meetings, participating in rallies, speaking to fellow co-workers, and strategizing created strong bonds between workers and organizers. I saw just how much the organizers’ work meant to workers. Since I’ve always wanted to go into a career where I can help people and feel like I’m making those connections and differences in their lives, it was really touching and appealed to me.

I got other tastes of what it means to win progress. Our training and orientation at the Harvard Law School gave me and my fellow interns a chance to practice the skills of grassroots organizing in a classroom setting. My first rally for workers’ rights turned my nervousness into excitement. We also had a chance to experience AFSCME's Convention where I got to see how members participate in their union and observed the democracy underlying every decision that was made.

Overall, I loved being able to learn about the labor movement through field work rather than just a text book. Knowing that we were contributing to social change was definitely rewarding. I hope other young people will consider this incredible opportunity.

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