Erik is a 2018 grad with a Major in Psychology and a minor in Labour Studies. During his degree he was the Council Representative of the Labour Studies Student Union (LSSU), completed an independent research project on precarious employment in BC, participated in the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières 5 week explore program, and got his first taste being in a union (CUPE) during his time working part-time in the SFU library.
This fall he’s in New York participating in the City University of New York (CUNY) Union Semester - a seventeen week program that combines academic courses and a fifteen-week field placement with a union or workers-rights organization. Erik will be working with Organization United for Respect (OUR), a workplace-based organization that advocates for Walmart employees. We asked him some questions about his experience in Labour Studies, and the CUNY Union Semester.
See photos from his New York trip at the bottom of the page.
SFU Labour Studies Minor
How did you choose your program, and why is it right for you?
I’ve always been interested in human behaviour, and that’s what psychology is all about. But sometimes psychology and its subfields seem narrow. This is particularly the case when the discipline does not give work, the workplace, or economic motivations of behaviour the attention they are warranted.
By taking Labour Studies courses later in my degree, I’ve been able to broaden and integrate my knowledge. For instance, people in precarious work frequently suffer from anxiety and depression, and this is often directly related to the stress attached to the uncertain nature of their jobs. There is a connection between mental health and the workplace and this is something that I have been able to explore due to my program.
What is the most interesting subject you’ve studied so far?
The most interesting course I’ve taken is definitely LBST 308 (The Labour Process: Work and Technological Change). That course opened my eyes to robotics, genetics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology, and how the ongoing development of those technologies will disrupt the labour process when they are ultimately applied to the production and delivery of a wide range of goods and services.
Exposure to this shifted my worldview fundamentally, as several years ago I never had much of an interest in technology, nonetheless its effect on society and work. The topics the course introduced me to, such as technological unemployment, automation, and basic income, have hugely informed my thinking about the future since. Depending on who you ask, technology lends to infinitely scary or exciting possibilities for humanity.
Why do you think Labour Studies is an important field of study?
Labour Studies is an important field of study because work and labour are generally overlooked by other programs. It is beneficial for us all when we have serious discussions about the nature and quality of work, and strive for something better, rather than blindly accept the state of employment (or on-demand contracting) as it is today.
Also unique to Labour Studies is its focus on the worker, unions, and the working class. This puts the experience of workers at the forefront rather than in the shadows. For example, I remember being told in an economics class that minimum wages shouldn’t exist. I would be interested in what minimum wage workers would say to that. You would never hear such a statement in Labour Studies, largely because economics believes in equilibriums while Labour Studies chooses to acknowledge the power imbalance embedded in labour markets.
Why should students get involved with the LSSU?
Getting involved in the LSSU gave me a stronger sense of community. I met Labour Studies students who were extremely driven and passionate, and together we’ve had long conversations over meals on campus, hosted movie nights, and gone on labour history walking tours. I highly recommend getting involved in the LSSU if you want to make some friends and get active.
What are your plans for the future, at SFU or post-grad?
My plans after graduating are very uncertain. I am interested in doing more school, either law school or a Master’s programs in industrial relations, work and society, industrial-organizational psychology, or cooperatives. I will be in New York for the City University of New York’s Union Semester program until the end of 2018 and hope to have a much better idea of what to pursue then!
CUNY Union Semester
How did you hear about the New York Union Semester in NY?
A couple years ago, I was searching for internships with unions. There weren't many opportunities out there, but fortunately I came across the Union Semester program. There are no other programs like it anywhere in North America and it has been in the back of my mind ever since.
What about this opportunity excited you? Why did you think you'd be a good fit?
First of all, I find the location very exciting. New York City is the birthplace of the US labour movement and continues to be a labour stronghold today. I'm particularly glad to be going at this incredibly unfortunate moment in American history. I feel like it is a great time to get started in the labour movement.
The nature of the program is also very exciting because it combines school and work experience. This is perfect for me since I haven't decided what to pursue in the next few years. Through Union Semester, I gain credits towards CUNY's MA in Labor Studies as well as work experience that could help me find job opportunities in the labour movement.
I believed I was a good fit for Union Semester because of my school and work background. The Labour Studies minor definitely helped me demonstrate a solid knowledge of the labour movement and a serious interest in labour. On the other hand, I have been actively involved with CUPE 3338 during my time as a student worker at SFU. I feel that both of these experiences have prepared me for the program.
You've just graduated with a degree in Psychology and a minor in LBST. Were you working a CUPE job when you heard that you were accepted?
I've had a lot of jobs on campus through the Student Temp Pool since being hired in September 2016. All of these have been CUPE jobs. While my longest contracts have been in Interlibrary Loans and Residence & Housing, I have had shorter stints in other departments too. In fact, the day I found out I was accepted into the program was the day right after my graduation and the week before I started a new contract in Faculty Relations.
Working on campus has been great as a student, and even better as a Labour Studies student. Student jobs work around your class schedule and most pay close to the living wage. However, the real perk for Labour Studies students is union membership with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Being a CUPE 3338 member exposed me to union education, organizing, and grievances, and provided me with opportunities to get involved in other areas of the union such as attending provincial and national conventions.
Will you get to choose which organization you work with?
I don't get to choose which organization I work for, but the process is fairly transparent. Students receive a list of organizations that are participating so we can do some research, while our resumes and cover letters are provided to the organizations. In the first week, I meet representatives and have short conversations with them about what they do, what they would like their intern to work on, and my interests and skills. After that, students rank the organizations and we are matched by the Union Semester program staff.
What type of work do you expect to be helping the organization with?
I hope to get involved with research, member engagement, or education but I am keeping my expectations low. Most interns take on a wide range of roles and tasks, from helping out in organizing or campaign strategy to stuffing envelopes. With the midterm elections coming up, I also expect to do some work related to that.
What made this a good time for you to pursue this semester abroad?
I've always wanted to study abroad. I tried to go to the UK earlier in my degree but unfortunately the cost was far too high and I was also concerned about transfer credit and getting decent grades.
I think Union Semester is a great study abroad program for Labour Studies students. Particularly with the new Major, I expect undergraduate students to be able to transfer their Union Semester credits to SFU. The program also runs twice a year in the Fall and Spring semesters which better enables students to map out their degrees.
In my case, I waited until I finished my BA to pursue Union Semester so I could experience grad school and take advantage of the credit it offers toward an MA. Both versions of the program provide students with a stipend (currently $7000 USD) which significantly helps out with the cost of studying abroad.
What do you hope to get out of this experience?
I hope to further develop my knowledge of labour and work, and gain useful skills from the internship. After completing the program, I also hope to have a better idea of whether I should get a job or keep studying and go to grad school or law school. On a personal level, I am hoping to gain a new level of independence as this will be the first time I've lived on my own outside of Canada
Will this be your first time in NY?
This will be my first time in New York, I've only ever been down the west coast of the US. I'm really looking forward to exploring the city and learning about its history. I just hope there aren't any major snow storms!
Tips for others interested in applying?
The application is pretty extensive and there are extra hurdles for international students so I recommend getting started early. Even if you don't have prior experience with unions (few Union Semester participants do), I definitely recommend applying. And if you happen to be reading this (even years from now) and have questions about the program, feel free to ask me. My email address is email@example.com.
Photos from Eric's NY CUNY Semester
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