From UMass to CUNY
Becoming a union member when they were a graduate student worker at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was a transformative moment in Anais Surkin’s life and career path.
Anais Surkin started in January as the union’s new associate executive director. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Anais Surkin)
Before that they had worked a myriad of nonprofit, direct service jobs in the New York City area.
“I remember being super excited to sign my card,” Surkin said, recalling the moment they joined UAW Local 2322.
Surkin started working as a grievance coordinator for the UAW in 2013, and they ultimately worked their way up to being elected president of the “amalgamated” local, serving from June 2019 to June 2021. They represented over 5,000 members and oversaw more than two dozen contracts for bargaining units, ranging from graduate workers to municipal workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
This January, Surkin returned to New York City to assume the role of PSC associate executive director, replacing Naomi Zauderer (see Zauderer profile). In their new role, Surkin will support the PSC leadership by overseeing administrative areas and helping to expand the union’s capacity for strategic planning, member mobilization, services to members, internal education and social change projects.
When Surkin was a grievance coordinator at UAW Local 2322, they saw the transformative power of labor union organizing. At the time, it wasn’t unusual for UMass workers to go a month or more without receiving a paycheck. The pay delay was just an accepted fact of working at UMass. The administration’s financial processes were notoriously slow and outmoded and workers tolerated this annoyance as a quirk of the job.
As they watched fellow workers struggle to pay rent and look after their kids, Surkin knew the situation was unacceptable; timely pay was a fundamental aspect of employer-employee relations, they thought.
After a long campaign of filing grievances, holding demonstrations and coordinating with other campus unions, UMass finally agreed to revamp its payment system in order to ensure that UMass workers received their paychecks on time.
“It took a lot of organizing. It wasn’t going to happen through simply legal means,” they recalled. “It required really putting the university on blast.”
Surkin attended Hunter College, which they recalled as a transformative experience. “Going to CUNY and going to Hunter was so definitive and shaped me in so many ways,” they said, adding that it helped inspire them to pursue a graduate degree in social justice education, which is what ultimately brought them to UMass and the labor movement. Surkin is especially excited to contribute to the broad campaign to achieve full funding for CUNY and make it “the premier public urban university.”
They added, “I have a lot of background in NYC queer community organizing and I’ve been thinking about so many people whom I knew who would have not sought or otherwise had access to higher education who had access through CUNY. It transforms people’s lives.”
Surkin knows that there are a lot of challenges and hard work ahead of them and the union, but they are ready.
“I’m really excited to be on the team, to get to know everyone and to be in the fight,” they said.