University Student Protesters Come Face to Face with Union Carpenters

Me and the boys are leaving the Northeastern University jobsite. It’s April, the sweet combination of sunlight and breeze making it one of those few days of the year I peer up at the sun and wish I worked outside. We’re hanging all the doors and installing all the hardware in a new Northeastern University lab building. At the end of the day, we walk by the engineering lab and the parking garage, heading towards the squash courts to get to our cars. As we walk, a group heads towards us on the opposite side of the street. They are young and white, maybe grad students. There’s about 20 of them. They wear SEIU and UAW union shirts. The division I have felt since joining the trades presents itself again: the crosswalk between a group of union protesters and union trade workers; the space between young people who were taught to believe in Marx and men who were born into a blue collar life.

I imagine the young group of Northeastern students reading Marx in some undergrad class. I see the same fantasy I imagine they did – the working class uniting, putting down their tools, bringing society to a standstill until our demands are met. Who can resist such a dream?

Despite the fact that these appear to be young people with enough privilege to attend this University, exploitation exists everywhere. 10 years ago Northeastern University cut off funding to Students for Justice in Palestine – a student-led group that was fighting the occupation of Palestine. In masters programs, graduates often do a ton of the work for the professors. Due to this, students organize Graduate Student Unions, which uses collective bargaining to advocate for the rights of graduate students. The first graduate student union to be nationally recognized was at New York University in 2014, and that union was affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW).

The group gathers at the crosswalk.

Many times as a female union carpenter in Boston, I have wondered how I am perceived. Can they tell my background is not shared with working class white men? Is it written on my forehead that I was an awkward, homeschooled, queer teenager? Do they know I spent my childhood attending anti-war rallies and protesting new developments that would cause gentrification (and now, I understand, potentially be a critical source of work for them)? Do they know that I am one of the Black Lives Matter protesters that they hate so much? Am I a woman or a carpenter? Can I be both? Have I earned my place here or am I just here to check a box and fulfill some quota?

The first couple protesters step into the street; they peer around parked cars to see if there is any oncoming traffic.

Now I see their faces, and I recognize myself in them. I felt that exact itch to make something right. I felt so much hope, all the time wondering if it was misplaced. I felt conviction and sometimes wondered if it was just another line I was fed. I was raised to believe in left politics. Even at a young age, I wondered – if I had been raised by a family that loved George W. Bush, would I love him too? How could I claim these ideas as my own?

I see this same uncertainty in their faces as they come towards us in the crosswalk. We are fellow union members, their brothers and sisters in the movement. But they don’t look at us. Who are we? We are three construction workers with our union and local number printed in bold letters on our t-shirts. Our sweat drips down from our temples, our hair matted to our scalp from a day of wearing a hardhat in an 85 degree room. Our arms are scarred and burned from drilling overhead into steel all day. Their skin has that look of softness unknown in the trades.

They are all in the street now, heading towards us.

I think of my liberal, upper-middle class extended family. My white classmates who attend study abroad trips in Africa and make their profile picture of them holding a little African baby, but have no black friends at home. They voted for Obama who had nearly double the amount of immigration deportations than Trump. A local developer buys up properties all over Boston but especially in low-income and black neighborhoods and flips them, contributing to the endless wave of gentrification and then he donates to the organization trying to preserve the Malcolm X house in Roxbury. At a party this summer a white male anarchist attended. He spent the whole time talking about how all cops are bastards and deserve to die. If you were to take away his exact words and leave the tone and inflections, you would not be able to differentiate it from the way my crew talks about liberals.

The group begins to pass us.

Maybe all this time it hasn’t been about how the boys perceive me, but rather, how I perceive them. These are the men my community taught me to be afraid of. They have more machine guns than you can count on two hands. Their wives take out restraining orders against them. They joke about shooting Black Lives Matter protesters. They celebrate when women lose access to abortion.

But they also wait in the rain for me, making sure I know my way through the jobsite and to the lunch shack. They drive 15 miles out of their way after work on a Friday so I can pick up my car at the mechanic’s. They swing by Home Depot to get me a better drywall saw and tape measure. “Gotta pay it forward,” they say. When I’m really hungry and having a little meltdown, they weather it without blinking. When they heard I was moving to a new apartment: “Hey Max, do you need any money?” When they found out my dad rides dirt bikes: “Bring him up to New Hampshire. Anytime!” When I ask about how to read concrete grade on the prints, they bring me into the trailer, pull me up a stool, and spend an hour showing grid points on the prints. These are the men who will teach me to safely navigate the hazards of a jobsite – the piece of plywood covering a hole that is 3 stories deep, that the whistle and horn mean the crane is picking up a 3 ton load and to get the hell out of the way. These are the men who will pull me out from underneath a fallen, 900-pound stack of doors in the box truck, sit me down on the dock and make me drink water. (I have never heard my name called like that; my boss was so worried about me his voice dropped 3 octaves.) These are the men who I will come to depend on to get me home alive at the end of each day.

At coffee time, they joke about the dad who drank his way into their nightmares, the corners of their mouths turn down when they talk about the son who OD’d in their bathroom at Thanksgiving, the time a girlfriend stabbed them in the chest and left a star-shaped scar. When a laborer hangs himself from the top of jobsite next door, the next morning they swap suicide stories like baseball cards, and when the multi-billion dollar building developer does nothing, no one is surprised. These men are the survivors of a particular breed of violence that we have little language for.

How do the protestors crossing the street perceive me? Do they look long enough to notice there is a woman in the crew? Do they think I’ve sold out? What becomes of me, the leftie woman carpenter who now spends the majority of her life with these men? Am I just like the rest of these guys? Or am I still like the protestor – judgemental and afraid of these men, unable to bridge the gap?

The protesters have crossed Columbus Ave near the university squash court. Most of them pass us quietly, eyes averted, except for the last one: He shouts at us, “Northeastern University is union busting!” The words feel like I am hearing a brick slam the other side of a concrete wall, it echoes.

We laugh awkwardly and continue walking. The breeze showers us with pollen from the elm trees. A foot connects with a ball on the soccer field and cheers erupt. We reach our cars. We toss our lunch boxes in the trunks and turn our keys. At the light, the boys head straight onto Melnea Cass towards 93 north, I take a right onto Tremont.

Maxine West is a union carpenter in Boston, Massachusetts.