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USM Scontras Center Hires Union Organizer, Author & Labor Educator Kevin Van Meter

Andy O’Brien
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We are thrilled to announce that the Charles A. Scontras Center for Labor & Community Education has hired Dr. Kevin Van Meter as its new teaching fellow. The Maine AFL-CIO was part of the teaching fellow hiring committee, which also included USM staff and community representatives. Van Meter will officially start at the Scontras Center on September 11.

Van Meter has an impressive range of knowledge and experiences as a community and union organizer, worker, academic, union staffer and author. He holds a masters in political science from the City University of New York and a Ph.D. in geography with a focus on labor studies and working class history from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

As an adjunct faculty instructor at Portland State University and Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, Kevin has taught courses on cultural geography, geography of globalization, peace studies and more. He is a prolific writer, having written two books and co-authored three others on politics, philosophy and labor studies including the 2010 book “Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements and Current Political Composition in the United States,” which features of a cover photo of International Paper workers tearing up a contract offer during the 1988 strike.

He is currently working on his forthcoming book “Reading Struggles” to be released by AK Press. Van Meter also serves on the board of the Journal of Labor and Society, one of the top global labor studies journals, and is working with some colleagues to produce the new edition of a labor/economics text book prefect for classrooms, steward trainings, and labor education called Real World Labor for Dollars and Sense Magazine.

Van Meter says he is really excited to move to Maine from Portland, Oregon to learn about our state’s rich labor history and to support rank-and-file union members and leaders, immigrants and others with workshops, seminars and trainings on workplace and labor issues. He plans to develop, implement and instruct core programs that include popular education and skills development for both union members and unorganized workers outside of the labor movement.

This will likely include workshops on organizing basics, grievances, collective bargaining and contract campaigns, mapping and charting, stewards trainings and more. Van Meter says he and his colleagues at the center tailor their offerings to whatever the community wants.

“We want to hear from workers, the labor community, labor leaders and the broader community about what they need because there’s almost an endless amount of things we could do,” said Van Meter. “How can we support you to amplify your voice at work and in the larger community? That’s really the key.”

Van Meter said he saw the “union difference” in his own family growing up in suburban New York and rural Vermont.

“My mom was a union teacher and librarian for her entire career and my grandmother was a library page who put together adult programming and was not union. I could see the difference in their lives, in their say at the workplace and in their retirement,” said Van Meter. “For my mom, being a union member made a big difference in my parents’ lives and their ability to retire. I’ve seen how the union difference improves people’s working lives and their communities and that’s something I’m really excited and proud to be a part of.”

Van Meter started his professional career as a community organizer on Long Island in 1998 and has worked with unhoused people and prisoners and on relief efforts in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Upon first arriving in Portland, Oregon, Van Meter worked as a temporary employee  at a metal fabrication shop, filing and sweeping the floor. It was there that he became in involved in a union organizing effort at the facility. But at the end of the season, the largely seasonal workforce dropped from 400 to 75 employees, effectively killing the union drive. While in graduate school between 2016 and 2020, he and his colleagues attempted to restart an ongoing union drive there, which failed. However, this past April the University of Minnesota graduate workers finally won their election with 97 percent voting yes after various students had been trying for 30 years.

“I’ve worked to organize with my coworkers and improve our working conditions in a number of environments and I’ve felt that sting of loss,” said Van Meter. “It wasn’t until 2015 when I joined the adjunct faculty at Portland State University that I got my first official union card as a member of AFT Local 3571. It was that union card and my role as a steward that allowed me to develop my skills to become a staffer.”

After six years in academia, Van Meter found it difficult to cobble together an income between teaching, working in a warehouse and shelving books at a library, so he left the profession in 2018 to become an organizer with a graduate workers union. Three years later he became an organizer representing healthcare workers in Oregon.

Building Future Working Class Leaders

Van Meter says the most rewarding part of being a union organizer is seeing how transformative being part of a union can be. He says the labor movement not only provides a way for working class people to build the skills they need to improve their wages and working conditions, but it also trains them to become leaders in their communities.

“Somebody may get involved in their union because they’re concerned about a workplace issue, like needing more CNAs and support in their department,” he said. “Then they become a steward and defend workers’ rights on the job. Then they’re passing out bargaining surveys and sitting on the bargaining team. Then they’re testifying in front of the Governor on staffing levels. To see someone do that in nine months or a year, where they go from just becoming involved to being an advocate and having a voice in their community, that’s why we do this work.”

One of his stewards wanted to become a deacon in his church, but didn’t have the confidence for public speaking. After being a steward for a few years and building his leadership skills, he finally realized his dream to become a deacon.

“I’ve seen people become stewards and then testify on housing in front of City Council because through this experience, they developed the skills they needed to become more involved in their communities and our democracy,” said Van Meter. “What I’m most excited about is providing skills, trainings, certificate programs, symposiums, public education events, study groups and reading groups for union members and workers in every corner of Maine so that they too can participate more in their working lives and their communities.”

He says one of his goals is to be able to create opportunities for Mainers to share their work experiences and connect them in a longterm dialogue about work, their working lives and the labor movement. He plans to do empirical research to explore the lives of those often excluded from our history — like domestic workers, farmworkers and workers in gig economy — and what stories they have for the broader labor movement. He is currently working on a book for a popular press on class formation and the changing notion of class from the 1940s and the present, including autoworkers, homemakers, students, gig and temporary workers. He is also excited to continuing his research in labor history and labor studies to provide a richer understanding of labor history in the United States.

“One of my focuses will be on workplace democracy and how workers councils, labor organizing and workers’ organizations create democracy at work and what that means,” he said. “This job allows me to do the academic work, the popular work, the training and allows me to teach. It allows a whole richness of opportunities. Honestly this is a dream come true.”