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Former AFSCME Union Scholar makes the fight of workers the centerpiece of his writing career

Photo: Ed Robertson/Unsplash
By Pete Levine ·
Former AFSCME Union Scholar makes the fight of workers the centerpiece of his writing career
Matthew Cunningham-Cook

When Matthew Cunningham-Cook won an AFSCME Union Scholarship in 2011, he was already mid-stride in his fight to illuminate the struggles that workers face. Even at 21, he knew that his commitment to labor would go beyond the 2-month internship.

Cunningham-Cook spent his Union Scholar summer in New York, at DC 37, where he researched cultural institutions and charter schools that the 150,000-member affiliate was hoping to organize. He also brought his talents as a writer to PEP – the Public Employee Press, DC 37’s newspaper.

“It was great,” recalls Cunningham-Cook, who was then an undergraduate at Earlham College, in Indiana. “Learning more about organizing was really great, and then the educational program that AFSCME put together was also fantastic. It was amazing.”

The Union Scholars program, an immersive, paid internship that places students of color in real-world organizing experiences within AFSCME wasn’t Cunningham-Cook’s first time working in the labor movement. But it was a crucial stepping stone, an application of the tools he was beginning to sharpen.

Cunningham-Cook, who was raised in Brattleboro, Vermont, had already done a stint at Working America, a grassroots arm of the AFL-CIO that educates and mobilizes communities on issues like jobs, health care and Social Security. When he was going through his Union Scholar summer, the concerns that would come to fuel his career – the intersection of race and labor, the failure of big media to accurately cover workers and to check big corporations – were already coalescing.

There were personal motivations, too.

“I’ve had people close to me experience deep poverty,” says Cunningham-Cook. He saw how effective unions were at reducing poverty, how workers who belonged to unions experienced the union difference.

“I saw what unions are and what they do,” says Cunningham-Cook. “I’d see stories that were amazing – public sector and hotel workers winning these transformative first contracts that change the trajectory of people’s lives. That experience of workers experiencing extreme levels of exploitation and disrespect, taking on their bosses – that’s very much an animating principle in my life.”

Cunningham-Cook would go on to channel his passions into a career that has found him with one foot in labor – he’s served as an in-house researcher for several unions – and as a journalist.

His writing has been published in Salon, The Intercept, Jacobin, The American Prospect and more. Most recently, he’s become a staff writer at The Lever, an investigative news outlet. He also lends his labor expertise to academia.

“I need to do both writing and labor, just for the type of personality that I am,” says Cunningham-Cook. “I want to keep writing stories that people read and help workers understand their employers and successfully win organizing campaigns and first contracts.”

If you’re a college student interested in social justice and workers’ rights, please consider applying for AFSCME’s Union Scholar program.

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