This summer, UW–Madison Continuing Studies was pleased to welcome Dr. Ericka Wills to its School for Workers, where she offers courses in labor history, globalization, labor film, union leadership and other topics. Below she shares how her childhood inspired her field of research in workers’ rights and what excites her most about her new role.
Hometown: I grew up in central Illinois in the small farming community of Colfax, about 25 miles outside of Bloomington/Normal. It is like a lot of rural towns in Wisconsin.
Educational/professional background: My educational background is diverse, from a small rural public school to an overseas private university and a range of schools in between. After this variety of experiences, I became very committed to furthering the mission of public institutions that are committed to providing high-quality education to both local students and those from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. For me, this naturally led to the type of social, community and worker development that I was drawn to in the labor movement.
How did you get into your field of research?
When I was 6 years old, my grandpa died of mesothelioma/asbestosis after working as a very young man for United Asbestos and Rubber Company (UNARCO). My earliest memories are of a healthy man I loved wasting away from industrial homicide (a term used by Mexican union Los Mineros President and General Secretary Sen. Napoleón Gómez Urrutia). Eventually, my grandpa became a member of Carpenters Local Union 63, and he fought and went on strike for safe working conditions, not knowing the damage that had already been done to his body. This early experience deeply shaped how I saw the world around me. As I felt my education was leading me further from the on-the-ground struggles of working people, I became increasingly engaged with the U.S. and transnational labor movement as a way to organize and fight for the rights of working people.
What attracted you to the University of Wisconsin–Madison?
I grew up visiting Madison and already loved the city! I had become aware of the School for Workers as a unique program that provides union and worker education as well as labor scholarship and activism. After years of working directly for unions and universities as separate entities, I knew this was the best program that would allow me to integrate these passions.
Tell us what you’ll be doing in your role as an assistant professor and what most excites you about the position.
In my role at School for Workers, I will be doing everything I can to help working people through education, research and activism. For me, these are inextricable activities, where boots-on-the-ground work leads me to learn what education needs exist. Those experiences demonstrate the kind of research that can make a real impact on working people’s lives.
What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
The most important thing I want students to come away from any of my classes with is a sense of empowerment that they have the right to create and engage in a democratic workplace. In doing so, they are honoring the men and women, like my grandpa, who gave their lives in the fight for safe workplaces, fair wages and dignity at work.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at work?
My escape is British mystery books, films and TV shows. I love the classics. I also enjoy decorating for holidays and creating a place of comfort and relaxation at home.