The United Campus Workers of Georgia is the first union for public university employees in Georgia. Key members point to Annelie Klein for spearheading its creation, but Klein said she’s had difficulties seeing the activist in herself.
Klein is a student affairs specialist and graduate coordinator assistant at the University of Georgia. She described her job as guiding Ph.D. students in two programs in the school of pharmacy from their application to the time they graduate or matriculate. She is also in charge of a residency program of 20-22 students.
As far as leisure time goes, Klein doesn’t have much since she helped found and lead UCWGA as a member on its steering committee. Tom Smith, the lead organizer for United Campus Workers, who worked and continues to work closely with Klein attested to this.
“If this work was easy, it would have happened already. Everything that she’s been involved in doing has been stuff that, in so many other contexts, people would say is impossible. People would tell you it’s impossible for state workers in Georgia to build a union,” Smith said.
History explains the present
The idea to unionize sparked in November 2016 at a protest about the university’s implementation of the Fair Labor Standards Act at the Arch, but Klein identifies roots of her concern for others’ wellbeing in her childhood.
Klein’s father was an immigrant from Germany who attended Auburn University. He was involved in an international student organization and Klein said her family often hosted other international students.
“I got exposed to a lot of people from a lot of different parts of the world, and I think that my eyes were open that there are other cultures and other people out there,” Klein said.
The Klein household was open to more than international students. Two of Klein’s four brothers were adopted after her family fostered them for four years. Klein said her parents sat her down when she was four and explained that her and her older brother’s lives were about to change.
As the children grew up, Klein said she defended her younger foster brother in school when he was picked on by other kids and she said she sees a connection between that and her activism now.
“I definitely did a lot of standing up for what I thought was right, making sure he wasn't picked on because he had already been so abused. So that's where a lot of that comes from,” Klein said.
She also said she remembers distinct instances from her childhood where she discerned when something was right or wrong.
“I was in a small town at a courthouse, and I remember seeing water fountains labeled, still, and this was in the 1970s, with the same plaques … I saw racism. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know how to label it, but I knew it was wrong,” Klein said.
Conversely, Klein said she was also exposed to an environment that fostered inclusivity at a Montessori School, which use a child-centered educational approach, that she attended for a few years.
“It was an incredible experience, and everybody was welcomed no matter your gender, race or anything like that, and the flow of the way they treated people with respect and dignity … that was probably part also of me realizing that we had to think about those types of things,” Klein said.
Co-founders to friends
Joe Fu, a mathematics professor at UGA, and another member of the UCWGA steering committee, said he and Klein became good friends in the process of starting the union. As good friends do, Fu said Klein has helped hold him accountable.
“On at least one occasion she kinda called me out for my behaviors or things I said, but she did it in a way that was, you know, true to her feelings and yet courteous and respectful to me,” Fu said. “You need somebody who will push you sometimes but will do it in a spirit of love, and that’s what she’s done.”
Fu has worked closely with Klein after they first met at the FLSA protest. Klein recalled a moment when both of their eyes lit up when they realized they were both serious about doing more than protesting; they wanted to unionize.
Two becomes three, which becomes a union
Shortly thereafter, Fu and Klein coincidentally ran Smith at a meeting organized by the Economic Justice Coalition. Smith recognized Klein had a talent for public speaking that day.
“It was clear to me right away that Annelie was able to describe issues that really impact people in a way that helps other folks understand it and that she was very passionate about it,” Smith said.
Smith said he also recognized some of Klein’s capacities for leadership in that instance.
“It was pretty clear to me from that very first meeting that Annelie is a real leader who has this ability to take hard, complicated situations that people experience and describe them in a way that can help folks do something about it,” Smith said.
Although Smith said he recognized Klein was a leader from the beginning, he said there’s something about her that makes her more than just a leader.
“The best leaders are folks that help other people become leaders, and I think Annelie has really done that consistently, looking for people that she knows or making new relationships and planning ways for those people to have a real stake, a real role, for those people to improve their lives,” Smith said.
Leaving fear behind
Smith said he’s seen changes in Klein from when everything began. Although Klein communicated in an “approachable and succinct” way from the beginning, she also dealt with a lot of fear, Smith said.
“That fear, that trepidation is gone and replaced with this real sense of purpose and self-empowerment. As an organizer, it’s a pretty awesome experience to get to be around somebody when they go through a transformation like that,” Smith said.
Fu said he’s noticed how working with Annelie has in turn changed him. As faculty who receives tenure, Fu said he struggled with feeling he rightfully had a spot in and role to play with the union as he himself is not seriously affected by many of the things the UCWGA has fought for.
“Just knowing that she appreciated my support was important. I had doubts about whether I was actually doing something positive in this group, but she was very clear about that, that it was meaningful to her,” Fu said.
Despite encouraging others and outwardly appearing confident, Klein said she still struggles with owning the identity as an advocate.
“I have all my organizers and people saying, ‘Annelie, you’re part of the reason we’re here, and you’re a big part of the reason we’re here,’ and I don’t … Yeah. I need a little bit more of my own medicine that I give to others. Confidence-wise, that kind of stuff,” Klein said.
Feeling confident in what she’s done has been difficult for Klein, but she said she’s beginning to come to terms with it and own her role as an activist.
“I’m an advocate,” Klein said with a laugh. “That’s what changed. I guess I have a label now. I’m an activist. Jesus. I’m gonna get a T-shirt.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Klein's father as an employee of Auburn University. He attended Auburn University. The Red & Black regrets this error and it has since been fixed.