Why faculty unions and strikes are unpleasant but necessary in higher education (an open letter to Alexander Coward)

Dear Alexander

You don’t know me and I don’t know you beyond your now viral email that I saw via Facebook, and I don’t know all the details of the striking actions taking place right now in the University of California system. From what I can gather from news accounts like this one and this one, the graduate student union and the service workers union went on a one day strike/labor action to bring attention to what I can only assume is some sort of ongoing and stalled labor negotiation.

Anyway, you sent out a long email to students where you a) said you’d be covering the classes of some striking graduate students, and b) where you go into great and poetic detail about the greatness of UC Berkeley students, about the triumph of technology, and as to why the ideals of Education trumps all.  For example, you wrote:

In order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education, and thankfully you have an opportunity to get one. I don’t just mean the education you get in class, but I mean the education you get in everything you do, every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think.

and:

Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.

That is why I am not canceling class tomorrow. Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate.

Somehow, your email “went viral,” and I suppose I’m adding to that with this post.

I think your intentions were noble– that is, I believe you when you say you weren’t trying to make a statement against the strike so much as you were trying to make a statement about Education. Now, I agree with the response of folks like Amanda Armstrong who points out in this article that students are  paying their own way through college with the help of parents (if they have the money) and zillions in student loans, and in fact “society” at large opted out of higher education a couple decades ago. And while I frankly think your email is naive and/or an example of self-serving martyrdom where you’re taking away the moral high ground from these disenfranchised grad student instructors, I am willing to believe that wasn’t your intention.

But I kind of get the impression that you don’t really know what’s going on here in terms of unions and higher education. So let me share some thoughts.

First off, if this was really a one day labor action/strike in California, it seems to me  it would have been better to encourage your students to participate in the protest, which would have helped your students to encounter the “education you get in everything you do” -type of Education you wrote about. That probably would have had a longer-lasting impression on their lives than another math class. After all, these UC labor groups supported the student rallies against the steep hike in tuition 2011; seems to me this could have been a chance to continue that lesson.

Second, I think you’re missing the point about why labor organizes into unions– everything from farm workers to baseball players to graduate students to automobile factory workers to pilots to college professors– and why those groups sometimes need to go on strike. In an ideal world, unions wouldn’t be necessary. Of course, in an ideal world we also wouldn’t need things like insurance, the police, or the fire department. And of course, we do not live in an ideal world.

I’ve been in the faculty union here at EMU since I’ve been here, 15 years now. I’ve been on strike three times–once for just a few hours, once (shortly after I got here) for a few days, and, in an especially ugly strike in 2006, for about two weeks. A long long story short, my feelings about the union are complex. There are all kinds of things the union does or doesn’t do that frustrates me and makes me feel like the union is at odds with the Educational ideals of higher education. But on the whole, I think the union is a good thing for faculty and for students. It defines the conditions of work and tenure at EMU, and since EMU is not a tier-one, elite institution like UC-Berkeley or U of Michigan or other non-unionized fancy-pants kind of university, I can’t imagine what it would be like here without a union.

Actually, I take that back– I can imagine it because I’ve seen what has happened at regional/opportunity-granting universities like EMU without unions: sudden decisions about class sizes and teaching loads with no faculty input, “furloughs,” inexplicable denial of tenure and elimination of tenure entirely, steep increases in the use of part-time instructors, on and on. We’ve had a lot of  “challenges” at EMU over the last few years to be sure, but we have’t faced these problems, and I think that’s largely because of the faculty and other labor unions on campus.

Which brings me back to the ideals of Education, the very ones you are professing, Alexander.

I think you would agree that for students to get the most out of the educational experience offered in a university, they need teachers. We can all learn things on our own of course, but education has never been about the mere delivery of content and knowledge. If it were, professors would have been replaced by textbooks centuries ago. And I also assume you would agree that the best educational experiences involve great students and great teachers, be those teachers graduate assistants, lecturers, tenure-seeking professors, etc. Now, the vast majority of people teaching in universities do it for the love of learning and the ideals of Education as a good in and of itself. But that’s not the only reason. Being a college professor/lecturer/graduate assistant is a job, and the people who perform that job are no different than anyone else in the labor force: they expect to be compensated fairly. And when professors/lecturers/ GAs don’t feel like they are being compensated fairly– when they feel like they aren’t able to uphold the ideals of the profession because of the pragmatic need and right to good wages, work conditions, insurance, and the like– they sometimes have to take action.

Alexander, I wish it didn’t have to be like this. I wish I could inhabit the ideal world you want for yourself and for your students, where values like Education didn’t have to be sullied by things like paychecks, insurance co-pays, and TIAA-CREF retirement benefits. But alas, it is what it is. Participating in the Educational Enterprise is indeed noble, and I am certain that the striking GAs would agree with you. But it’s also a job that feeds, houses, and clothes all of us, including you.

So I would suggest that your idealism about Education has forced you to overlook the realities faced by educators, and, as unintentional as it might have been, I think your lesson to students is exactly the wrong one.

Best,

–Steve

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