Last month, I debated Mark Blitz, a Straussian neocon and former Reagan Administration official, and now professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, about the politics of freedom. Throughout the debate, Blitz expressed some skepticism about my account of coercion in the workplace.
At one slightly tense moment, I confronted Blitz directly about the situation of the workers at his college (1:08:35 in the video).
Robin: Let me ask you another question. You teach at Claremont McKenna College. Are the staff there—and by that I mean the custodial workers, the clerical workers—are they unionized?
Blitz: I would say that most people who are familiar with colleges everywhere recognize that they’re good places to work. They’re very good places to work if you’re tenured faculty, of course. But a lot of that carries on down through so that most people in my college and I believe other colleges have fairly wide protections. I would also say that most people in my colleges and other colleges would face a situation in which it would be extraordinary if the kinds of thing you’re talking about as reasons for firing actually occurred and even more extraordinary if they came to light and the managers who were involved in them were not themselves let go or fired. Again, it could turn out that if one had the vision which would enable one to see precisely what’s happening in each place, what I’m saying is wrong. But it’s my experience of any college actually that I’ve worked in, and it’s my experience working in government as well, of course.
Robin: Let me just add one thing. I’ve noticed this among many college professors, whether they’re on the left or the right, that they actually oftentimes don’t know the conditions of employment of the staff that works at their institutions. They oftentimes conflate their own working conditions—which if you’re a professor with tenure are quite good; you have a tremendous amount of protections—with those of the people who empty the garbage cans, who clean the dining halls, who serve the food, who really make up a large part of the staff. I oftentimes am shocked, to be honest with you, at how little familiarity—again, this is not a left or right thing—professors have about those working conditions. And I would submit that unless those workers have a union or are government workers, the facts are that they have extremely few protections on their job.
Blitz: My experience, having actually been involved in management of my own college, is that that’s not the case. Perhaps you’re right about professors generally who are ignorant of all sorts of things. But not in this case on this issue.
Claremont McKenna is part of a consortium of colleges called the “Claremont Colleges.” All seven of its campuses are adjoining and are modeled, according to the consortium’s website, on the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. In other words, each college is part of a cozy little whole. In fact, Blitz at one point in the above exchange refers to “my colleges,” perhaps for this very reason.
One of the Claremont Colleges is Pomona College. And it just so happens that there is indeed, right under Professor Blitz’s nose, a rather nasty instance of workplace coercion going on there.
In 2010, the dining hall workers at Pomona began to organize a union. Many had been working at the college for years. In 2011 the administration suddenly decided to undertake a review of the immigration status of its workers. It found problems in the files of 84 employees. Seventeen were ultimately fired; 16 of those fired worked in the dining halls, including many leading union activists. Remember: many of these men and women had been working at the College for years. Only now, in the midst of a union drive, did their immigration status become a problem that was held against them.
This was hardly the first time the college had acted against the union drive. In the summer of 2011 the administration instituted a gag rule preventing dining hall workers and students from talking to each other during the workers’ break time. That order was ultimately rescinded in the face of a pending government action against the college.
These events were hardly a state secret. They were reported in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. I had heard about them in far-off Brooklyn. Yet Professor Blitz didn’t seem to know about them at all.
Needless to say, in a climate of fear and intimidation such as this, it’s awfully difficult for workers to have a full and free debate on the merits of unionization. The dining hall workers have therefore asked the administration to sign a neutrality agreement, allowing the workers to debate this issue for themselves. Other universities, including Georgetown and Northeastern, have signed such agreements.
The workers are circulating a petition among academics calling on the administration to sign the agreement. If you want to sign the petition so that the Pomona workers can engage in this debate without fear of recrimination and retaliation, please do so here.
If you want further documentation of just how difficult it is to organize a union in the United States, and how the union election process is stacked against unions, check out this landmark study from Human Rights Watch. Additional studies can be found here, and here, and here. These will give some context for why unions are increasingly asking employers to sign neutrality agreements in advance of organizing drives.