Archive | Labor/Workplace RSS feed for this section

Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt: Thoughts on Passover

12 Apr

The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!

Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it easy to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).

Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we have to think of emancipation in terms of possession at all. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings from Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer in Granta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”

But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.

So I asked folks on Facebook to make some suggestions for supplemental readings. Jade Larissa Schiff, a political theorist at Oberlin, suggested Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. I’ve taught this text more than a dozen times, to undergrads and grad students. But I’ve always been leery of using it at Passover. There are few things more embarrassing than being at a seder where relatively privileged people talk about being slaves. But I gave it a re-read.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit in the text that’s relevant. I don’t want to steal the thunder from our seder, but here are just a few passages that jumped out at me. I share them with you all, whether you’re going to a seder or not, in the spirit of the holiday. And in the spirit of what Walzer says about the meaning of the Exodus story in the closing passages of Exodus and Revolution:

We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics, and about its proper form:

—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

—and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

1. In this passage from chapter 6, Douglass describes his discovery of the subversive power of reading (in a later passage, he’ll describe the misery that can come with the self-knowledge that reading brings). Reading is on my mind this year for a couple of reasons. First, my six-year-old daughter began reading this past year. In the mornings, she sometimes gets up early, and sneaks a half-hour to read a page or two from one of the Harry Potter books. You can see the sense of autonomy and independence, and the subversion of authority that Douglass talks about (we try to tell her not to get up before 7), at work there.

But, second, New York, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a battle over high-stakes testing, with an increasing number of parents simply opting out of the testing regime. Last week, parents, teachers, and students at my daughter’s elementary school held a rally to protest the latest round of tests in New York. Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of the school, wrote an oped in the Times about the insanity of eight-year-olds being forced to sit for three days as their futures get determined. It’s like the bar exam!

Anyway, reading Douglass, I got to thinking about how this activity—reading—which has been a source of joy and wonder, of subversion and autonomy, for so many children across so many decades, is now being reduced to the most mindless form of drudgery on behalf of a phantom meritocracy.

Here’s Douglass:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

2. In this passage from chapter 8, Douglass describes how his grandmother was treated when she got old and sick, nearing death. Nothing more demonstrated “the infernal character of slavery,” writes Douglass, than the disregard she was shown by her master when she was no longer useful to him. The emphatic nature of this passage—the “base ingratitude” of sending someone who is no longer useful off to die being the signature of slavery—made me wonder about how we often warehouse the elderly in homes. And what kind of slavery we’re sustaining thereby. Here’s Douglass:

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny. And, to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children, having seen the beginning and end of all of them, and her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die! If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great-grandchildren….

The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

3. In this passage from chapter 10, Douglass describes the surveillance regime of one of his masters, Edward Covey. I was struck in reading this by the parallels with so many surveillance systems in the contemporary workplace, whether it be for maids in a hotel or white-collar workers. Particularly the emphasis on not knowing if you’re being watched or not.

Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun.

4. In Exodus and Revolution, Walzer points out (at least I think he does; it’s been a while) that one of the elements that made bondage in ancient Egypt bondage was the fact that the slaves had to work so much. It wasn’t merely the coerciveness, but the omnipresence, of work that they suffered and experienced as slavery. Labor was everything; labor was everywhere. In this passage, also from chapter 10, Douglass makes a similar point. It brought to mind some of the debates that several writers in and around Jacobin have been having over the last several years about the left and the politics of work: should our stance be to reform or reorganize work, to make it more just and share its burdens more equally, or to oppose it entirely, to reduce if not eliminate it? Here’s Douglass:

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.

In Egypt, indeed.

Chag Sameach.

Backlash Barbie

20 Feb

We interrupt our regularly scheduled arguing about Israel to bring you a word from our digital consigliere, Laura Brahm. Laura is a freelance writer who periodically—i.e., every day—helps me figure out what I’m doing with this blog. This is her first guest blog here.

Apparently it’s a banner time for ambiguous feminist heroes—BeyoncéClaire Underwood…and now, Barbie.

This week, she appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Mattel is marketing the campaign using the language of women’s empowerment (the hashtag is #unapologetic).Feminist Backlash Barbie

At first I thought this was funny and clever in a knowing, lipstick-feminism kind of way. Like Barbie was embracing her inner drag queen. But then things got ugly. In response to real live feminists who tried to rain on her beach party, Barbie took out a full page ad in the New York Times for an op-ed, “Why Posing for Sports Illustrated Suits Me.” She writes:

Upon the launch of this year’s 50th anniversary issue, there will again be buzz and debate over the validity of the women in the magazine, questioning if posing in it is a blow to female equality and self-image. In 2014, does any woman in the issue seriously need permission to appear there?

I suppose you could argue Barbie is indeed making a feminist rhetorical move here, insofar as she’s engaging in the time-honored practice of trashing other feminists. She goes on:

Ask yourself, isn’t it time we teach girls to celebrate who they are? Isn’t there room for capable and captivating? It’s time to stop boxing in potential. Be free to launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT.

Unless that last line is targeted at boys, she’s a little off base.

There’s been no shortage of brilliant, enraged responses to this campaign. But one aspect may get overlooked in the troll-feeding frenzy.

It’s funny Barbie should use the language of careers and the workplace. If only it really were the anti-pink, non-fun-having feminists who were holding women back from achieving their dreams or even just from being pretty at the office.

But the truth is we can’t be free to celebrate who we are at work if we have no First Amendment rights there. If we are subject to “at will” employment and have no paid parental leave or flexible hours enabling us to stay home when Skipper is sick.

In short, it’s not feminists who are telling you what color you can or cannot wear to work.

As a child, I loved Barbie. I still remember the gold lamé mini-dresses and the exciting hint of the glamour of being an independent grownup woman. But with ad campaigns like this one demonizing feminists, I will never buy her for my own daughter.

So, Barbie, I agree with you that “pink is not the problem.” But before you point your insufficiently separated finger at other women, take a closer look at your boss.

The Beauty of the Blacklist: In Memory of Pete Seeger

29 Jan

Pete Seeger’s death has prompted several reminiscences about his 1955 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). And for good reason. Two good reasons, in fact.

First, Seeger refused to answer questions about his beliefs and associations—up until the 1940s, he had been a member of the Communist Party—not on the basis of the Fifth Amendment, which protects men and women from self-incrimination, but on the basis of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.

While invoking the Fifth was not without its perils—most important, it could put someone on the blacklist; individuals who invoked it frequently found themselves without work—it had the advantage of keeping one out of jail. But the cost of the 5th was clear: though you could refuse to testify about yourself, you could not refuse to testify about others.

So Seeger invoked the First Amendment instead. A far riskier legal position—the Court had already held, in the case of the Hollywood Ten, that the First Amendment did not protect men and women who refused to testify before HUAC—it was the more principled stance. As Seeger explained later, “The Fifth means they can’t ask me, the First means they can’t ask anybody.” And he paid for it. Cited for contempt of Congress, he was indicted, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. Eventually the sentence got overturned.

Second, not only did Seeger refuse to answer questions about his associations and beliefs, but he also did it with great panache. When asked by HUAC to name names, he refused—and then almost immediately offered to sing songs instead. Much to the consternation of the Committee chair, Francis Walters, Seeger followed up with a more personal offer.

I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.

Parenthetically, I should note that Seeger’s hearings were not the only such circus of absurdity.  If you want to treat yourself to an afternoon of giggles, check out Ayn Rand’s testimony, where she insisted that no one in Russia ever smiled. Or this wondrous exchange between Zero Mostel and two members of HUAC.

Mostel: If I appeared there, what if I did an imitation of a butterfly at rest? There is no crime in making anybody laugh. I don’t care if you laugh at me.
Congressman Donald Jackson: If your interpretation of a butterfly at rest brought any money into the coffers of the Communist Party, you contributed directly to the propaganda effort of the Communist Party.
Mostel: Suppose I had the urge to do the butterfly at rest somewhere?
Congressman Clyde Doyle: Yes, but please, when you have the urge, don’t have such an urge to put the butterfly at rest by putting some money in the Communist Party coffers as a result of that urge to put a butterfly at rest.

But I digress.

While Seeger’s HUAC appearance, and its legal aftermath, is making the rounds of his eulogists, it’s important to remember that HUAC was probably not the most difficult of his tribulations during the McCarthy era. Far more toxic for most leftists was the blacklist itself. From the early 1950s to the mid-1960s (the dates are fuzzy, and it depends on which particular medium we’re talking about), Seeger was prevented from performing on a great many stages and venues. First with The Weavers, and then on his own.

The blacklist did not work independently of the state. It was the transmission belt of the state, both a feeder to, and an enforcement mechanism of, the government. Men and women who didn’t cooperate with the government were subject to the blacklist, so it was a useful means of securing cooperation and providing information. The secret enforcers of the blacklist were often ex-FBI men or ex-HUAC staffers, and the FBI and HUAC supplied critical information to industry executives and their underlings. Who then used it for either political or narrower self-interested purposes.

That said, the blacklist, and the more general specter of private penalties, touched more people than did HUAC or the state. For most men and women during the McCarthy years, the immediate point of contact with political repression and coercion was their employer, their teacher, their therapist, their lawyer, their supervisor, their co-worker.

And that raises a larger question. It is easy today to look back on that time, to read the transcripts and case histories, and tut-tut at all the nastiness or laugh at all the foolishness of the blacklist. With everyone from President Obama to the New York Times delivering warm encomia for Seeger, we forget that the blacklist only worked because so many people like President Obama, like the editors of the New York Times—who refused during the McCarthy years to hire anyone who was a member of the Communist Party—worked together to make it work.

To be sure, there were many hard-right ideologues behind the blacklist: the writers at Red Channels, an anticommunist handbook that named names in the entertainment industry, were conservative propagandists of the first order, anatomized to brilliant effect by a young researcher by the name of Michael Harrington.

But the blacklist would never have had the reach it did—not merely in Hollywood or the academy, but throughout virtually every industry in the United States—had it not attracted a wide range of men and women to its cause. The blacklist was also the work of liberal pamphleteers, executives in the culture industries, influential politicians in and around the Democratic Party, and most prominent of all, J. Edgar Hoover, about whom Arthur Schlesinger wrote:

All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.

Far from being the object of liberal derision that he is today, Hoover was, in his time, thought to be the consummate rational bureaucrat, a professional of the first order who needed, said the liberals, more money, more resources, more power, not less. As Hubert Humphrey declared:

If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.

For liberals, Hoover, the ultimate impresario of the blacklist, was someone to collaborate with, not contend against.

The blacklist, as Victor Navasky reminded us long ago, was the triumphant realization of a perverse version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Everyone pursued their own private or personal definition of the good; the result was cooperation, exchange—and coercion. What’s most striking about the blacklist is just how diversely inspired, and collaborative, its various protagonists were. Some were hardcore anticommunist true believers. Others were cold calculators of the bottom line. Some were patriots, others careerists, and still others cowards. There were liberals, conservatives, socialists, ex-communists, atheists, Catholics, libertarians, Jews.

Most amazingly, these differences didn’t matter. Despite what virtually every modern political theorist—from Hobbes to Montesquieu to Madison—maintains, pluralism and diversity did not lead to liberty, anarchy, or disorder. Instead, they provided more avenues and opportunities for collusion, collaboration, and coercion.

Beyond the collusion and collaboration, there’s another dimension of the blacklist worth mentioning: the intense and dense infrastructure of support, at the lowest levels, that made the machine go. When we think about political repression, we tend to focus on elites, officials on high, industry executives, and the like. But the blacklist was the work of hundreds of thousands of men and women, operating at the middling and lower tiers of institutions and organizations.

In some way, we could say that the blacklist is the dark answer to Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads.” Long invoked by the left as a tribute to the anonymous laboring heroes of history, the poem can also be read as a more unsettling account of the invisible but necessary labor that goes into the production of political crimes like aggressive war or imperial conquest.

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.

So many questions.

“Did he not even have a cook with him?” That question is often with me. Not just in the context of the blacklist, but in other, far more terrible circumstances. Like genocide.

This past weekend I watched “Conspiracy” on Youtube. It’s a BBC reenactment of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which various officials (many now forgotten) of the Nazi regime gathered to draw up plans for the deportation and mass murder of the Jews. The opening sequence of the film—in which the house staff at the villa on the Wannsee scramble to prepare for the arrival of regime’s elite—does a brilliant job of answering Brecht’s question. Yes, there were cooks at Wannsee. Lots of them. And maids, waiters, butlers, secretaries, transcriptionists, drivers: an entire army of support staff helping to make the conference go off without a hitch. Eichmann, who organized the logistics of the conference, comes off less as an architect of mass murder than as an anxious host of a dinner party, the Martha Stewart of the Shoah.

Hart Crane marveled at the Brooklyn Bridge: “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” And like the Brooklyn Bridge, large-scale enterprises like genocide or the blacklist—needless to say, I am in no way equating these phenomena—entail the aligning of choiring strings. Not only through spectacular mobilization of the masses or ideological indoctrination from on high but also through the most mundane and individual calculations of career.

Political crime is work. Whether the crime is mass murder or persecution, someone has to do that work. And to help the people who do that work. So men and women must be hired and paid, supervised and promoted.

At the height of European imperialism, Disraeli wrote, “The East is a career.” So was the Holocaust. So was the blacklist.

While we rightly recall today the heroism of Pete Seeger in refusing to make the blacklist a career—indeed, sacrificing his career in order to unmake the blacklist—we have to ask ourselves how many of us would have chosen the path he did. Particularly in the United States, where the obligations of career are nearly the first item on our list of civic duties.

When Professors Oppose Unions

4 Dec

Rick Perlstein has a great piece on how faculty respond to grad student unions.

He quotes at length from a letter that a professor of political science at the University of Chicago sent to graduate students in his department who are trying to organize a union there.

What always amuses me about these sorts of statements from faculty is how carefully crafted and personal they are—you can tell a lot of time and thought went into this one—and yet somehow they still manage to attain all the individuality of a Walmart circular. No union contract was ever as standardized or as cookie-cutter as one of these missives. The very homogenization and uniformity that faculty fear a union will foist upon their campus is already present in their own aversion.

Anyway, here’s what the good professor has to say:

First off, let me preface these remarks by saying that when I was in graduate school at Berkeley in the 1990s, I was very active in the graduate student unionization movement. I was shop steward for the political science department for several years and was very active in a three week campus wide teaching strike we held in the fall of 1992. It may also be worth mentioning that I come from a working class family (I was the first and only person in my family to go to college) and I grew up around a lot of issues of collective bargaining. So I’m highly sympathetic to issues of collective action.

The I-come-from-a-working-class-background-my-dad-was-in-a-union-my-aunt-fucked-Walter-Reuther-I-organized-the-workers-at-Flint-this-may-come-as-a-surprise-but-I-actually-am-Cesar-Chavez opening. Check.

That said, I found your co-signed letter to be naive, unconvincing, and, quite frankly, kind of offensive. It is naive in that you seem to really think a union would not change relationships between graduate students and the faculty. I don’t know if either of you have ever been members of a union or worked in a unionized environment, but unions inevitably alter the relationships between union members and the people the interact with, be they management, clients, customers, or what not. The formalization of such relationships is, in fact, the central goal of a union. Your letter says “Our goal is simply to gain a voice in the decisions that affect our working conditions.” Well, these decisions are largely made by the faculty. Thus, if you want a collectivized voice in these decisions, you will be unavoidably shaping your relationships to faculty members.

We make all the decisions around here. Check. (Ask that professor if he even knows how much you make as a TA; they almost never do, though this one seems to. One point for research.)

The union will screw up your very close and personal relationship with your adviser. Check.

Oddly, when you point out that relationships between students and professors at Berkeley, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of which have unions, are not that different from relationships between students and professors at Chicago, Yale, and Harvard, these peer institutions that these professors would be thrilled to get their students a job at suddenly become tarred with that dreaded word “public” or even worse “state school.”

And when you ask these professors to explain, concretely, why it makes a difference that Berkeley is public and Chicago is private, a thoughtful look will inevitably descend upon them, as they slowly emit the following carefully chosen words: “Well, it’s different at Berkeley. They’re a public university.”

What’s more egregious is the fact that most of the faculty I know do not think of interns [the University of Chicago's term for teaching assistants] as employees but think of the internship as another educational experience.

You’re students, not workers. Check.

Though this one has a novel twist: we, the faculty, think of you as students, not workers.

And just like that, our hard-bitten empiricist turns into the most starry-eyed constructivist.

And now comes the climax.

Every year there are hundreds of applicants for a very small number of slots to study here. You are very lucky to be here, just as I am very lucky to teach here. When you were admitted to the university, you were not hired. You were offered a spot as a student. The university owes you nothing beyond what it initially proposed and what you accepted. To call yourself an employee and complain about an absence of cost-of-living adjustments, health insurance, or the burdens of being a graduate student…sounds both presumptuous and petulant.

You’re privileged, presumptuous, and petulant. Check.

I, on the other hand, am…just another tenured professor at a fancy school. Saying what every other tenured professor at a fancy school has said to any one of his students who managed to tell him that she wanted to form a union too.

Check check check.

Academia: the herd of independent minds.

ALEC supports worker collectivism and redistribution of wealth

8 Nov

From Gordon Lafer’s report for the Economic Policy Institute:

In Wyoming, a bill co-sponsored by a group of ALEC-affiliated legislators and backed by the Restaurant Association would have given employers the right to force employees to pool their tips.159 While employees may have previously pooled tips, this was done voluntarily. In many restaurants, bussers, who are legally considered tipped employees, in fact receive little tip income.160 In such cases, employers are required to pay them the regular minimum wage. By forcing more highly tipped wait staff to pool earnings, employers may avoid this obligation—essentially cutting the take-home pay of wait staff by making them pay the bussers’ wages, with employers pocketing the difference as increased profits.

In 2011, Maine legislators adopted a new law declaring that “service charges” do not legally constitute tips, and that they are therefore not the property of wait staff and may be taken by the employer.161 The statute—sponsored by an ALEC task force member and supported by the Restaurant Association—does not require restaurants to notify customers that the “service charge” does not go to servers; many patrons likely believe this charge constitutes the gratuity, and therefore provide little if any additional tip.162 As in Wyoming, then, the Maine law constitutes a direct transfer of income from employees to owners, accomplished through the latter’s political power.

Footnote 162 reads as follows: “The law stipulates that an ‘employer in a banquet or private club setting may use some or all of any service charge to meet its obligation to compensate all employees’”.

Right to Work Laws are Good for Unions, but not for the Chamber of Commerce

7 Nov

The Chamber of Commerce is one of the biggest advocates in the US of right to work laws, which allow individual workers to get the benefits of a union contract without paying union dues. Their purpose is to make it harder for unions to collect dues and thereby weaken them financially.

Back in 2005, a member organization of the Chamber of Commerce in Owensboro, Kentucky asked the Chamber if it could stop paying dues to the Chamber yet still get the benefits. This is what the Chamber said:

The vast majority of the Chamber’s annual revenues come from member dues, and it would be unfair to the other 850+ members to allow an organization not paying dues to be including in member benefits.

Hard to argue with that.

The Right to an Education: This Won’t Hurt a Bit

30 Oct

Gawker recently obtained the audiotape of a captive audience meeting at a firm in Georgia where truckers are trying to organize a union. Anti-union employers often hold these mandatory meetings, where they subject employees to extended lectures on the evils and ills of unionization.

As captive audience meetings go, this one is relatively benign. The workers speak up, some voice tentative pro-union sympathy, there’s a back and forth, there’s little intimidation, not even of the more informal or implicit variety. That’s often not the case.

Even so, the tape has some creepy moments that reveal the paternalism of management’s opposition to unions and its treatment of workers more generally.

Early in the tape, a manager tells the workers:

We have the right to educate you and we’re going to exercise that right.

Set aside the assumption that management is a wise teacher; the worker, an ignorant student.

There’s a menacing quality to the statement, which is peculiar if you think about it. The right to an education is usually invoked by and on behalf of students, not teachers. It’s a claim to agency by the powerless, not an assertion of prerogative by the powerful. It references an active process—as much as they demand to be educated, so do students promise to educate themselves. Here, however, education denotes an entirely passive process, where the teacher crams information down the student’s throat.

Perhaps that’s why one worker slyly raises his hand to ask, “And those of us who choose not to be educated?” As if he’s talking about root canal or some experimental surgery.

Later on in the tape, another manager says of the captive audience meeting and the “facts” they’re giving the workers:

This truly is for your best interests.

Libertarians and conservatives like to claim that unions violate not only the freedom of the individual but also her dignity and autonomy. That’s because, the argument goes, the union (and its allies in government) presumes to know better than the individual worker what is or is not in her interests. It’s the nanny and the nanny state.

Yet as the tape reveals, it’s management who truly makes that claim. Sometimes explicitly, as is the case here, sometimes implicitly. What, after all, is the premise, if not the point, of the captive audience meeting other than that the worker is not in a position to know what’s good for her?

Captive audience meetings don’t dwell on how a union will hurt management, though there’s that, too. (At one point, a manager tells the workers, “You mentioned for me guys and I know a couple of you all say don’t take it personally. I can’t help take it personally…It does hurt, it does sting.”)

No, the purpose of the meeting is to explain to workers how a union will hurt them. Because they’re not educated, see?

How I Met Your Mother, or, When Unions Disrupt the Disruptors

20 Oct

On December 23, 2005, I went out on a date. It was one day after the transit strike that crippled New York had ended. I was in a foul mood.

The night before, you see, I had been on another date. Throughout dinner, the woman I was out with complained about the transit strike. About how much she was inconvenienced (she worked in the publishing industry and her commute into Manhattan had been screwed up), how good the workers had it, how bad public sector unions were.

So on the night of the 23rd, as I walked into the bar, I was ready for the worst. When I met the woman I was due to have a drink with, I asked her how she was doing. “Oh fine,” she said, “if you like meeting strange men at bars.” (We had met online; this was our first date.) “Well,” I said, “I can make this really easy on you. Where do you stand on the transit strike?” She replied instantly: “You’ve got a bunch of working-class people led by a guy with a really cool Caribbean accent. What’s not to like?” On the right side, not too earnest, with just a touch of irony.

Seventeen months later, we were married.

All of which is to say: I really hate privileged people complaining about public-sector unions, especially when those unions make things inconvenient for them.

On Friday, the transit workers who run BART in the Bay Area went on strike. The technorati pounced, complaining about the workers’ salaries and the hassle of their interrupted commutes. My  favorite tweet, making fun of the whole phenomenon, was this one:

BART workers make a base pay of about $60,000. That’s $15,000 less than what it takes for a family of four “to get by” in the Bay Area. Even if you assume that that family has two wage earners making $60,000 apiece, that combined salary would put them above the median household income for the Bay Area but hardly make them rich. Which is exactly what union jobs are supposed to do.

But in the imagination of the high-tech professionals of the Bay Area, that’s precisely the problem with union jobs. (Or perhaps they have no idea what a middle-class life actually looks like—and costs.)

In any event, union workers—and union workers on strike—really piss these people off. So much so that one Twitter exec blurted this out:

What’s brown and black and looks great on someone causing the #BARTstrike? A Doberman. (Toooo angry? Long day in the car.)

As it happens, wages aren’t even the real issue dividing the BART workers from management. It’s work rules, and more important, control over work rules. Turns out transit workers like to have some control over their working environment. Not unlike all those high tech assholes in Silicon Valley.

The technorati like to think of themselves and their gizmos as “disruptors.” They want to see  everything disrupted—except their morning commute.

Upstairs, Downstairs at the University of Chicago

8 Oct

Back in May at the University of Chicago, this happened (h/t Micah Uetricht):

Two locksmiths with medical conditions were told to repair locks on the fourth floor of the Administration Building during the day. Stephen Clarke, the locksmith who originally responded to the emergency repair, has had two hip replacement surgeries during his 23 years as an employee of the University. According to Clarke, when he asked Kevin Ahn, his immediate supervisor, if he could use the elevator due to his medical condition, Ahn said no. Clarke was unable to perform the work, and Elliot Lounsbury, a second locksmith who has asthma, was called to perform the repairs. Lounsbury also asked Ahn if he could use the elevator to access the fourth floor, was denied, and ended up climbing the stairs to the fourth floor.

The reason Clarke and Lounsbury were told they had to walk up four flights of stairs—with their hip replacements and asthma—is that the University of Chicago has had a policy of forbidding workers from using the elevators in the Administration Building during daytime hours. As the university’s director of labor relations put it: “The University has requested that maintenance and repair workers should normally use the public stairway in the Administration Building rather than the two public elevators.”

Upstairs, downstairs was once a metaphor for how the lower and higher orders of Edwardian Britain lived (servants downstairs, masters upstairs). Nowadays, it’s a literal rendition of the lives of workers at our most elite universities.

After five months of agitation, including the threat of a rally and support from undergraduates and graduate students who are organizing their own union, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer has at last issued a statement reversing the policy: “Let me state in the simplest of terms what the policy actually is: the elevators are for everybody’s use.”

If this is what it takes workers to be able to use an elevator at an elite university, a university that is very much in the public eye and susceptible to public pressure, what must it take workers around the country, in small factories and far-off hamlets, to secure more basic rights and privileges? This is a question I wish our academic theorists of democracy would think some more about.

Study Finds Grad Student Unions Actually Improve Things

8 Oct

From Inside Higher Ed:

The authors of a paper released this year surveyed similar graduate students at universities with and without unions about pay and also the student-faculty relationship. The study found unionized graduate students earn more, on average. And on various measures of student-faculty relations, the survey found either no difference or (in some cases) better relations at unionized campuses.

The paper (abstract available here) appears in ILR Review, published by Cornell University.

“These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees,” says the paper, by Sean E. Rogers, assistant professor of management at New Mexico State University; Adrienne E. Eaton, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University; and Paula B. Voos, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers.

Much of the study focuses on student-faculty relations, and whether — as union critics fear — the presence of collective bargaining turns a mentoring relationship into an adversarial one. The graduate students were asked to respond to a series of statements about their professors as a measure of how they perceived their relationships. On many issues, there were not statistically significant differences. But on a number, the differences pointed to better relations at unionized campuses. Unionized graduate students were more likely than others to say their advisers accepted them as professionals, served as role models for them and were effective in their roles.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,590 other followers