The two main characters in Samuel Beckett’s most famous play have been the subject of much speculation. One eminent scholar noted that Vladimir and Estragon sounded as if they had earned PhDs.
“How do you know they hadn’t?” Beckett, the provocateur, replied.
Act I: Two tenured faculty members, somewhere at a bleak university in the middle of nowhere, are sitting next to a crumbling wall in the quad. Professor Vladimir and Associate Professor Estragon are talking about budget cutbacks, the mysterious disappearance of office staff and part-time faculty, and how good things used to be.
“We were respectable in those days,” Vladimir tells Estragon. “Now it’s too late.”
All will be fine, they tell each other, as long as they sit patiently, hold the terrible silence at bay, and wait for Norma Rae. As soon as she arrives, they are sure to recognize her. They’ve heard reports. She has her PhD, too. Surely, it would take someone of great education and incredible talent. Plus, she probably has tenure and not too great a teaching load. She is not a complete stunner, they’ve heard. Cute, though. She may look like Sally Field. Or not. Rumors are rampant.
“We’re saved!” they cry several times when they think that Norma Rae may be near.
Act I closes, however, with no Norma Rae. During intermission, outside the bleak university stage, events move quickly, as collective bargaining fails in Ohio and Wisconsin, as state houses and senates across the country enact draconian cuts to public higher education, as students face tuition spikes that force them to take on higher debt loads or drop out of school entirely.
Act II opens with moments of hope. Vladimir occasionally rouses himself with his own rhetoric. “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! [Pause. Vehemently.] Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed.”
By the end of the play, Norma Rae still has not appeared. The professors are weary, irritated by their health benefits being cut and contemplating phased retirement.
“We’ll retire tomorrow,” declares Vladimir, then pauses. “Unless Norma Rae comes.”
Estragon: “And if she comes?”
Vladimir: “We’ll be saved.”
Outside the theater of the university, Crystal Lee Sutton, the woman who inspired the movie Norma Rae, died of brain cancer in 2009, a few months after her insurance company delayed her treatment. She was sixty-eight. Sutton was seventeen when she began working at the J. P. Stevens plant. Her moment of fame came when she was thirty-three, making $2.65 an hour folding towels.
“I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word UNION on it in big letters, got up on my work table, and slowly turned it around,” she recalled in an interview for Alamance Community College, where she was a student. “The workers started cutting their machines off and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet.” Sutton was physically removed from the plant by police. Within a year, in 1974, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union won the right to represent the workers at the plant.
Whom are we waiting for?
When I joined the AAUP over fifty years ago the motto of Academic Freedom for a Free Society was really the hallmark of the organization. However, in reading the current issue which starts with an editorial exhorting unionization, and contains articles about Wisconsin and Puerto Rico that support the same objective, I wonder what AAUP's true mission is. In the articles, the objective to blunt the circular advantage of PUBLIC employee unions (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours) is totally lost, while the texts purport that the state government's effort is to "bash" (your words) ALL unions. Further, the texts aver that the issue of fiscal soundness is but a smoke screen, but there is no examination of the current and actuarial obligations imposed by union dictated pension systems. And finally the issues are politicized by stating that the actions are somehow connected to the Republican Right. Shame!
I am disappointed at the one-sided (and in some cases inaccurate) statements in these articles, and further disappointed that AAUP has drifted from its originally stated mission.
E. G. M.