Learning from Wisconsin

It's time to discard the pernicious hierarchical structures that prevent faculty members from seeing themselves as part of a campus community of workers.
By Jamie Owen Daniel

Like thousands of other people from around the country and, indeed, around the world, I was heartened and inspired by the tenacity, immediacy, and creativity of the pushback by Wisconsin’s public-sector unions against Governor Scott Walker’s unscrupulous moves to eviscerate their collective bargaining rights. And like many others who made the trek to Madison to stand, march, and holler in solidarity, I was exhilarated by the deafening emotional force of the students, union members, and just plain decent citizens chanting in the capitol rotunda (“Whose house? Our house!”). Entire families, parish groups, scout troops, and tribal councils gathered in unprecedented numbers, day after day, in the snow and wind outside the building to reinforce the message to the legislature: this is what democracy looks like.

And, like so many others from the academy and from the labor movement who have written about these weeks of muscular union visibility, I hoped, and continue to hope, that “Wisconsin” will represent an irreversible moment, a moment when the labor movement began to actually move again, as unions, certainly, but also as an essential component in broader struggles for justice. The various unions in the public and private sectors have all too often been moribund, or at best reactive, since the 2008 election.

Yes, it made sense to extend to the new Obama administration a grace period in which to make good on its campaign promises to shore up labor rights.

Many believed that the administration would support the employee Free Choice act for which Senator Edward Kennedy had fought so hard. An incorrect assumption, sadly.

The honeymoon was over a long time ago, and since then we have seen the administration remain silent on far too many challenges to the rule of law, at least here in the United States, especially when it pertains to laws that protect workers’ rights. Just consider the policies that have been promoted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, which seem to support the bizarre assumption that teaching in public schools is a kind of starter job, something a recent college graduate can do (through Teach for America, for example) before moving on to a more permanent, and more lucrative, position.

And, of course, the silence of the White House on the blatant lawlessness of the machinations in the Wisconsin statehouse was as loud and clear as the chanting of those inside. The message to those standing in the cold in Madison was impossible to miss: “Yes, you can, but don’t expect any help from us.”

In contrast, then, to a number of exuberant articles that have celebrated “Wisconsin” as a kind of automatic game changer, I would like to offer a more cautious and skeptical approach to what the events in Wisconsin could and should teach us, limiting myself to those of us working in higher education. If we are going to survive the current legislative, financial, and ideological assaults on education, we need to change our own habits of response—and our assumptions about how our campus workplaces are related to other working contexts.

Countering the Right

One of the most effective ideological strategies being used by the Right now is one that has been used by employers trying to bust unions for more than a century: singling out particular groups of workers and targeting them as parasites on the larger social body. In the meatpacking houses of Chicago, to cite but one well-known example, we saw employers pitting workers against one another on the basis of racial or ethnic differences, differences that were then used to reward some workers and demonize others—thereby making it seem that one group of workers was to blame for the other’s problems. Such strategies worked: they distracted workers from recognizing the extent to which their work, as well as their power at work, required interdependence.

We saw this strategy used in Wisconsin as well as in New Jersey, Ohio, and other states over the past months. Public-sector workers, including all categories of teachers, were accused of taking resources away from other citizens of the state because, in the midst of a financial crisis, they had managed to have health insurance, pensions, vacation and sick-leave benefits, and relative job security. Why did they still have these benefits? They had negotiated collective bargaining agreements with the state; therefore, according to the Republican line, taking away those rights would make the citizens of Wisconsin more “equal.”

The rallies and other events throughout Wisconsin countered this pernicious scapegoating by emphasizing that teachers and other public-sector workers were also parents, parish or synagogue members, and Brownie troop leaders—and that the work they did was essential to and rooted in the well-being of entire communities. Moreover, those communities recognized that fact. Hundreds of demonstrators’ signs thanked teachers for having taught the sign-bearers to read, for example, or to understand math. Farmers arrived on tractors to support public-sector snowplow drivers. Without their plowing during Wisconsin’s winters, those farmers wouldn’t have been able to get to feed stores or get their kids bused to school.

One of the most valuable lessons from Wisconsin, then, is that the response to divisive ideology should emphasize common cause—both among the various workers under attack and their broader communities. Whereas Walker separated groups off and ranked them hierarchically as being either “worthy” (us) or “parasitical” (them), the demonstrations emphasized and strengthened relationships among unions, union members, and everyone who benefited from the work of unions. It therefore made perfect sense that everyone got free pizza from Ian’s nonunion pizzeria, delivered by twentysomethings, and free bratwursts from the building trades workers, because everyone’s work and everyone’s contribution to the struggle at hand was respected and honored.

How can we carry this lesson of pizzas and brats from Wisconsin into our higher education workplaces?

First, and immediately, we need to discard the tired old structures of hierarchization and stratification that too often prevent faculty members from understanding themselves as part of a departmental community or a campus community—let alone a broader community of people working on a campus. As Gary Rhoades pointed out in an excellent and prescient column in the January–February 2011 issue of Academe, our workplaces are “stratified . . . environments that cultivate status anxiety” and lead faculty members to self-isolate by rank—from non–tenure track to assistant, associate, and full professor—and invent all kinds of reasons to perpetuate divisions among people who are often doing similar and interdependent work within their disciplines.

This self-stratification results in a level of self-blinding that, I would argue, exceeds that found in almost any other industry. We have in recent years and in the pages of professional publications repeatedly seen tenured faculty members blaming non-tenure-track colleagues for the loss of tenure-track lines, for example, rather than recognizing that management is the only group to benefit from such infighting. In higher education organizing work, one of the greatest impediments to winning collective bargaining agreements through organizing is the sort of unacknowledged status anxiety that leads otherwise intelligent faculty members to conclude that graduate students should organize because “they” are underpaid workers who receive inadequate benefits, while “we, the faculty” would somehow diminish our status because “we” aren’t “workers” in that way, and, besides, we still have the benefit of tenure. (The packinghouse bosses must be smiling in their graves every time they hear that one!)

The Limits of Tenure

A good friend of mine was awarded tenure at her research-intensive university recently. As relieved as she was to have won it, she also remarked that she was thinking of having a T-shirt printed that said, “I got tenure, and all I got was this lousy tenure . . .” Her point was not that she didn’t value or deserve tenure, or that anyone who had earned it shouldn’t value it. Her point was that tenure represented job security only to the extent that she could be reasonably sure she would be able to keep her present job. Tenure did not guarantee that her job would be a good job. It did not guarantee regular and equitable raises or protection from arbitrarily imposed furlough days or course-load increases because of claims of “financial exigency.”

What faculty members, like much of the general public, regularly overlook is the fact that tenure does not provide most of the contractual benefits, access to resources, and strong grievance procedures that come with a collective bargaining agreement. I would note that Scott Walker and his ilk are battling to take away collective bargaining rights from public-sector workers, including University of Wisconsin faculty members who have just voted to organize; they are not battling to abolish tenure.

Let me be clear: I am not in any way suggesting that tenure is insignificant, or that losing it would not be a great loss to many scholars and teachers. What I am suggesting is that, in and of itself, tenure will not protect anyone’s job from erosion. If we want to claim that, as Stanley Fish suggested after the rallies in Wisconsin, “We are all badgers now” in the academy, we must also realize that “being badgers” means not only fighting for collective bargaining rights in the abstract, elsewhere, but also fighting for collective bargaining for ourselves on our campuses. To go one step further, we need to keep from limiting these agreements with the traditional status fixations of the academy. One of the old labor chants heard over and over again in Madison was “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

To that we must add, “a benefit to one must be a benefit to all.” In other words, if we really do want “Wisconsin” to result in meaningful change, we need to widen our sense of who “we” are. We need to work together to extend to all of us the right to secure, adequate working conditions.

For many years now, those of us working in labor unions have stressed in our political and organizing work that now (whenever that “now” may have been) is the time to come together and work strategically on challenges from the Right, because, as we’d usually put it, “The wolf is at the door.”

The wolf is no longer at the door. He’s in the house. In many states, he’s already eaten our, and our children’s, pensions. He’s tucking into collective bargaining rights. And your tenure might make a tasty dessert.

Now is the time to come together.

Jamie Owen Daniel is a field service director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. She is a member of the steering committee of the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies and has taught at several universities in Chicago. Her e-mail address is [email protected].