Lessons From Wisconsin About Unions and Higher Education - NYTimes.com
A conversation about unionization and higher education between Stanley Fish and Walter Benn Michaels, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
¶SF: In over 35 years of friendship and conversation, Walter Michaels and I have disagreed on only two things, and one of them was faculty and graduate student unionization. He has always been for and I had always been against. I say “had” because I recently flipped and what flipped me, pure and simple, was Wisconsin.
¶When I think about the reasons (too honorific a word) for my previous posture I become embarrassed. They are by and large the reasons rehearsed and apparently approved by Naomi Schaefer Riley in her recent op-ed piece “Why unions hurt higher education” (USA Today). The big reason was the feeling — hardly thought through sufficiently to be called a conviction — that someone with an advanced degree and scholarly publications should not be in the same category as factory workers with lunch boxes and hard hats. As Riley points out, even the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) used to be opposed to unionization because of “the commonly held belief that universities were not corporations and faculty were not employees.”
¶WBM: But at UIC, where I worked for Stanley and where many of us are working right now to build a union, “a lunch bucket faculty for a lunch bucket student body” is a standard way of describing us, originally intended as a form of condescension but increasingly accepted as a badge of honor. Why is it a bad thing that our students aren’t as rich as the ones at Northwestern or the University of Chicago? Why is it a bad thing to accept the fact that we are workers? We’re fortunate that some of us are pretty well-paid workers, but many of us aren’t and, well-paid or not, we all have less and less of a say in what our university does and how it does it. When workers want a voice, what do they do? Unionize! So even though our job descriptions range from professor to principal investigator and we make more books than widgets, that’s what we’re tying to do.
SF: I have to agree. If “universities are not corporations” ever was a good argument, it isn’t anymore because universities, always corporations in financial fact, become increasingly corporate in spirit every day; and if I and my colleagues are not employees, from whom do we receive salaries, promotions, equipment, offices, etc., and to whom are we responsible in the carrying out of our duties? (If it looks like a duck. .) It’s not God and it’s not (despite some claims to the contrary) students, and it’s not awestruck admirers of our dazzling intellects. It must be our employer, and if that is so the only question becomes whether, as employees, we can do better for ourselves by ourselves or whether we will be in a stronger position if we unite.