Turning Universities RedRoundup
tags: higher education, labor history, academic labor, colleges and universities
Steve Fraser is a writer and historian whose latest book is Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History (Verso).
In 1919, an annus mirabilis of global revolution, Helen Taft was president of Bryn Mawr College. She was also the daughter of the Republican president and Supreme Court justice William Howard Taft, and sister of Robert Taft, author of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. Nonetheless, she endorsed the right of workers to strike and remarked that, “the wealthy men of the country certainly owe the professors a living wage.”
The views of Helen Taft were heterodox both within her family and in academia more widely. While the rest of the country was aflame with labor standoffs from the Seattle dockyards to the steel mills of Pittsburgh, campuses stayed silent. When they did decide to join in on the action it was to supply undergraduate strikebreakers, who descended from august institutions like Harvard to undermine organized labor.
Colleges had been sites of elite conservatism since the first colonial-era seminaries. If you taught or studied there, the chances were high that you were already part of the ruling order, or hoped to join its ranks or work in its service. Bryn Mawr was an anomaly; so, too, were radically minded professors like Thorstein Veblen or Charles Beard or John Dewey, not to mention W. E. B. Dubois.
A century later, the climate has changed. During this past March and April, a campaign its organizers called “Labor Spring” made landfall on over seventy-five campuses from Hawaii to Maine. Their aim was to highlight the ongoing struggles to unionize campus-based workers, both academic and nonacademic. The strike of forty-eight thousand University of California faculty, hailing from every grade and variety (including graduate students, postdocs, and researchers), and the strike of nine thousand faculty members at Rutgers University, the first such uprising in 257 years, was the culmination of a wave of college labor unrest that had been building for several years.
Labor Spring events took place at elite schools like Georgetown and Yale and MIT; at Duchess County Community College; at public universities including SUNY Stony Brook, the University of Maryland, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Massachusetts Boston; in state colleges like Boise State, Central Connecticut State, and Wayne State; down South in labor-hostile places like Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas; at law schools including at Duke, CUNY, and New York University; at largely black colleges like Howard and Tuskegee; at denominational institutions like Texas Christian University; and at Catholic schools including Holy Cross and Catholic University.
As impressive as Labor Spring’s size was its social composition. Rallies, forums, workshops, teach-ins, and marches embraced every level of academic workers, and often included unions of nonacademic college employees. Hospital workers, nurses, janitors, cafeteria and clerical workers, maintenance people, housekeepers, as well as undergraduate resident advisers and dining hall workers all took part. Outside unions, local labor councils, clergy, and immigrant rights groups joined in, as did United Students Against Sweatshops, Jobs With Justice, and Workers United. This was especially true of Starbucks organizers looking to link campus labor activism to their campaign to kick the company off campus. Here and there politicians showed up to cheer. Labor Spring had clearly touched a nerve.
Yet by and large these were small-scale events, hosting dozens; rarely were over a hundred people in attendance. They were strictly local affairs and drew little attention outside the rank-and-file activists who organized them, and they were scarcely covered by the mainstream media. In part, this was by design. The aim of the architects of Labor Spring — professors housed mainly at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University — was for “a hundred flowers to bloom” at schools from coast to coast. Little attempt was made to coordinate or establish a focused presence for what after all was an extraordinary national, if highly fragmented, phenomenon.
Nor was much suggested by way of political direction. By default, the events manifested a single-minded focus on the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. This may have been all that was possible, but closer inspection suggests otherwise.
The backdrop for Labor Spring was a nationwide preoccupation with economic inequality, a fledgling socialist movement (hitherto out of action for a half century at least), a new willingness to interrogate capitalism, an imminent threat to democracy, and a remarkable labor upsurge happening off as well as on campus. Given this background, it’s plausible to imagine that Labor Spring could have been more ambitious as well as focused in terms of its aims. But Labor Spring also acted in an arena, the university, in which labor struggle had been off the agenda for as long as anyone could remember. Despite its limitations, Labor Spring’s crowning achievement has been to orient campus politics, perhaps irreversibly, to the labor question.