NUMBER TWENTY-THREE IN AN ONGOING SERIES
On the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, a large
percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty reject the formation of a
collective bargaining unit to represent them. Colleagues who have publicly
expressed this position come from virtually every academic field and from a wide
range of personal backgrounds and ideological positions. In fact, you could say
that the rejection of the tenure-track collective bargaining campaign has been
a truly unifying, spontaneous grass-roots effort: individual allegiances to one
political ideology or another have taken a back seat to a common conviction
that, far from making our campus a better place, collective bargaining for
those in the tenure track would damage academic quality and create an adversarial
campus climate that would lower the quality of our working conditions.
We are already seeing indicators of what that adversarial campus
climate would look like.
Union advocates have taken to consistently characterizing any
questions about the merits of unionization as “anti-union,” and even sometimes
as right-wing. These are not just labels attached to positions, but to people. Those
daring to take the other side have been called everything from “anti-union
activists” to right-to-work “propagandists” to “reactionary” to “racist, sexist, and elitist,” simply because they do not support the
formation of a collective bargaining unit for tenure-track faculty members on
We feel no need to justify our own progressive credentials
or to respond to absurd allegations that we’ve gone over to the dark side and
are now lackeys of the Koch Brothers. We trust the majority of our colleagues
to recognize the difference between reasoned debate and personal attacks.
But the deeper point is that it is precisely BECAUSE we are
progressive academics from the working class that we oppose unionization for
UIUC tenure-track faculty members. We know through experience what it is like
to live paycheck to paycheck, to not know whether the doctor’s bills will be
covered, and to come home bone-tired from a day of physical labor. We have
worked in jobs where talking back to the boss meant getting fired,
where the time we spent in bathroom breaks was carefully monitored, where there
was serious risk of physical injury, where we were grateful for those days when
there was time to chat with co-workers. We know what it is like to work in a
job where workers really do need a union to fight for fair wages, to make sure
overtime work is paid, and to promote safe working conditions.
It is because we have had those experiences that we understand
and appreciate the contributions made by labor unions in the history of this
country. As minimum-wage workers, we benefited directly from many of those
advances. And because we have had those experiences, we know that tenure-track
professors are very far indeed from being exploited workers who need a
collective bargaining unit to provide “voice” for them. The simple
fact is that the life of a tenured faculty member, especially at an elite university
like this one, is one of the most privileged jobs imaginable: extremely
flexible hours, little to no supervision, an almost entirely self-directed work
load, and a nine-month salary that, even at the lower ends, is well above the
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious problems and inequities to work on, especially for our non-tenure-track colleagues. But it seems incongruous and insensitive to say things like the following:
“I teach, therefore I am exploited”
“Faculty ARE workers”
“It has never been clearer that universities are more like other workplaces than different from them.”
We can only imagine how claims like this sound to the
many people who work very long hours at dangerous or demeaning, low-paying jobs
– some of whom can only hope that their children will attend college one day. There
are times for university faculty to advocate for and stand in solidarity with
the working-class; but not by denying our privileged status and pretending to
be as oppressed as those whose working conditions many have never experienced.
We have talked elsewhere in this blog about the polarizing
discourse of union advocates that “You are either with us or against us.” There
is another aspect of that rhetoric. It rests on the simple-minded assumption that
all aspects of progressivism stand or fall together: that everyone who supports
income equality, rejects racism and sexism, advocates for the right of
individuals to love whoever they want and to define their gender as they wish,
must of necessity also support unionism in all forms, in all places, and under
all circumstances. It’s a stance that assumes that, for every issue, there is a
right side and a wrong side to be on, a stance that demands, in the words of
the classic union song, “Which side are you on?”
It’s a disciplining tactic that demands that all good
progressives fall in line, and stands in stark contrast to the expectations of
free speech and academic freedom that faculty union advocates elsewhere insist
upon. To question any part of that doctrine is to throw one’s entire
credibility into doubt – regardless of one’s actual record of progressive
scholarship, effort, and commitment.
polarizing attitude is far more dangerous than the infantile name-calling that
is its most apparent symptom. If a faculty union ever were to be established on
this campus, would any public attempts to question its strategies and goals be
greeted with the same personal attacks and charges of political disloyalty?
is a jointly authored project by two people who believe that the campaign for
tenure-track faculty unionization has damaged morale and divided our campus,
and that a faculty union, if ever established, would erode academic quality and
undermine our highly successful system of campus shared governance, which has
earned nationwide praise.
We speak for
ourselves. We have no organization behind us, we don’t ask for funding, we don’t
pay national hired guns to come in and make the case for us.
We want to
start a different campus conversation about faculty unionization, which we
believe will be more thoughtful and substantive when people have all the facts.
welcome and will consider postings from others expressing issues and concerns about
faculty unionization. We know that many faculty are very upset about the
possibility of working on a unionized campus.
If you see
any information here that is inaccurate, please tell us and we will correct it.
If you share
our concerns and want to help, please forward these postings to your friends
and colleagues, and urge them to do the same.***