A conversation about unionization and higher education between Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University in Miami, and Walter Benn Michaels, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
STANLEY FISH: 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.”
WALTER BENN MICHAELS: 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 trying 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....[T]he 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.
That’s not the simple question it appears to be, because for a small percentage of academics there is something like a free agent market: another university comes calling and you’re in the nice position of being able to pit your current employer against your suitor and wait to see who will come up with the best package. But most of us are not in this position, and so it doesn’t pay (quite literally) to conceptualize our situation as if we were all stars. Once we accept as a baseline the average hardworking instructor or the completely vulnerable adjunct the case for unionization, at least on the level of professional self-interest, seems compelling.
It has not seemed compelling to those who see an ill fit between what is essentially a meritocracy (the question asked in tenure and hiring meetings is always “Who is the smartest?”) and the tendency – or so it is said – of unions to protect members who are marginally competent. If academics opt for unions and “a belt-and-suspenders security,” Riley warns, we might “expect that even the laziest, most incompetent or radical professor won’t get fired.”
It is when I read a sentence like this one of Riley’s that I come to my senses and recognize what’s going on. “Lazy” and “incompetent” go together; they point to deficiencies we don’t want our teachers to display. But “radical” is a political judgment. What Riley fears is that if colleges and universities were unionized, teachers with far out, discomforting ideas couldn’t be fired. It’s hard to imagine a better argument for unions (and also for tenure). The autonomy and independence of the academy is perpetually threatened by efforts to impose an ideological test on hiring and firing decisions....
WBM: At UIC, we’re not so worried about our bosses weeding out the radicals – our administration has been staunch in its support of academic freedom. But what amazes us is the idea that somehow a faculty can’t be both unionized and, to use the word invoked by Riley in her USA Today piece and by our own provost in his communications to the faculty, “elite.” This would come as a shock to the Rutgers philosophy department, which works on a unionized campus and which is nonetheless ranked as one of the two best in the US. And it’s even a bit of a shock to the UIC English department, which isn’t as elite as Rutgers philosophy but is (according to the National Research Council) among the top 20 in the country, and which almost unanimously supports unionization. Riley may think that only the “laziest” want unions, but our ranking is based largely on the strength of faculty productivity – it’s the hardworking ones who want the union most.
Why? Because we think that the people who actually do the teaching and the research should have more of a say in how the teaching and the research gets done. Riley quotes the president of the University of Buffalo saying, “Unionization runs contrary to what you’re socialized to do if you’re a researcher. The notion of belonging to a herd seems on the face of it inappropriate.” But since when does having a voice in what happens in your own workplace count as belonging to the herd? The president of Buffalo, despite the fact that Buffalo is itself unionized, apparently thinks that rugged individualism consists in shutting up and doing what management tells you to do.
But why should we shut up? Who else actually cares about our teaching and research? People like Riley claim that we should be worried about how unionization will “affect the quality of higher education in America.” But whether you’re a radical or a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat, it’s easy to see that the unions aren’t what’s destroying the public colleges and universities. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen Illinois and states all around the country beat a rapid retreat from their commitment to public higher education. We’ve seen the increased transfer of undergraduate teaching to non-tenure-track faculty who are paid at a wage that, if they were supporting a family of four, would qualify them for food stamps. We’ve seen more money spent on administering universities and less money spent on the teaching and the research that are the only reasons the universities exist in the first place. Unions aren’t the problem. They’re the beginning of the solution.
SF: The erosion of support for public higher education is a part of a larger strategy designed to deprive public employees of a voice and ensure the triumph of conservative/neoliberal policies. Republican legislators in New Hampshire propose taking the vote away from college students and say straight out that they want to do it because students are known to be liberal. Governor Walker of Wisconsin cites budgetary woes as the reason for taking away the bargaining rights of public sector unions, but everyone knows his real reason is to reduce union membership (why join and pay dues if there is no longer any strength in numbers?) and thus dry up support that would have gone largely to Democratic candidates. Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (shouldn’t there be a patent on names?) makes it official: “If we win this battle and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions...President Obama is going to have a...much more difficult time getting elected.”
Fitzgerald, Walker and Riley remind me of something I had forgotten, cocooned as I have been in the small world of the academy. With apologies to John Donne, “no university is an Island” and “ask not at whom the union-bashing is aimed; it is aimed at you,” even if you (like me) are relatively insulated from its immediate effects....
We are all badgers now.
WBM: Hey, UIC faculty – sign the card!
A slightly longer version of this article originally appeared on Stanley Fish’s blog in the Opinionator section of The New York Times website (see tinyurl.com/fish-badgers).