Unionizing Professors and Teachers

Setting aside the question of who is or isn’t working class, the Wisconsin issue (and the impending one here in Ohio) has made me think more on the issue of unionization and professionals. Interestingly enough, I read over at Stanley Fish’s blog at the New York Times how he was converted into believing that professors and graduate students should be and needed to be unionized. What changed his mind and why didn’t it change earlier? Well, that’s what I’m interested in.

Ultimately, working class or not, I seem to agree that many professionals are workers (of a kind) and that unionization would help them. As Stanley Fish’s (now) comrade Professor Walter Ben Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago says, “well-paid or not, we all have less and less of a say in what our university does and how it does it.” In some ways, Marx is still right (for however much we need to qualify him and straighten him out these days).

Dr. Fish is eager to point out his self-confessedly flawed reasoning for not supporting unionization of some university employees: “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.” This is a telling realization on the part of Stanley Fish (most likely one individual on the higher end of the pay scale and one with a number of degrees and areas of expertise).

Again, as with graduate students, apathy and temporality seem to play a role in the lack of support for unionization. From what I’ve read, many older (often tenured and often better paid) professors dismiss calls for unionization. What do they care? They got theirs. Graduate students face a bit of similar dilemma in that they don’t see their interest in the unionization, most because they’re position is very temporary.

Dr. Fish continues:

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 . . . .)

In conclusion, I don’t think I can put it better than this from Dr. Fish:

. . . 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.

To give one important reason “why”, however, Dr. Michaels offers this succinct response: “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.”

The political and economic trouble is here as well. Neoliberalism (economic) and conservative politicians are behind much of the attack on public sector and other unions. They want to win votes and create sharper profit (Dr. Fish hits this concisely in the second to last paragraph).

If professionals (whether adjunct or Stanley Fish) want a fair bite at those apples, then, as Dr. Michaels calls for, “Unionize!” Yep, despite them beating the Buckeyes this year, “We’re all badgers now.”

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