Let me begin with a story. I kind of think it dates from some time in the middle seventies. I was invited to take part in a panel discussion in Lexington, KY at the university there on the topic of The Political Responsibility of Intellectuals, or something of that sort. The affair was sponsored by the National Endowment of the Humanities [I think] and was explicitly aimed not at an academic audience but at the general public. My fellow panelists were a pair of rather distinguished scholars: Sam Weber, an extremely raffiné UMass Comp Lit professor, and Berkeley’s Martin Jay, the author of a first rate book on the Frankfurt School. I took the assignment seriously, and talked about the political responsibility of intellectuals. Weber gave an incomprehensible talk on Heidegger’s essay on technology and Jay gave a comprehensible but utterly irrelevant talk on images of vision and mirrors in nineteenth century French writings [pretty obviously cobbled together from what he was then working on.] As the discussion developed, Weber and Jay made numerous references to Marx and other left intellectuals, presenting themselves as dyed in the wool lefties. Somewhat miffed at having been so thoroughly upstaged, I asked them both at one point where they, as left intellectuals, stood on the subject of faculty unionization. They stuttered and hesitated, hemmed and hawed, and managed to avoid taking a position. If their feet had been any more made of clay, I could have conducted a pottery workshop.
As you all know, I have been flying up to New York from North Carolina every Tuesday to co-teach a course at Columbia on Mystifications of Social Reality. You may not have noticed that at the present time, the Columbia graduate student TAs have organized and have been trying unsuccessfully to get the university to enter into negotiations with them to bargain for a contract. The students are associated with the UAW and have actually won their appeal to the NLRB [I hope I have this right] but the Columbia administration has dug in its heels and is refusing to bargain. The grad students, who teach most of the sections in Columbia’s famous General Education program [which Columbia routinely touts when it is raising money from its alums], have called a strike for the week before final exams. It turns out that one of the students in my course is a leader of the student union, and he has asked both me and my co-teacher Todd Gitlin to take part in a panel discussion on the subject two and a half weeks from now. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance.
I have some personal experience with the subject, because in 1977, the faculty at UMass unionized, and in 1990 the grad students did so as well. Faculty, especially at elite universities, tend to express worries that grad student unionization would destroy the delicate and exquisitely fragile mentoring relationship between them and their doctoral students, a relationship that they like to describe as the most rewarding part of the university teaching experience. Now, for my first 19 years at UMass I mentored grad students who were not unionized, and for the next eighteen years I mentored grad students who were. I can report that there was not the slightest difference for me between the two experiences. But there was quite a lot of difference for the grad students, who successfully bargained for guaranteed tuition, academic fee, and health care fee waivers, family leave time, and even -- although UMass was dirt poor -- pay raises.
I will let you know how the panel discussion turns out.