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Friday, November 9, 2018


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.


Derek said...

I've been at more than one school, in different capacities, where grad students were unionizing or had recently unionized, and I've watched several others in recent times. No matter what the given university says about justice, no matter what it says about caring about its students, no matter where it aligns itself politically, when it comes to actually being on the ground the university always sides against the grad students, always makes the same hollowed-out claims, and always resists every step of the way. And successful unionization always ends up being in the interests of the students. The university always says otherwise, and is always blowing smoke (at best).

I can't decide if I find it charming or atrocious that the 'worst' universities always end up acting just like the 'best' in this respect; it's a good test case for where true loyalties lie.

MS said...

I am pleased to hear that the UAW is representing the graduate students at Columbia. The UAW is one of the best labor unions that was ever established in the U.S. My first wife was an international representative for the UAW and was responsible for organizing the secretarial employees at Yale. I was briefly a member of the UAW when I worked at a GM plant in Michigan before I enrolled in law school. It is one of the last vestiges of honest labor representation in this country. Walter Reuther’s death, in a plane crash in 1970 with his wife and bodyguard, still looks suspiciously like an assassination.

And making pottery out of feet of clay. Wonderful.

Good luck in the panel discussion. I hope it turns out to be more meaningful than your prior experience.

MS said...

On a separate note, here is a story that reflects the ethics of our new acting Attorney General.

I suppose “acting” is the appropriate adjective. An unethical lawyer acting as the country’s chief law enforcer and an unethical tv star, quasi businessman, acting as President. He and Il Duce deserve each other.

marcel proust said...


in re: UAW, yes but... The UAW was not successful in organizing the Yale staff. John Wilhelm (Yale 1967) led the successful organizing drive that culminated in recognition from the University, followed by a strike in academic year 1984-85 to get Yale to bargain in good faith.

s. wallerstein said...

That Martin Jay, the author of a book on Adorno as well as one on the Frankfurt School in general, did not take a stand on unionization is not surprising, since Adorno himself is notorious for calling the police to arrest students who occupied the Frankfurt School in 1968 (or 1969, I'm not sure).

I've never understood why Adorno called the cops, since no one can be more critical than him of how capitalism destroys the human soul. Maybe those who know more about him than I do can fill me in.

MS said...

marcel proust,

I am not sure that we are talking about the same organizing drive. My then wife was in charge of the UAW effort to organize the clerical staff at Yale in 1979-80, and my recollection is that the organizing drive was successful. You may be referring to an organizing drive to unionize graduate students, which she was not involved in. She then went on to organize the clerical staff at Cornell. My bigger point is that the UAW is an aggressive labor organization that fights hard for the interests of its members.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Wolff, I was a grad student at U Mass (political science) from 1989-1996. I was actively involved in the grad student unionization effort (and a friend of one of your former students, the late Phil Cox, who was a central member of the union - the GEO). I was also a member of the contract negotiation team for our first labor contract. Interestingly, as I remember it, in some ways, the Administration was more supportive of our efforts than many of the faculty. They (the Administration) saw our efforts to raise graduate employee wages as a way to get around a stingy state legislature. We certain heard a lot of complaints from faculty that our efforts would do lasting damage to the important relationship between faculty mentors and their grad student mentees.

marcel proust said...


(Grrh - comment eaten, so will try to reconstruct).

I agree about the UAW, but it failed in its attempt to organize the clerical and technical workers at Yale.
For a skeletal timeline, see this.
HERE (UNITE-HERE for about the last 20 years) was successful under the leadership of John Wilhelm (Yale '67) and I believe has been more aggressive and more successful at organizing than the UAW in the last 35 years.

Some passages (in the order they appear) from

Women Workers and the Yale Strike
Author(s): Molly Ladd-Taylor
Source: Feminist Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 465-490

In 1971 Lucille Dickess, the registrar of the Yale University Geology Department, served on an anti-union committee. Yet in the fall of 1984, after working at Yale for sixteen years, she became a spokeswoman for the striking clerical and technical employees, or C&Ts, at Yale. Today she is president of her union, Local 34 of the Federation of University Employees. Like Dickess, most women workers at Yale had no experience with unions until they formed Local 34.

Although women workers have often organized despite the opposition of labor leaders, Local 34 received unqualified backing from unions. Its parent union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), provided Local 34 with an office, a staff of experienced organizers, and substantial financial support, while allowing it local autonomy.

The Yale strike was the culmination of a four-year organizing drive. Local 34 won its election by just thirty-nine votes in May 1983, but its effective organizing program and the frustration felt by workers after six months of fruitless negotiations led more C&Ts to vote to strike than had voted for the union ten months earlier. In an unorthodox move, union members narrowly averted a strike in March 1984 when they vote at the last minute to accept a partial contract that resolved the noneconomic issues, yet retained the right to strike over outstanding items. Still unsuccessful at resolving their dispute through negotiations, 1,800 Local 34 members walked off their jobs on September 26, 1984. In yet another controversial action, they returned to work on December 3 without having settled their contract. They set a strike deadline for January 19, the date the contract of Local 35 (the service and maintenance workers who had honored the picket line throughout the strike) expired. Both unions won excellent contracts that made major strides in eliminating economic discrimination against women at Yale without having to strike a second time. Local 34 ratified its contract January 22, and Local 35 did so several days later.

With a union staff borrowed from Local 35 and Local 217, Local 34's paid organizers began in the fall of 1980 to make home visits and hold lunch meetings in order to build rank and file leaders into an organizing committee. During the first year and a half of the union drive, they used no leaflets, buttons, or membership cards, just talk. Not until December 1981, after 400 organizing committee members signed their first public statement, called "Standing Together," did the union distribute membership cards.

District 65 and the Office and Professional Employees International Union lost elections by wide margins in 1971 and 1977, and a United Auto Workers (UAW) campaign was foundering when Local 34 began its organizing drive in 1980.

On Wednesday May 18, 1983, Yale C&Ts voted 1,267 to 1,228 for the union. Local 34 had won with just 50.2 percent of the vote.

Local 34 began its strike against Yale on September 26, 1984.

MS said...

marcel proust.

This is getting silly. Even the timeline that you link to states:

“A white collar union? Clerical and technical workers organize – 1980.”

That was the UAW organizing drive, led by my then wife. I know, because I lived through it with her – I was practicing law in Michigan while she was away organizing in New Haven. While she was away, we communicated by phone and she kept me informed about what was happening.

Then you refer to organizing efforts by John Wilhelm and Unite Here “during the last 20 years.” The last 20 years starts in 1998.

Then you refer to a Feminist Studies article written by Molly Ladd-Taylor – a source that would be labeled hearsay in a court of law – which states that Lucille Dickess, who at one time served on an anti-union committee, became a spokesperson for the striking clerical workers in 1984. None of this refutes what I know from personal knowledge – that the UAW organized the clerical workers in 1980. It is possible that after 1980, the UAW was decertified and a different union was elected to represent the clerical workers.

Why are you making an issue of this?

marcel proust said...


Why am I making an issue of this?

A partially pedantic desire to get the history right: I was a student at Yale in the early and mid 1980s, overlapping with the Local 34 strike in 1984. By the time I arrived, the UAW had no presence there and what I heard during the strike was that the UAW had tried and failed to organize the C&T workers. When I google for unions and Yale, several searches with different key-words and date limits, I come up with the HERE locals that succeeded (and are still in place). I find almost nothing about the UAW, although my recollection is being told that there was an unsuccessful organizing drive shortly before I got to New Haven. I have not been able to find anything about a successful organizing drive by the UAW at Yale: I would think that a successful drive would have left some trace.

Anyway, I am not a lawyer, this is not a court of law and I am doing my best to document what I remember. I think we both agree that I have spent more time on this than it is worth. But duty calls: someone on the internet is wrong.

MS said...

“marcel proust”

As you say, you were not there. My then wife was. And I was in continuous communication with her.

I find it ironic that someone who has the audacious pretentiousness to assume the identity of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century is insisting that I am in error and that s/he knows what the truth is based on searches on the internet. (And yes, I notice that you use lower-case initial letters, as if to signify that you are only a less illustrious avatar of the great French writer.)

Moreover, regardless whether the UAW won or lost that unionizing drive, it fought an aggressive fight to organize the clericals at Yale – this I do know, because my then wife called me every evening to tell me about the 16-18 hr. days she and her team were spending to fight the Yale administrations aggressive – and legally questionable - efforts to prevent unionization. Your third-person accusations that I am distorting “history” do not detract from the point I was making - that the Columbia students will be well represented by the UAW.

I too have wasted too much time dealing with a literary poseur. (I commented previously about the tendency of people on the internet who strive to enhance the credentials of their opinions by assuming the monikers of deceased luminaries. Why don’t you try “albert einstein” next.)