Find teeth, then sharpen

US public servants badly need union support, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

September 15, 2011

A plaintive email from colleagues has alarmed me. Together with other public servants, teachers in state universities in Ohio face a disturbing future, with diminished benefits, increased levies on their pay and forfeiture of their right to call on their union, the American Association of University Professors, to help.

The original version of the offending legislation banned collective bargaining for public employees. Outcry restricted the ban to bargaining for benefits. But benefits are just what the state legislature is now cutting: rights to sick leave, vacations and subsidised health insurance.

It may be hard to get Times Higher Education readers to share my distress. The University and College Union has never been a powerful force. Union representation in defence of one’s job does not matter much to the many British academics who enjoy tenure from the moment of their appointment. In the US, everyone has to earn tenure by years of unflagging achievement in the classroom and the citation indices. Since Margaret Thatcher emasculated British unions, academics have adjusted to taking, with varying degrees of gratitude or grumbling, whatever their institutions offer them in a highly decentralised system. The AAUP, by contrast, is, for most of us in the US, a precious treasure. Even though I work in a university that regularly features among the nation’s favourite workplaces for faculty and employees, I pay my union dues in solidarity with my public-sector counterparts.

In recent times, my union has had an honourable record of struggle, not so much for grubbed money or basic conditions of work (which are generally superb in this country), but for liberty: fighting racial and sexual discrimination, and battling tirelessly in defence of academic freedom. The two latest cases that the union has taken under its wing concern what seem to me outrageous abuses in Louisiana State University. The first concerned Ivor van Heerden, who had researched coastal erosion at the university since 1992. After Hurricane Katrina, he accused the US Army Corps of Engineers of failing in their obligation to maintain the levees that protected New Orleans. University administrators, who saw the engineers as collaborators in the university’s own hurricane recovery projects, denounced the researcher’s findings, ordered him out of the public arena and refused to renew his contract.

The second victim was a senior biologist, Dominique Homberger, who stood out courageously against grade inflation. After repeated commendations for “excellence in teaching” and a “rigorous approach”, she helped her department by taking on an introductory course. Her marks for a test struck the course’s coordinator as too low, but she resisted demands for greater leniency. The dean then removed her from the roster without consulting her, and the coordinator raised each student’s grade. When the university’s faculty grievance committee found unanimously in favour of Professor Homberger, administrators responded by saying that they were “developing an improved policy” on student grading.

There was a time when some unions’ power corrupted their leaders, impeded freedom and restrained economic progress. Those times are over. We need to re-tool unions to redress the balance of power, which has become overwhelmingly, dangerously concentrated in the hands of the bosses. The scandal of growing wealth gaps threatens the whole basis of a peaceful society, which depends on the self-restraint of our more prosperous fellow-citizens, and the contentment of those of us who are less well off. If we stop believing in the fairness of the system, or if we start feeling exploited and oppressed, revolution may loom. Marx, whom I have always thought of as a misguided historian and wayward prophet, may turn out to have been right after all: workers will start treating gross inequities as gross iniquities. In the US, it is surprising that they have not already taken to the streets. Yet instead of partnering with labour to restore social harmony and encourage economic recovery, Ohio’s legislators are kicking trade unionists who are already reeling from years of economic hardship and statutory subversion. The strategy is as stupid as it is ruthless.

Ohio is just one example. Wisconsin has passed a similar law. And according to the country’s main trade-unionist information service, about 744 measures against collective bargaining, in almost every US state, are pending or in course of enactment. Republican politicians routinely blame labour costs for the nation’s economic ills. They rarely or never mention the mismanagement of executives who reward themselves for failure, hike bonuses, milk their shareholders, raid their companies’ assets, and make dumb judgements about how to invest. Capitalism is the least bad economic system at our disposal. But it will survive only if we regulate it rationally and restrain its excesses.

There is a chance that the imbroglio in Ohio may change the trend. A record 1.3 million petitioners have called for a referendum on the legislation. Repealers have raised money to fight the TV advertising campaigns that big business has used to defend the measure. The state governor has offered to negotiate. “God”, who always seems to have a big voice in US politics, “is on the side of the workers”, according to a group of Protestant clergy. I hope they are right. Academic freedom in Ohio is not the main issue in the conflict - but it could be one of the casualties, unless the legislation is reversed.

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