THINKING FOR OURSELVES
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, September 19, 2009
I am no stranger to strikes. I grew up in a town where miners, steel and mill workers were often locked in battles for better working conditions.
When one group struck, the others soon stopped work in a solidarity bred of necessity. Our lives were intertwined in the processes of production and on the streets and alleys of our little community.
Years later I found myself crossing a picket line in Brooklyn, supporting the right of the community to control its schools over the rights of the teachers union. It was a bitter strike where it seemed the union and the community were antagonists who would never reconcile. But even in the midst of that controversy, many striking teachers held freedom schools in their homes or in nearby churches, attempting to provide young people with opportunities to continue learning.
The struggle taught me that community control didn’t necessarily mean better education or the end of self-interest politics.
In the years since then the split between the needs of the community and the desires of the union have begun to seem one of the most difficult questions we face, even as the power of labor declined and community needs escalated.
That is partly why the Detroit Newspaper Strike that began in 1995 was such an important moment. It was an opportunity to bring the strength of the community and union together again in new ways. The effort to create a new kind of solidarity motivated some of us to form Readers United, a citizens group in support of unions, advocating ways the union could also support the community. Yet, that effort ultimately failed.
It was not until this past week, while participating in what we called a protest against unfair labor practice, that I saw the glimmer of a reconnection between unions and the larger community. At Oakland University the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) voted to withhold services because it appeared to us that the university administration was using the difficult economic situation in Michigan in a cynical attempt to destroy faculty governance. Over most of the summer the administration had used its time and energies in efforts to eliminate faculty involvement in decisions about class size, methods of instruction and the direction of the university.
Most faculty were clear that this job action was not about economic gains but was raising larger questions about the role of faculty in determining the nature of university life. The administration’s stance threatened the capacity of universities to fulfill their role in developing new ideas, preparing thoughtful, responsible citizens and encouraging democratic practices. Turning universities into degree factories would destroy one of the most important sources of innovation and critical thinking in our society.
So for eight days the AAUP stayed on strike, meeting with the press, with students and with members of the community. Meanwhile, the administration avoided serious negotiations, assuming that the professors would have little support. But with each passing day student and community support grew. Members of other unions began to write the president of the university, talking about how important reaching a fair contract settlement was to them. Students held rallies in support of professors, questioning where their tuition hikes were going. Almost everyone was outraged by the 40 percent salary increase given the president of the university and the 10-11 percent increases to his top administrators.
Finally, with the assistance of a Judge Edward Sosnick demanding negotiations, the AAUP was able to secure a tentative agreement protecting faculty governance. It is a small victory, but perhaps the first of many, as we all strive to reconnect the places where we work with the communities we depend upon.