On Solidarity: My May Day Address to Mesa College

Today I’ve been asked to speak to you about solidarity.  For those who don’t know the meaning of the term, it refers to the support within a group, carrying with it the basic premise of “we’re all in this together.”  It is perhaps the most quintessentially American of ideas, as reflected in the first national motto adopted by the 13 colonies in 1782, “e plurbis unum”–the one out of many.

In our nation’s history, it has been solidarity that has helped us prosper, and by contrast, it is either when we have lost that notion of solidarity, or have chosen not to extend it to others, out of fear, prejudice, or a general lack of empathy, that we have created our greatest conflicts, sufferings, cruelties–from slavery and sexism, to racism and exploitation.

We have only risen above these self-made obstacles through the embrace of empathy, and so it is, if we as a society of many aspire to be prosperous, not simply in economic terms, but in terms of community and general well-being, we continue to do so, for this is what can make America great.

But to speak of solidarity in such general and abstract terms is too easy. True enough, it is easy among friends and those with whom we readily and easily identify that solidarity is found.  But the fact of the matter is that in a nation of many which, at its best, necessarily allows for and cultivates diversity, it becomes all too easy in hard times to find differences rather than seek commonalities, to harbor resentments rather than seek opportunities, and embrace fear and anxiety over camaraderie.

Today I’m going to take you on a trip and you might be surprised where it starts, but I hope you’ll be happy where it ends.  Two years ago, when my mother passed, I returned to her home of Deer Lodge, Montana, a town of perhaps 2000 people which has quite frankly, seen better days.  Over half a century ago, the community was thriving, in part due to the Butte Mine once known as the “Richest Hill on Earth.”  This, along with a local strong farming and ranching industry made up of independent farmers, and a timber industry further West, meant strong revenues. The Deer Lodge area was itself the home of Montana’s institutions, from its state mental and alcoholism hospitals, to the state prison itself. It was at the state alcoholism hospital that my mother found sobriety, which ultimately saved her life, free of charge. Five years later she returned to the hospital as a counselor and brought thousands to sobriety, saving their lives, and their families. Along with the miners, all of these workers, my mother included, had good union jobs, and were paid living wages with benefits.  Deer Lodge itself, while a small town, boasted many restaurants, several dry goods stores, furniture stores, auto dealerships, etc.

Now, the auto dealership and most of the restaurants are gone, what clothing stores there are now are thrift shops.  As younger people have left the area, Deer Lodge’s main street is blessed with several struggling antique shops whose stock is from the estate states of the older folks who’ve passed on.  The people who’ve stayed on are a hardy people of sorts, committed to a community that grew and nurtured them in better times.  As I was there, clearing my mother’s estate, I actually got asked, by one of the antique store owners, if I had thought of staying on.  I didn’t, but even if I had, the opportunities are not there.

In the early 1980’s Butte’s mines played out, so some degree of economic collapse was inevitable, but this didn’t explain away cuts by the Reagan administration to federal farm programs which put out one out of six farmers in Montana out of business, most of them independents, while larger corporate entities moved in.  It also didn’t explain why, in spite of increased revenues from coal and oil extraction, that monies for Montana’s institutions were cut, leading to the closure of both the state mental and alcoholism hospitals, with patients deferred to underfunded community outpatient programs, or private vendors where patients would now increasingly be forced to pay out of pocket.  It also doesn’t explain how, when Montana built a new prison again in Deer Lodge and even took in prisoners from out of state, that its prison guards, who risk their lives daily, would be paid the lowest wage of any prison guards in the US–a wage which barely sustains even a single guard, let alone one with a family.

Clearly, at the level the federal and state government, there has been this loss of empathy, but where did that come from?

Now this may surprise you, but part of it came from us.

Consider that over the last 30 years, while much of rural and industrial America’s economy foundered, the economies of the coasts prospered. Consider, that as we grew more sensitive to the culture differences around us, we allowed, if not encouraged the media, to characterize the people in these declining communities as anachronistic at best, or racist Neanderthals at worst, and simply chose to see their communities’ demise as inevitable.  By contrast, they were fed a media-driven image of us as decadent, self-indulgent, permissive, sanctimonious, and ultimately alien to their existence.

Consider a Montana Prison guard I talked to, who spoke to me of her day-to-day economic struggles.  In spite of her struggles, and her clear sense that she was being exploited, her main anger was directed at the ACLU for the defending the right of a Satan worshipper to have a cross removed from the prison chapel.  The issues of faith and religious freedom aside, to me, it seemed clear that what had happened is that in the midst of all this suffering, the issue with the cross was a kind of final indignity, and one far easier to respond to than the evil really facing her.  To fight for better wages in a struggling community against the mighty and abstract power of the state was something that seemed a bridge too far. Couple this with a media in which she exists only as caricature, if at all, and you’ll know why she, as did the majority of rural working class Montanans, voted for a man who promised a wall.

I tell you this because, for whatever you may think, if you want a society that embraces solidarity, it’s not about what you make others do–it’s what you do yourself.  You need to find the solidarity with those who you do not see and do not and hear before you can expect them to find solidarity with you.

Now you’re not in Montana, you’re in San Diego, and so perhaps before you take that trip, you might want to start with embracing solidarity at home.  Look around you and think of your community.

As a teacher, this is what I need to consider: The student who works two or three jobs, sometimes the night before class, often at companies that could afford to pay him or her better.  I need to think about the mother in my class whose son, having Asperberger’s syndrome, has had an episode at school which means she suddenly needs to leave. I need to also think about student who has left Mexico, having lost his/her father to a drug war fueled by the American demand.  And when I see how they struggle, I think of how these students, as workers, need better wages, and as parents, how they need more special ed. programs, and how as immigrants coming from dangers I cannot imagine, need understanding. What success can I have as a teacher if I, not  having enough appreciation of their struggles with an assignment, call them out for being lazy, undisciplined, or unfocused? How dare I.

As students, you should consider the people Ive mentioned to you are your classmates, or that some of what I’ve mentioned applies to you.  You should also consider that perhaps that custodian, lab tech, or librarian you see or encounter are often being asked to take on greater work duties as other employees leave and their positions are not rehired. It may explain the unclean corner, the sometimes terseness even when they try to do their best, and not without economic struggles of their own.  You should also consider that your teacher is more than likely an adjunct, and in many cases they rush from job to job on pay so low that nationwide one on four are on some kind of government assistance.  They might not be so quick with papers, so available for conferences, but they endeavor to do their best, and hope that when their children go to community college, as my son will next year, they won’t become overwhelmed with balancing work and school.

As community members, we should all consider that the struggles we face are not overcome by the embrace of policies which serve only to enrich those who already have great wealth at the expense of all workers, or the cutting of programs that help children learn and parents to gain the skills necessary to support them, or the targeting and exclusion of people based on fear.  To embrace such policies is to accept that the common state of society is to be one of alienation and anxiety.

The better way is to see the common interest in a life not driven by desperation and resentment, but by security and opportunity.  It is harkening to a solidarity that has been in the past, can become a solidarity of the present, and remain a solidarity forever.

Start now, start now, rise up and change the equation.

May Day Comments at San Diego Mesa College

One of several speakers at the Mesa College May Day rally 2017, on a beautiful day in San Diego, here I am speaking to about 100-150 faculty and students about “Adjuncts, Academic Freedom, and the Corporatization of Higher Education.” The video starts a few seconds late. My first words were “Happy May Day. Resist hate. Resist injustice” The text is in my previous post.

Comments for May Day Rally at San Diego Mesa College: Adjuncts, Academic Freedom, and the Corporatization of Higher Education

Adjuncts, Academic Freedom, and the Corporatization of Higher Education

Corporatization is the ideology that all social relations are explainable through market relations. One of the conclusions which follows from this ideology is that market value, the “bottom line,” is ultimate. The corporatization of higher education has been the applying of the idea that public higher education should be run like a business. This is a problem because higher education is not and cannot be a business. The two are mutually exclusive, except within the faulty logic of corporatization. A business sells a product and needs to balance the cost of production with profit, or the business will fail. Higher education is the public institution which, and this is the brief version, is entrusted with old knowledge, new knowledge, and with ways of making knowledge. It offers students not only knowledge of the world and the world of ideas, but also an opportunity to grow as individuals and mature into the best possible versions of themselves as free-thinking citizens, ready to participate in fulfilling the promise of democracy as well as fulfilling the promise of their lives. Higher education is a public good, not because it prepares students for the workforce, although it does this, but because college students, by reaching deep within to meet the challenge of learning, discover talents and skills they may not have otherwise known they have, which they then bring to the democratic community. If higher education fails, community fails. And when community fails, we have injustice and hate.

Critiquing the corporatization of higher education is not a new thing; many have written about it at least since the ‘90s, but, given the current political climate, it never has been more important to talk about it. The first step in the implementation of a corporatization ideology is to make working conditions precarious, that is, to make workers insecure, easier to exploit, and to weaken or destroy workers’ unions. In higher education, this first step in the process has been adjunctification, a way to end tenure by not hiring professors for tenure-track positions, and to over-rely on part-time professors. The over-reliance on adjuncts has been increasing now for decades. Today, 75% of college faculty are part-time adjuncts, the reverse of what was once intended. I often describe adjunctification as tenure leaving by the back door. No one sees it going, and then it’s gone. Everyone wonders where it went. And with it goes academic freedom, because tenure is the only real protection for academic freedom. Today, only 25% of faculty have tenure and secure academic freedom. We are getting precariously close to not having tenure or full-time faculty.

Union protection of academic freedom depends largely on union protection of tenure. Adjunctification, to be clear, is the effective end of tenure. Adjuncts don’t have tenure and so lack academic freedom. Even when adjuncts belong to a union that is active in protecting academic freedom, like ours, adjuncts’ academic freedom is not equal to tenured academic freedom. Since adjuncts are hired only for one semester, and they must receive a new contract each semester; their academic freedom depends on the commitment to academic freedom of those who have the power to not rehire them. In other words, adjuncts don’t possess academic freedom, at least not full and secure academic freedom.

Faculty academic freedom is student academic freedom, just like faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. The oppressive nature of being adjunct oppresses the adjunct and her students. For instance, students do not have equal access to adjunct professors who have no official, long-term relationship with the institution, in whom the institution has not fully invested. Nevertheless, enduring the unequal working conditions, adjuncts, most of whom would prefer a full-time position, do most of the teaching in higher education, and do it well. But the conditions in which they labor to maintain the quality of higher education for students are oppressive. Most have more than one job, but make half what they would make if they had one full-time job. This is unjust. The idea that the market value is the ultimate value of labor dictates that the cost of labor should be as low as possible. This shortchanges both faculty and students.

In a few weeks, adjuncts, the 75% majority of faculty, will be unemployed, not on summer break like full-time faculty, but jobless. This is what precarious working conditions look like. We are obviously needed because we are hired again and again. Many people, when they understand the situation, ask, why don’t they just hire you full-time? Good question. No one has a good answer. But we could start with equal pay for equal work.

What would be best for students?

The answer is not Betsy DeVos, the new education secretary, who specifically took aim at adjuncts in comments she made to students attending the Conservative Political Action Conference: “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community.” I don’t know any faculty who said exactly that. She exhorted the students to “fight against the education establishment.” She was calling, in other words, for an attack on academic freedom. Adjuncts, 75% of the higher education faculty, precarious, underpaid, serially unemployed, are named because she realizes that if the majority can be intimidated, the tenured minority, who have an empowered position within the institution, will be weakened. The new regime in Washington, with a corporatization-oriented cabinet, will seek to use this weak link to undermine academic freedom further and to make academic laborers even more precarious. We cannot let that happen. Faculty, adjuncts and tenured, need to stand together with students as community to resist the corporatization of higher education, to resist injustice, to resist hate.

Let us celebrate May Day, and recognize the contributions of workers to the economy and to society. After all, we are the majority.

Resist injustice.

Resist hate.

Embrace love.

Peace.