Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Cozy Catastrophe: The Dystopian Turn in Public Education

            To provide a brief introduction, I gave this talk at a session of this year's MLA, for a panel with the initial title of "The New Material Circumstances of Academia."  In a sense, the talk represents my current liminal position within academic life, reflecting not only on my present position, but also on my activism as a graduate student.  It's still a little rough, but worth putting up on the blog.

            Perhaps, to enter into this talk, I should mention the origins of the title.  The term “cozy catastrophe” is used to describe a subgenre of science fiction novels, written in the mid-twentieth century.  Exemplified by the work of John Wyndham, this work imagined any number of catastrophes that killed millions, but nonetheless, left the protagonists of the novel relatively unscathed.  Those individuals would then go on to build some kind of future, attempting rectify the conditions that created the catastrophe in the first place.  That gap, the space between catastrophe and roughing it in the wilderness, struck me as somehow apt to describe how the transformation of public college education is narrated.  To give a concrete example, in the middle of my time as a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, the president of the system described the schools as an enormous graveyard.  That catastrophist language can be seen not only at the top of the system, but in the language of the day to day activism of those who operate within the university system, primarily in the form of the blogs and other publications of countless graduate and undergraduate activists.  Our system of ‘education’ is in ‘crisis’ and is about to reach the level of catastrophe.

            At the same time, the vast majority of us producing this writing remain in the system with some relative comfort.  This applies not only to the tenured faculty, who have job security and access to benefits, but to most of us who participate in the academic side of daily university life. It certainly applies to life as an adjunct as well. Our troubles, as real as they are, rarely fit comfortably into the narrative of catastrophe, and instead are defined by the grey reality that Leon Trotsky argued constituted middle class life.  We look for better employment, worry about paying for insurance and our school loans, and fret over our lack of a meaningful retirement fund.  Most of us are concerned about the kind of education that we are providing, and feel a keen sense of regret about the corner cutting that frequently occurs while teaching in multiple institutions without access to offices or many other resources.  These are real concerns, but the language of crisis does little to help us understand those issues.  At best, the language creates an excitement absent from those grey reality of daily life, and inspires us to become active in the politics of our campus. At worst, and more often, it creates the logic for inaction, to keep our noses down and focused on the next day.

            However, the language certainly captures something of the intensity of the transformation.  As Wendy Brown notes in her 2015 talk on the topic, the university is undergoing a substantial transformation in its governance structure.  Moving from what she calls the corporate structure of the university that existed through most of the 20th century, the university has broken away from the previous system of shared faculty governance and has become a system that reflects the processes of neoliberalization and financialization.  That system now shifts the system of governance away from the disciplinary concerns of its faculty members and gives that control to a wide array of administrators, who govern the university based on a variety of matrixes that classify and individuate faculty members, and judge their worth on grants, rankings systems, and other markers of excellence.  The system moves from the holistic, vertically integrated structure of corporate capitalism into the fragmented, market driven system of the present. At the other end of the system, the one that Brown leaves unremarked, is a vast collection of adjuncts, who take the unwanted work off the hands of the financialized tenured faculty, and more significantly, give the university a workforce that no longer has the kinds of economic and academic protection that were promised under the guise of ‘shared governance.’

In that sense, our positions as adjuncts are a key linchpin in the reshaping of the governance structures of the university.  We provide the flexible, and instrumentalized labor that allows for the small grouping of the neoliberal professoriate to escape from the dreary labor of introductory classes, and more significantly, we provide a labor force that is even more flexible because of our relative precarity.  In a sense, the new precariat is an updated, and far less disciplined version of Marx’s old concept of the mobile army of the unemployed.  For ourselves, these years are frequently experienced as a kind of waiting room, a space to make a living and to remain within the academic setting as we try to apply for other jobs, jobs that are increasingly unavailable, but nonetheless often define the horizons of our professional life.  To look at the system from this perspective, we find ourselves examining the system that Brown describes, but a system that looks radically different than the system of self-marketing and self-promotion that she describes in her talk.  Instead, we find a process that does not emphasize excellence, but is defined by checking off boxes, filling competency requirements, and moving students through conversations that they frequently see as distractions to their real educational goals.  More often than not, we represent the effort to continue the hollowed-out functions of a liberal arts education, the old belief in a broadly educated citizenry.  We are the grey apparatus that allows for excellence, but is excluded from that possibility ourselves. 

            The experience of being an adjunct at a community college only intensifies that process.  Like most community colleges within the California system, Irvine Valley College is designed to move students from its hallways to the hallways of the California State University or University of California systems.  That matrix becomes the most significant instrument of measurement for the success of the college, and Irvine Valley College features it prominently in its advertisements.  Just as significantly, the college reminds its students of this goal every day, through a myriad of posters offering advice on how to transfer to a variety of universities.  In addition, Irvine Valley College promises to streamline finishing at the transfer institutions, offering to check the boxes off any number of university requirements.  This is particularly true of the classes that I teach, introductory writing classes.  These classes are largely seen by my students as a somewhat tedious hurdle to jump over, and are looked upon with little enthusiasm.  This, obviously, is not very surprising, but is nonetheless important to restate because it provides a concrete, if banal, example of the tension between the instrumentalization of college requirements and the complex and recursive process of learning to write.  Our students are continually presented the intellectual work of the university as a series of hoops to jump through, and the unsurprising result is that the students frequently view the work as a distraction to other concerns.

            The mirror image of that situation is ours as adjuncts.  We are disconnected from the communities and institutional histories that define our workplaces, and are only tenuously tied to the institutions themselves through temporary offices, and our classrooms.  Most of us our committed to our students, but are limited in our commitments by our fragmented complex of workplaces.  It’s something I find myself thinking about quite a bit, while waiting for class in the adjunct office at IVC.  It’s clear from the imagery of the office space that there is a long running struggle within the college.  The office is festooned with satirical images of the college administration, and points to efforts on the part of the faculty to both unionize and protect its academic freedoms.  They also point to a series of far more basic, if still significant, struggles, the need for classrooms free of ants, simple cleanliness, and other necessities.  We also have a faculty union that is in communication with us, at least on email.  But my knowledge of the struggles of the institution don’t move much beyond my recognition of the traces of the struggle.  Despite my substantial involvement in the graduate student union at UCI, I haven’t taken the trouble of contacting my union representatives, or gotten a sense of how the union works.  I don’t even really know most of my ostensible colleagues beyond the vague recollection of a few faces and short conversations.  My primary engagement with the college remains with my 20-50 students, and doesn’t substantially go beyond this.

            Nothing that I’ve said is terribly shocking, and has been regularly reported on in the pages of the Journal of Higher Education along with a variety of other publications.  It’s been discussed in the academic blogs of Chris Newfield, amongst others, and has been extensively discussed on the blogs and other informal publications of adjunct faculty members.  The explosion of adjuncts has been seen as the mirror image of the explosion of upper administration in the fight against the privatization of public education.  Within this context, not only can the adjunct speak, but has a polyphony of voices.  Those voices are not central to the conversation about the transformation of the education system, but it would be a substantial exaggeration to say that they have been ignored.  Instead, they have been an ongoing thread of marginalia that enters the mainstream of academic conversation through irritated responses on the part of tenured faculty and administrators, through apologies with those with academic security, and through informally distributed articles that catch the attention of larger media. Frequently marked as abject, the voice of the adjunct has been significant, while certainly not central, point of conversation within academic life.  If the construction of a voice was the main point of political intervention to transform the marginalized existence of adjunct life, that intervention would have already occurred. 

            The issue is probably apparent to most of you.  Adjuncts have voices, often quite eloquent ones, but we have very little social power within our institutions, and the reasons for that are quite simple. We are disconnected from the meaningful social relationships of academic life, and are just as disconnected from each other’s lives.  Perhaps, at a more powerful level, we are given very little incentive to be invested in the futurity of the institutions that we work at.  We are, after all, supposed to be in the process of looking for jobs, of grasping for the ring of a tenured track position, or some sort of work somewhere else.  In this sense, our very alienation precludes us from being able to maintain an investment in the defense of the public university, a university not only accessible to all, but committed to a critical engagement with the world.  Such an investment would, by necessity, need to be both collective and move beyond the concern of the classroom, and involve thinking about the larger context of the educational process.  In this sense, the terms ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ obfuscate the problem, which is tied to this very successful process of hollowing out, instrumentalizing, and restructuring the university.   The terms ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ imply systems out of control and moments full of meaning, where we find ourselves in an opposite situation, one in which we are structurally encouraged to disinvest and not to find meaning.  In short, we find ourselves in the opposite condition of the tenured faculty, not a part of a collapsing system of governance, but the alienated, disconnected labor of the new system.

            To change that, we must in some way transform our relationship to these institutions, but the creation of the forms of collectivity to enact that transformation are daunting for the very reasons they are needed.  Organization takes time, intellectual and emotional labor, and above all, a long-term investment in the process, all of which are difficult to create amongst us.  Despite our exclusion from the forms of excellence that defines the neoliberal professorate, an exclusion we share with our tenured colleagues at the community college level, we are still shaped by the individualizing disciplinary processes that define them.  We, after all, continue to look for an entrance into tenured work, we attempt to publish, and establish ourselves as worthy scholars.  Our labor intensely depends on one another, but that social aspect of our labor is occluded from us, and is difficult to build upon.

However, we have a pair of obvious forms of organizations to try to develop this form of deliberate collectivity.  The first is the professional organizations that we can still join.  We have a space to discuss these issues within the MLA, and we can call upon that body to contribute to our struggles.  The first of those possibilities should not be ignored.  After all, we have the space to discuss these issues at the conference, and more significantly, to meet each other and reduce the isolation and alienation of our workplaces.  These aren’t insignificant factors, but if we think about the possibility of seeing these professional associations as a place to push a struggle forward, I’m considerably more pessimistic.  At the more immediate level, I’m skeptical of the ability to get the clear majority of these organizations to sign on to such an engagement.  While there are certainly a significant minority of tenured faculty members who are willing to contribute to such a struggle, I have not seen this commitment on the part of most tenured faculty.  As we have seen, tenured faculty often attempt to protect their own professional status through defending the distinction between themselves and adjuncts, either through inaction or through defenses of the system in the face of attempts on the part of precarious faculty to organize.  Tenured faculty have largely remained outside the fights for more rights on the part of precarious faculty, and have, on occasion, defended the systems that divest precarious faculty of rights.  However, even if it were possible to get such a commitment on the part of professional bodies, I’m equally skeptical of the efficacy of such bodies to affect change.  After all, their power primarily lies in the now gutted structure of faculty governance, and has less and less impact on the university.

The next obvious form of organization is forming a union, and this will take a bit longer to discuss because it is a more complex issue.  The possibilities of the project are significant.  After all, forming a union gives the workers the possibility of negotiating the conditions of their employment at the bargaining table with management, and gives those workers an ability to draw on the larger resources and expertise of a union structure.  Not surprisingly, there has been some real effort to begin this process, with attempts to organize at several institutions including the University of Minnesota.  Indeed, as I already noted, my own current employer has a relatively long standing contract that benefits both tenured and adjunct faculty.  Moreover, a few unions have seen entering the academic sphere as a real opportunity to increase their numbers and strength.  This work has played a role in improving our condition as workers, and such struggles can be used to fight for the public university as some of the struggles of the UC grad student union and the Chicago Teachers’ Union has shown.  While these fights have been uphill ones, both examples show that a contract fight can be used to create alliances in defense of a public education.

However, there are some real downsides to this process as well.  The most immediate downside is the often-brutal fights that are involved in creating a union.  Our current system for recognizing and creating unions heavily favors employers and the creation of unions often takes years and even decades.  Certainly, this has been the case at the University of Minnesota and the fight to organize the UC system took even longer.  Once that rather arduous task is completed, our entire system of contract negotiation is designed to facilitate contracts that are concerned with the economic concerns of employees as stakeholders, rather than to meaningfully transform the social relations of the industry where they work.  Both the initial NLRA and the additional restrictions placed on unions by the Taft-Hartley Act place emphasis on the sole control of the workplace remaining in the hands of management.  This restriction often places unions in the position of trying to gain as much as they can within the neoliberal strictures of the workplace, rather than challenging the structures of that economic system.  Indeed, most unions are both unaware of and are uninterested in challenging such systems, comfortable with living within the decaying system of business welfare capitalism and the long dead labor peace.

That situation places us in a bit of quandary.  The most obvious interventions into the system have significant drawbacks to them, and are structurally difficult to create and/or implement.  Furthermore, the effective privatization of the college and university structure has translated into a withdrawal of the always precarious public support for such institutions. Moreover, we are likely to see a withdrawal of federal funds from the public education system for at least the next four years.  Unfortunately, the democratic alternative has shown little interest in supporting liberal arts education, either.  It’s a situation in which I don’t see any easy solution, and is most likely going to be defined by a series of defensive responses to a multitude of attacks on the system of public education.  The question is then, how to build forms of cooperation and solidarity within a system that is designed to make us, as students, faculty, and staff, think of ourselves within the logic of the market.  Despite its problems, I see the formation of unions as a significant force within that process, but it’s a process that will involve challenges to the logic of the international unions as much as the university.  In addition, there needs to be pressure put upon professional organizations to demand more institutional support for those who teach an increasingly large portion of the classes, and would demand a transformation of those organizations, as well.  In each case, we need to recreate those institutions to deal with the present, a lengthy process that is impossible to imagine, at present, a final form.

Reviving the Blog

I closed down this blog slightly over two years ago, although, in practical terms, the blog had closed down some number of months earlier.  At that point, I was burnt out by the process of finishing graduate school, the attempt to negotiate a new contract, and was in the midst of watching the attempt to reform our graduate student union collapse on the Irvine campus.  I found myself in a place where the act of writing simply felt futile, a feeling that it has taken some time to shake.  Since then, I've made a number of attempts to reestablish my connection with my somewhat limited public through two or three new blog projects, none of which really fully succeeded.  In each case, the project felt forced and artificial.  At the beginning of the year, I found myself thinking about trying to create a new blog project, and found myself thinking of the name of my old blog.  I could simply not think of a better name for a blog than the title I came up with at the beginning of that project.  More significantly, the emotional charge from the end of the blog had lost its power, and I began to think about simply revising this project, rather than jumping into another.  In a sense, the same impetus is driving the revival of this project as the one that started the project, the need to give myself the incentive to write everyday, and more significantly, to have a low stakes writing space, rather than the more high stakes, failed attempts at revising my dissertation for publication.  I figure if I'm not going to get my materials into the journals, I might as well try to converse with a perhaps equally small if less official public.  Along with the process of writing new posts, I also plan on mildly revising earlier posts, largely for legibility, but in some cases, I also might do some rewriting.  My intellectual interests haven't changed substantially, and I would recommend looking at my first post for a sense of how I named the blog and my larger intellectual interests.  I'll probably put up a slightly revised version of a talk that I gave at the recent MLA, but I think I'll end this particular post now.

Friday, September 5, 2014

End of an era

       I haven't posted much on this blog in the past year or so, and haven't posted any material since mid-May.  With that in mind, I've decided to close this particular project down.  I have finished with two significant parts of my life, graduate school and my participation in the attempt to reform the student worker union, which constitute a considerable portion of the material discussed on the blog.  While I could provide a laundry list of moments that I wished I approached differently in both cases, I'm glad I was a participant in both the institution, and the formation of AWDU.  I feel similarly about my involvement in the student movement, which managed to play a substantial role in challenging the privatization of the university despite its many flaws and explosive conflicts.  I plan to keep the present blog up as a memory of that activity.  However, unless I finally decide to finally write the systemic critique of the local that I've considered producing for a while, there will be no new activity on this blog.

         However, I plan on starting two new blog projects in the near future, one focused on the critical study of science fiction as a genre and a subculture, which I plan on calling future ruins, and a second project that will deal with other areas of interest, which I most likely will call notes on damaged life or the children of marx and coca-cola.  I'll post links for those projects when I get them set up.  Producing these new venues will allow me to break away from the concerns of my past, while preserving a record of those interests.  I'm always interested in working with collaborators.  Please get a hold of me if you are interested in either project.  I should also note that I am also happy to contribute my thoughts to anyone who would be interested in challenging the reactionary individuals who have largely taken over the union at UCI.  One of my greatest disappointments was the inability to continue the legacy of reform unionism, and I hope folks take over that mantle, and make less, or at least more interesting mistakes.

Here is the new blog: The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

notes from a suburban coffee shop

      Despite my recent blog posting, I haven't been involved in the union since our strike on the first week of the quarter.  To be honest, I wish I had gotten another week to work for the union, because I didn't have the chance to clean up the office, which wasn't in the best of shape due to a month or so of strike organization.  I'm not too fond of a number of my successors, but they certainly deserve the opportunity to start with an orderly office.  I would have also liked to finally get the orientations grievance settled, a process that I ironically started at the beginning of my tenure as Irvine's campus unit chair.  My hope is that process will get resolved without me, but despite some genuine bureaucratic experience amongst some of that grouping, I'm not terribly optimistic that the grievance will be made a priority.  I'm also fairly concerned that there isn't much effort to mobilize the Irvine membership for the upcoming strike in June, which is crucial for challenging the various unfair labor practices of the management of the University of California system.  I hope I'm wrong, and I'm even willing to put in a little labor into the process if it was necessary.

      Despite unemployment, I'm glad to be out, to be honest.  I've been done with the university since late December, and while I thought it made sense to stick around a bit longer to provide some transition, it doesn't make sense to have someone representing grad students who was finished with their studies.  Still, my final months were spent doing a lot more of the on the ground activities that I wanted to focus on.  I got to talk to folks across the campus about the strike, from the physical and natural sciences to the humanities and social sciences.  It was work I liked, but, to be honest, I was a bit burnt out by the institutional politics of the union, and even by the reform process that brought me into electoral office.  At the most immediate level, that frustration was created by the intransigence of the former leadership, who never accepted the election of the reform group in any meaningful sense, but it also expanded to the divisions and contradictions within the reform group, which has been defined by a number of explosive fights along with long running tensions.  In each case, the problems often stem back to the relationship has with our International union, who has left the local with very little ability to meaningfully act in its own interests.  I'll discuss these issues at a further date, but I'd like to give myself some time to discuss those issues with a cooler analytical framework.

      Other than that, I'm spending a lot of time looking for work.  At this point, I'm largely stuck looking for employment in the precarious spaces of academic employment, ranging from lecturer position to post-doctoral fellowships, and even positions as tutors for the summer months.  The process is fairly dreary and depressing.  There aren't a lot of jobs available, those jobs available aren't terribly high paying or stable.  However, this is a topic that has been covered by a lot of folks already, and no doubt their analysis offers more than I can currently offer.  Beyond that, I haven't been doing a lot.  I've been reading, and I attended the historical materialism conference in Toronto.  I have to confess that the conference left me feeling disconnected and alienated, an experience that I suspect has more to do with my current state of mind, rather than anything to do with the conference at all.  I just haven't felt any particular urgency to write at all over the past few months.  This isn't because I don't have anything to say.  I have some ideas about a essay on Robert Heinlein and Samuel Delany and about Butler and Jameson's readings of Louis Althusser to name two random ideas, but it just feels kind of pointless.

      I want to make it clear that it's not an emotional, but a kind of analytical malaise this is at the heart of this issue.  It just seems kind of pointless to make any  sort of intervention right now.   At one level, that sense of futility can be linked to a sense that anything I write won't get much attention, but more significantly,  there just doesn't seem like there is much potential for substantial transformation within the current political conjunction.  It seems fairly reasonable to assume that my field of vision is affected by my withdrawal from union activism, and lack of political projects, but it also reaches farther to my failed interventions into the reform process itself, that left me isolated from both the dominant northern group, and the discontented largely southern group as well.  More than anything else, I miss a sense of being a part of an intellectual and political collectivity that I both contribute to and learn from.  Which is not to say I'm lacking in friendship, but in a kind of collective engagement that has transformative potential, either on political or epistemological grounds.  At the same time, it doesn't seem like our current political terrain is particularly hospital to such interventions, as well.  I suspect that this will change with time.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Election Results for UAW 2865

       I thought I would write a brief posting about the results of the recent triennial elections for my former local, UAW 2865.  At the statewide level, it was an immense success for the AWDU ticket.  AWDU and their allies won all of the executive board seats, along with 80% of the Joint Council.  I have to admit that I was very skeptical of their chances, but we saw some impressive organizing, and new reform slates arise in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Riverside that were previously doubtful.  A lot of credit should go to the activists involved who had to both negotiate a contract and win an election.  In terms of the bargaining team, they won in San Diego, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Davis.  Despite losing in Santa Barbara, we saw the first substantial reform ticket run for election there, and they had a fairly respectable showing, bringing in about 30% of the vote.  Merced saw a split vote between reformers and admin caucus activists, despite a lack of reform candidates running for local positions.  Riverside and Irvine were much more lopsided, giving landslide victories for the former leadership, who are often referred to as the administration caucus, despite their frequent re-namings.  Riverside had a small core of reformers, who have a good chance to impact the local despite their small numbers.  

     Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Irvine, which had no substantial reform effort on the ground during the election.  Part of that was due to the admittedly very successful efforts on the part of Coral Wheeler and Moshe Lichman to put together a decent full slate of candidates, and to construct an electoral machine.  I might not like the kind of union infrastructure that they create.  It's hierarchical and not directed to creating an active membership, but it is good at getting votes out at specific times.  My hope is that we see some of the reform tradition taken up by the new officers of the local, but I have to admit, I hadn't seen much activity out of them during the contract campaign.  The other part was due to the decision of reform activists to put their energy into other organizing endeavors, and move away from union organizing.  It wouldn't have been my choice, but I'm also no longer involved.  (edit: I'm also not sure that my feelings on the matter are terribly relevant.)  I also can't blame those individuals for wanting to find forms of organizing that are less frustrating and more meaningful to them.  Having been through the last triennial, I can't blame folks for wanting to avoid that ordeal.  I really hope they find those collective efforts.  (additional note: I should note that there were Irvine reform folks involved in the successful election  efforts at UCLA.)

     As a last note, I genuinely hope that we see a continued effort on the part of the new elected officials to actively contribute to the fight  for a new contract.  I suspect a number of them could be very good union representatives.  But if that effort doesn't happen, I would recommend that folks take up those tasks themselves.  Get a hold of me if that is the case, and I will get you in touch with people who can help you. (I also strongly suspect that despite not running for office; we'll see Irvine reform folks at the front of the contract fight.)

Monday, April 28, 2014

What Do You Call A Caucus That Refuses To Call Itself A Caucus? A Critique

       In the final months of my involvement in the union, I saw the revival of an interesting phenomenon, the former leadership who formed the USEJ (United For Social and Economic Justice) caucus during the last triennial election denying that they were members of that caucus, or that they were even members of a caucus at all.  It is a strange claim to make.  After all, that group continues to vote in a lock step fashion that puts the reform AWDU (Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) caucus to shame, and their secret caucus list serve was accidentally leaked to the full union joint council list serve.*  It was pretty apparent that the group was still operating as a caucus, and that it was made up primarily of the remaining members of USEJ.  (Ironically, the group has existed in previous formations before USEJ as Adam Hefty noted, but USEJ was the first time that they opened acknowledged that they were in fact a separate and independent caucus.)  It was only a matter of a week or two that they finally acknowledged their existence for the triennial elections,** renaming themselves SWITCh, and erasing their past history.   Which brings us to the question, what are the implications of this refusal to acknowledge caucus behavior?

      I'd like to start off by saying that there is nothing wrong with being engaged in, or forming a caucus, in an of itself.  After all, forming a caucus is basic aspect of self-organization.  Caucuses allow for people to form groups to affect the direction of an organization or institution.  Often this involves a lot of communication, frequently in private, about the ways that they can affect the direction of the organization, what is possible and what is not possible, and how the group wants to orient itself within those possibilities.  Sociologist and labor studies scholar Judith Stepan-Norris, along with other labors studies scholars in fact have noted that the existence of multiple competing caucuses contributes to the health of unions, because the caucuses have to be more responsible to the needs of the membership.  After all, if a caucus doesn't fulfill those needs, the membership can simply vote in another caucus.  Historically, the decline of the labor movement can be linked to the expulsion of the communists from the AFL-CIO, which left the conservative leadership without competition.  In many ways, we formed the AWDU caucus four years ago to return to this democratic tradition of unionism.

      However, that system is dependent on an open and fair process.  The right to self-organize also needs to be linked with the responsibility for your collective actions within that caucus.  We can see this in play with the AWDU ticket, who has connected itself to a three year legacy, that has its flaws and contradictions despite some impressive successes.  But the former leadership is trying to short circuit this process with their rebranding campaign.  As I already noted, until recently, the former leadership group denied that they were even a caucus, and their current website refuses to acknowledge that a large percentage of their eboard candidates were involved in the last triennial under the USEJ banner.  A number of them had bargained on previous contracts, and had created the shell of a union that existed before the AWDU take over.  Two of them ran while not even being students in the previous triennial election.  Whatever you think about these facts, they seem fairly significant within the context of an electoral campaign, and the rebranding campaign is a pretty egregious effort to subvert that basic aspect of democratic governance.  At a basic level, you need to take responsibility for your own actions if you are a responsible member of a caucus, otherwise you are taking the democratic right to choose a political direction for the union from the membership.

       The problem goes further than that, when you start bringing in the context of the debates where the denials were initially made.  In each of the cases, the person denying the existence of the caucus would follow up with the statement that they were 'simply interested in the good of the union.'   The implications of the statement were fairly obvious, implying that the individuals who were involved in the AWDU caucus were not.  At a basic level, this sort of analysis is fundamentally flawed.  Workers' organizations are simply too complex to declare that one is 'simply interested in the good of the union.'  Unions have been defined by internal as well as external antagonism, debating over who should be a part of such organizations, how they should organize new workers, as well as what should be the goals of such organizations.  We've seen conservative unions and revolutionary unions, deeply democratic unions and cults of personality.  To claim you are 'simply interested in the good of the union' is an attempt to erase this rich history, and to place your conception of the means and ends of the union movement as the exclusive means and ends to that movement.  For more context on this tradition within the UAW as a whole, I recommend reading this essay by Barry Eidlin.

      It's difficult to avoid the authoritarian implications within the claim to 'simply act in the good of the union', however I'd like to spell that aspect of the claim out with a bit more clarity.  We can look at the relationship between election claims and on the ground behavior to do that.  In previous elections, many of the candidates linked to the former leadership group, such as Coral Wheeler and Moshe Lichman, have produced propaganda that claimed that they were opposed to caucuses per se, and wanted to abolish the caucus system.  It's a claim that generally indicates a position of moderation within U.S. politics, a desire to compromise and bring people together.  However, the behavior of those members has not contained those practices.  Instead, we have seen a lack of any interest to compromise on any issues, whether at the Joint Council or within the bargaining table.  Members of the former leadership caucus have even gone as far as to claim that AWDU activists don't support the demand for the rights for undocumented graduate students, giving management the impression we are divided on the issue, when this is an issue that both caucuses strongly support.  In effect, rather than creating a strong unity on this issue to win it at the bargaining table, which is still a strong possibility at this point, they have muddled the issue for partisan purposes.  We effectively find a situation in which the attempt to end caucuses is really the effort to end the reform caucus and return to the one party situation we previously saw.

      To make this point a bit more concrete, it makes sense to return to a rather contentious debate that occurred last summer during a the quarterly Joint Council Meeting.  That meeting had a surprise presentation by Coral Wheeler and Jason Struna about the implications about not focusing the bargaining process the summer.  The presentation argued two things, that we had succeeded more than other unions, and that taking a long time to bargain would have catastrophic results.  At least, that's what I got through the shoddy analogies to unions who had single digit membership numbers and scare tactics.  We saw the same threat of catastrophe on the former leadership's proxy blog, Paycheck First, who also promised catastrophe if we took the route we eventually took for bargaining, and the similar dire predictions being made regularly on the email list of the Joint Council.  At this point, it's pretty obvious that we're not facing catastrophe.  Instead, we're looking at a potential contract that contains no take backs, has unprecedented language in support of all-gender bathrooms and lactation facilities, and continues to fight for a voice on class sizes, rights for undocumented students, and a competitive wage increase.  The university is currently offering a pay increase, that while inadequate, is substantially larger than most of our previous contracts.

       Rather than admit their error, the former leadership have simply moved the goal posts, and are now insisting we could have achieved the same things.  Obviously, there's no way of knowing what would have happened in such a counter-history, but it's hard to imagine that we would have gotten so far on the issue of all gender bathrooms without the participation of hundreds of activists at and outside the bargaining table.  It's also hard to imagine that we would have the university genuinely discussing a competitive wage gap, and even make a pretense of discussing class size and the rights of undocumented students without such input.  It basically is an effort to erase the importance of rank and file activism from the contract process.  But more substantially, it's a moment where the individuals who made those claims have taken no responsibility for them, either to acknowledge their falsity, or the potential damage that they could have had on the bargaining process.  It subverts the possibility of having an honest debate over the contract campaign, or critically evaluating the goals and processes of the bargaining team, all of which are important to a successful contract campaign.  Instead, we are offered a debate in which one side continually makes outrageous claims and simultaneously denies its previous claims as they are debunked.

     More than anything else, this relentless campaign against the reform process has shown the strength and perseverance of the reform effort, which has dramatically shifted the conversation in the UC system from a system that offered only fee increases and shrinking class selection, to a system where we haven't seen a fee increase for two years, along with other reforms.  It would be a lie to say that this process has been drama and error free, but it's difficult not to be impressed.  We ended the perpetual cycle of fee hikes.  We accomplished that through demonstrations where our members were pepper sprayed and arrested, petition drives, and even lobbying efforts.  We've also seen a level of activity that has not been previously seen in our formerly moribund union, with most of elected position being filled. We've seen a bargaining process that successfully brought out student-workers in solidarity with AFSCME, and a successful strike in response to university intimidation.  Above all, we've seen a level of member participation in the bargaining that is unprecedented in union history thanks to the introduction of open bargaining, and the recognition that our ability to win a great contract cannot be simply won by nine clever individuals at the bargaining table. All of that has occurred in a setting where we have received  at best no support from a third of the union who still aligns themselves with the former leadership, and often opposition.  It makes you wonder where we could be if they had even offered a small amount of critical support on some of the issues.  (One added note: We reached none of these achievements alone.  It has involved a lot of cooperation with other unions, graduate and undergraduate groups, and other groups.)

    I hope everyone goes out to support their statewide and local AWDU chapters, rather switching back to the deeply authoritarian structure of business unionism we saw from our local in the past.  In Irvine, you should support Michelle Glowa for President, Mar Velez for Northern Vice-President, Ren-yo Hwang for Southern Vice-President, Erik Green for Financial Secretary, Leslie Quintanella for Recording Secretary, Henry Maar, Susan Richardson, and Beezer de Martelly for Trustees, and Katy Fox-Hodess.  At the Irvine level you should support Ana Baginski for Campus Unit Chair, Jordan Brocious for Recording Secretary, and Jordan Brocious and Jessica Conte for Irvine Unit Delegates (who will go to the International Union conference, where a potential dues hike will be decided on.)

*The Joint Council is the governing body of the union.  It is made up of the Head Stewards, Campus Unit Chairs, and Recording Secretaries of each branch of the union, along with the statewide executive board.  They meet quarterly to make decisions about the union, although they now also vote online for issues after AWDU took over.

**The triennial elections bring all union positions up for election.  We're about to have another triennial election April 29th and April 30th.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Thoughts after receiving a Ph.D.

       It's close to the end of 2013, and I thought I would try to put up at least one more blog posting before the end of the year.  I've been busy with contract negotiations and finishing my dissertation project, which was accepted at the beginning of December.  So I now have my Ph.D., which technically makes me a doctor.  I'm now beginning the process of looking for academic work, which is an incredibly dreary and depressing activity, if only because of the lack of work on the job market.  I'm going to give it a couple years, but I will probably be moving on if that doesn't work.  But anyways, the blog.  I'm going to hold onto this project through March, which is when I will be done with my stint at the union.  I'll probably have some more thoughts on that as we go into the triennial election.  I'd like to see the person replacing me to remain committed to the reform project, but right now, that doesn't seem like it's guaranteed.  The last two elections have been controlled by the old leadership faction of Coral and Moshe, who certainly have put in a lot of work on the ground.  If their platform moved anywhere beyond stating that they're from the sciences and the mention of Google parties, I'd be a little more impressed.  (I also have some issues with their campaign claim that they oppose caucuses, which would hold weight if they weren't obviously a part of a caucus.)  I have more to say on the subject, but it will have to wait until the next year, hopefully after a couple posts on other subjects.

       Rather than simply abandoning blogging, my thought was that I should start a new blog that had a greater sense of focus, perhaps on science fictional matters, and other cultural engagement.  The truth is that Work Resumed on the Tower was never a terribly successful blog in terms of readership.  It got a few posts that were read broadly, but often my posts received under 40 views.  I'm not terribly upset about this.  The blog was primarily meant to be a place to push myself to write more, and to express thoughts about a variety of topics.  It also became a place to discuss issues within the student movement and my engagement with the union.  Those two issues are coming to an end with my completion of my degree, which seems to also point to a need for another project.  I've always been interested in the idea of putting together a more focused blog, which while not being commercial, might have an audience in mind, something that this project never had.  On the other hand, I'm not terribly thrilled at the prospect of coming up with another name.  I still like the name of the current blog, but I also don't want it to disappear as a historical record of my work over the period of time that it ran.  I'm tempted towards something Futurian related, but am currently feeling a bit lazy as to doing the research.  Maybe, I'll take a day to go to the Eaton archive in Riverside soon, to take a look at their fanzine collection.

      Beyond that, I've been contemplating a number of directions I might want to go in once I'm finished with turning the present dissertation into something larger.  I know it's a bit off in the future, but I like to have more than one thing going on.  I'm interested in trying to put together a project on Brecht's work in the early 1930's, particularly his Learning Pieces, and their relevance to activism and organizing.  I'd like to look at the emphasis that Brecht puts on experimentation and the necessity for error in the process of creating new political forms.  You can see some early thoughts here.  It also ties into my interest in aleatory aesthetics, as discussed here.  I don't see this is primarily existing as an academic project.  Instead, I could see it looking similar to the sorts of projects that zero books has put out.  Additionally, I'd like to look at the work of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in relationship to the post war period.  This idea is a lot less developed, but I feel that there is something interesting to be said about the pair in relationship to the cold war, decolonization, a particular modernization project of the time.  Also, I've really enjoyed both the novels by Clarke that I have read, and liked the Foundation novels, as well.  Finally, I'd like to make a more theoretical intervention into the return of the concept of patriarchy.  Using Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, I'd like to argue that patriarchy is an increasingly tertiary matrix of domination within contemporary.  Instead, it's been supplanted by other forms of domination, that are no less serious.  I would probably start with a critique of the Federici's reading of Foucault, and move from there.  We'll see what happens in the next couple of years.

(On reflection, the comment on Moshe and Coral was a little one sided and unfair.  I'll make a slightly lengthier comment on their role in the union in the future, but its worth noting that despite the fact that the two did extensively draw upon the three issues I discussed above for campaigning, they have also occasionally contributed to the union.  More on this in the future.)