Since this is a post about labor issues, I need to state in advance that I speak only for myself. I have been a proud member of a union since 1974 … different unions at different times … I believe absolutely in the importance of unions. I have, nonetheless, been a bit of a naughty union member over the years … there was a time when I was a steelworker when my local president told me 1) that I better watch my back, you never knew what might happen, and 2) don't count on my union to go out of their way to help me. I have this problem, or rather, a combination of problems … or maybe it's the same problem stated in different ways. I don't like being told what to do, and I don't like authority figures. So I believe in the concept of unions, and am proud to be on the front lines with my union, but I'm usually in trouble with my union because I have a big mouth. (The ultimate Steven in the Union story: as a grad student, I once voted against a strike … I don't recall the exact final vote, at the time it felt like 824-1, but I'm sure it was more like 794-31. Anyway, we went on strike, and even though I didn't vote for the strike, once it's on, it's on, and so onto the picket lines I went. The strike was a failure, although it took awhile for us to realize that fact. And so it was that one rainy day, I was the only person patrolling one of the campus entrances. I walked back and forth, drenched, my shitty-ass umbrella doing less than nothing, waving my picket sign in the air and wondering where all of those 794 people were.)
You might have noticed in the Chronicle that there is a labor dispute going on between the California State University system and the faculty members. I have taught in the CSU system on two occasions, although I do not do so at present. I think we're all in the same teachers' union, but to be honest I'm never quite sure how it works. Suffice to say I'm in a teachers' union, so are the teachers in CSU, so I have sympathy for them. But you can't ascribe anything I say here to any of the union members … I'm here only to represent myself, and yes, I know I already said that, but it bears repeating.
For some reason, I am still on the faculty email list for San Francisco State, so I get the usual batch of general info. Awhile back I got an email from the president at SFSU … this email is referenced in the Chronicle article. I didn't write about it at the time, figuring it's not really my business, but since it's out in the public now, and since the article spends substantial time discussing that email, I think I can talk now. But first, another tangent.
The first time I went on strike as a graduate student, Fred Crews was in charge of the English Department. Fred has had a fine, distinguished career … I confess I've been especially impressed with the work he's done since going emeritus, as he has become one of the leading voices in the skeptical movement. But at the time in question, he was just a big shot professor running the department in which I wandered. Crews was a liberal sort of fellow, very collegial, and he was worried about his grad students, who were about to go on strike. He called a meeting of faculty and grad students to see if he could create some kind of coalition or something that might prevent a strike. His intentions were clearly heartfelt. But I don't suppose I'd been more pissed off in my entire graduate career as I was that day, listening to Fred Crews tell us what was best for us. He was trying to be the good father advising his children, and it was condescending beyond belief. At that point, I was a pretty non-descript grad student … I hadn't done anything particularly noteworthy. But in that meeting, I stood up and called Crews on his paternal bullshit. That he turned out to be right, that our strike was ill-advised, was not the point. The point was that when you are in charge of something, and push comes to shove, you don't get to play for both teams. In that dispute, Fred Crews was management, and he was trying to tell labor what to do. Well, fuck that.
And so, the letter from Robert Corrigan, president at San Francisco State University. It pissed me off … pretty amazing, considering I don't even work there anymore. The Chronicle article gets the gist of the letter fairly well. The email was titled "In Your Name," because Corrigan was accusing the union of nefarious deeds in pursuit of their goals. The title itself was an insult: it assumed the rank and file was too stupid to know what was being done "in our name," so the great white father would explain it to us. Corrigan attempted to establish his union credentials … "union card at 14, father a long-term shop steward, grandfather a longshoreman for 50 years" … then, to prove he understood that sometimes labor negotiations got hardcore, admitted that he was once burned in effigy. He also said that he had long ago been advised not to butt into the business of labor … "For better or for worse, Corrigan," he was told, "it is our union and our Senate, so mind your own business!" But he couldn't shut his bloody hole. So he sent the email, which included an "unprecedented request" … "urge your union leadership" … and I can stop there.
Because it doesn't matter what he wanted us to urge, he should have listened to that long-ago advice. It was none of his business. He is the President of a major university. I'm sure he's a fine fellow and a fine administrator, and I'm glad his father was a shop steward. But university presidents don't get to tell union members what to do with their union. You want to be in charge, have at it, but don't try to convince the rest of us that you are our best fucking friend. Because you are not.
And, in case I didn't say this enough, I speak only for myself, and outsider and observer to the current brouhaha.