Labor

Someday soon . . .

. . . I hope to find something other than University labor politics to blog about. Honest. For now, however, here’s yet another letter. This one to the Minnesota Daily in response to an interview with Bob Bruininks published in today’s edition of the paper.

I would like to say that I’m surprised by President Bruininks’ comments about the AFSCME strike in today’s Daily. That, however, would imply that I expected him to say something that demonstrated honorable leadership — and that, as a result, I was caught off guard by his failure to do so. Given the administration’s generally hamfisted handling of the strike, however, I wasn’t at all surprised to find Bruininks dishing out more platitudes and propaganda. Disappointed, yes. But not at all surprised.

Bruininks claims that his childhood in a union household taught him that “no one, absolutely no one, wins when you have a strike.” But if he’d really learned that lesson, he’d have given AFSCME the same deal he gave the Teamsters. Not “something close” or “essentially a comparable proposal,” but the very same deal. It’s what AFSCME was asking for, it amounted to a ridiculously tiny sliver of the University’s overall budget, and it would have prevented the strike from ever happening. Presumably, Bruininks chose to offer AFSCME less than the Teamsters — and then to hold firm to that offer, even after the strike was called — because he thought that a strike wouldn’t hurt his administration badly enough to make it worth his while to avert it.

Bruininks’ description of the administration’s offer to AFSCME “essentially a comparable proposal” to the Teamsters deal is a fine display of propagandistic “weasel words.” It sounds well and good to say these are “comparable” offers, but all that really means is that it’s possible to put them side by side and consider their similarities: not that they’re actually equivalent to one another — much less that such a comparison would demonstrate a rough equivalence between them. By the same token, it’s possible for me to compare “President Bruininks” to “a weasel,” but the mere fact that I can do so doesn’t actually mean that Bruininks is a devious, thieving vermin — much less that such a comparison is fair to the weasel.

Bruininks also speaks compassionately about “reach[ing] out to our employees to see if we can heal whatever wounds are out there.” But he wasn’t interested in showing any such compassion or generosity when AFSCME workers asked for a living wage: he offered them a substandard deal and then refused to budge. He wasn’t interested in healing any wounds when faculty, students, and staff told him — over and over again — that his failure to settle the strike was hurting the University: he simply sent a few form letters to a tiny fraction of the University community who expressed such concerns, and then dismissed the rest of those dissenting voices as “noise.” And his definition of “reaching out” appears to be limited to “asking for money,” since the only outreach from the administration I’ve heard of has involved calls from the Alumni Association asking recent graduates — who also happen to be AFSCME workers, freshly back in the office after the end of the strike — if they’d chip in to help pay for the new football stadium.

Bruininks can put all the PR spin he wants to on the strike and its aftermath, but it’s going to take more than spin to “heal whatever wounds are out there.” If Bruininks really wants to do that, he needs to start by actually giving AFSCME the contract they asked for. Having failed to do that in the first place, however, now he will also have to work overtime to rebuild the good will — throughout the University community — that he’s so carelessly tossed away. He thinks that there “might be” some “lingering negativity” about the strike. The fact that he’s unsure about that shows that he simply hasn’t been paying very close attention. I’m sure there are people who weren’t bothered at all by the strike — and even people who would applaud the administration’s actions — but there are a lot of us who are still seething about the whole thing. I think most of us would be delighted to see Bruininks make a genuine and sincere effort to repair the damage he’s done to the community. But he’s certainly got his work cut out for him.

Another letter to UMN President Bob Bruininks

The brochure for the University’s annual Community Fund Drive arrived in my campus mailbox today. In past years, I have cheerfully contributed to this drive. It is, after all, a worthy range of causes. The people and programs who benefit from it are certainly worthy of the University’s generosity. The University’s efforts to reach out to the community this way are laudable. And I wish Vice President Barcelo and Vice President Mulcahy the best of luck in making the 2007 drive a success.

This year, however, the CFD will need to succeed without any financial contribution from me. This year, I have already elected to “continue [the University's] historic commitment to service and outreach” (to use President Bruininks’ words) by contributing to the AFSCME strike fund. I find it ironic — no, strike that. (And I do mean “strike that.”) I find it appalling and hypocritical that President Bruininks can attach a message to the CFD brochure expressing his desire for faculty and staff to “join [him] in this great tradition and contribute what [we] can” to “the needs of the state and its citizens” when he has so callously turned his back on the legitimate needs of the AFSCME workers who are such a vital part of the University community. The brochure works very hard to explain how much good can come from even a minimal contribution — a mere $3 per pay period can apparently do a great deal for the people of Minnesota — and I have no doubt that these claims are sincere and accurate. But it is nothing less than galling for President Bruininks to ask faculty and staff (and most especially staff) to embrace a spirit of generosity that he is clearly unwilling to apply to his own management of the University: less than 0.1% of the University’s budget, after all, could have been reallocated in ways that would have averted the AFSCME strike completely.

When President Bruininks can “walk the walk” of giving generously to the community in ways that match his ability to “talk the talk,” I will happily consider giving to the CFD once again. In the meantime, however, my financial generosity will continue to go towards the AFSCME strike fund. After all, if I’m going to donate a portion of my paycheck to the community — and I’m happy to do so — I’d prefer to share the wealth with people who clearly understand what the word “community” really means. And the University administration’s behavior these past few weeks is a clear indication that too many people in Morrill Hall simply don’t have a clue.

Monday lameness: The too-little-too-late edition

Why I chose to make Monday my “regular” blog posting day, I’m not sure.  It’s my long teaching day this semester, and several of those long days will be made longer by various meetings that are scheduled to happen in between my morning class and my afternoon seminar.  Not to mention the obligatory (for me, even if not always for anyone else) post-seminar retreat to the local brewpub for a bite to eat and a pint (or two) to drink.  Just when did I think that blogging would happen in all that?  I don’t know.  I simply don’t know.

Anywho . . . last Monday’s post never happened because Monday Night Football demanded my attention.  My team (who shall remain nameless here, seeing as how they have the most heinous and offensive nickname in all of professional sports) was playing, and when one lives 1100 miles away from one’s team’s homebase (and the guarantee of weekly TV opportunities), one doesn’t let a MNF appearance by one’s team slide by.  The blog, I’m afraid, suffered as a result.  But I did come away from the experience knowing, for the first time in my life, someone I could turn to should I ever want to place a bet with a bookie.  Not to mention a bar where “buying” shots for the bartender seems to mean that you and he and half the staff all drink for free.  So it wasn’t a total loss.

Less pretty — and something closer to a total loss (at least to this point) — is the AFSCME strike at the U, which officially ended last Friday . . . but only because the striking workers couldn’t afford to stay away from steady (if still inadequate) paychecks as long as the administration could afford to hold out.  There’s much more to say here, but I’m still feeling far too angry about it all to get it down cleanly.

Not-so-random Monday: Nikki Schultz edition

I hadn’t planned for this entry to be entirely about my friend Nikki. And, after a fashion, it’s not really all about Nikki. But it’s been a day where multiple circumstances have had a strong Nikki aura to them, so it only makes sense to put a name to that.

  1. Today, I wound up having lunch at the Dinkydome after my morning teaching. Which meant that the most convenient route for me to take to the strike location for my afternoon graduate seminar [sorry, no link yet, since the syllabus is still in flux] took me across the 10th Avenue Bridge . . . which gave me my first up-close, in-person look at the wreckage of the I-35W Bridge . . . which, even more than a month later, is a mind-blowing sight to behold. I’m not even going to try to capture in words what it feels like to see that much twisted steel and buckled concrete in one place — if you can count the full expanse of the Mississippi River plus several hundred feet on each bank as “one place” — since words won’t do it justice. But it makes it even harder for me to imagine what it would have felt like to be on the 10th Avenue Bridge precisely when the bridge right next to it crumpled without warning. Nikki didn’t have to imagine such a thing (though I’m sure she wishes that things were otherwise), since she was there.
  2. My graduate seminar — which happens to include Nikki — looks like as strong and promising a group as any I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching. And I’ve taught my fair share of stellar groups of students. Saying something like this in public, of course, will undoubtedly inspire some former student to wonder what was wrong with the cohort they were in when I taught some previous seminar. So let me assure any such folks, here and now, that any shortfalls in their cohort were someone else’s fault entirely. If nothing else, the occasional weak links in my graduate seminars — they’ve been rare, but the ones that I’ve had have tended to be pretty memorable in their weakness — are probably not folks who’re keeping tabs on my blog.
  3. The ongoing saga of the AFSCME strike at the U. continues to be . . . well . . . ongoing. If there are active negotiations underway again between the administration and the union, neither side is saying so publicly. So folks like Nikki — who’s also one of the striking workers — will apparently be walking the picket lines for the foreseeable future. And I’ll be teaching my graduate seminar off campus for as long as the strike lasts.

Monday not-quite-randomness: Labor Day edition

As mentioned in this space last week, the University is facing a strike by clerical, technical, and health-care workers that’s slated to start Wednesday. Last week’s bargaining[sic] session found the University coming back to the table without budging from the very same offer that workers had rejected when they declared their intent to strike.

So I dedicated a chunk of my Labor Day to writing the following letter to University President Bob Bruininks:

It’s the start of a new school year and — in all sorts of ways — the campus looks gorgeous. I’m especially impressed by the flowerbeds around the Mall area. Two weeks ago, they were nothing special. Today, they’re filled with brightly colored blooms. Minnesota has extraordinarily fertile soil, but I know those flowers didn’t suddenly blossom overnight. They were purchased and planted to make the campus look extra beautiful at a moment when students and parents could be suitably impressed. World class universities don’t look like sandlots. They’re scenic and picturesque.

At the other end of campus, where the old remote parking lots are being torn up to make way for the new football stadium, things may not look quite as pretty as those flowerbeds, but I know that this is growth that the University points to with pride. The temporary ugliness of bulldozers and cranes will give way to a sparkling new facility that will benefit the University community for decades to come. World class universities don’t limit themselves to short-term planning. They think big and they plan for the future.

Last spring, in what was widely hailed as a major coup, the University lured Tubby Smith away from Kentucky to coach the men’s basketball team. Big name coaches like Smith don’t walk away from big time programs for peanuts. Reportedly, his new contract earns him more than $2 million per year. World class universities don’t pinch pennies. They know that a high quality product often costs more, and they’re willing to pay for it.

This summer, some of the University’s lowest paid — but most vital — workers entered into a fresh round of contract negotiations with the University. They asked for a pay raise that would allow their incomes to keep pace with inflation. Reportedly, the gap between what the workers requested and what the administration offered amounts to a bit more than $2 million per year. World class universities don’t pinch pennies . . .

If the University of Minnesota genuinely wants to be one of the top three public research universities in the world, it can not pinch pennies when it comes to paying the people who are essential to making every department, every office, every unit on campus function. It needs to recognize that a high quality product often costs more — and it needs to be willing to pay for it. The University can find a way to pay for new flowers every August that will be gone by mid-September. The University can find a way to pay for a multimillion dollar stadium that will sit empty more days of the year than not. The University can find a way to pay a single coach enough money to resolve the current labor dispute. So why can’t the University find a way to give 3500 valued workers a wage increase that will let them keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads?

I recognize that, ideally, the University shouldn’t have to choose between flowers and football stadiums, coaches and clerical workers. There should be room for a world class university to have all those things — and more. I recognize as well that the University does not simply mint fresh money in the basement of Morrill Hall, and that there are often more demands — legitimate demands — on the University’s budget than it can adequately meet. Faced with the need to make tough choices, however, a world class university does not abandon the people who keep the machinery of the university running. It takes care of them first.

I like the fresh flowers very much. But I’d gladly forgo them — this year and every year — in favor of keeping knowledgeable, efficient staff members working at the University. Faculty can do our jobs perfectly well whether there’s a stadium on campus or not, whether the basketball coach is a Big Name or not. But we can’t do our jobs well without the colleagues who are currently asking for nothing more than the ability to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

I urge you to bring a fair and equitable offer back to the bargaining table — and to do so sooner, rather than later — so that the current labor dispute can be settled and so that we can all go back to the task of making the Minnesota the world class university we all believe it can be.

Sincerely,
Gilbert B. Rodman
Associate Professor
Department of Communication Studies

Laboring day

It’s Labor Day here in the US, a national holiday where we honor the contributions of the ordinary worker to society by giving everyone the day off. Banks, schools, and government offices are all closed today. Most (if not all) of the big buildings downtown are empty (except, perhaps, for a security guard or two — but it’s their job to work when no one else does, right?). Simply driving around town, you can tell it must be a holiday from the sparseness of the traffic.

Unless you’re at the mall. Or Home Depot. Or Best Buy. Or Wal-Mart. Or any of the thousands of other stores across the country where Labor Day means big sales and big crowds. And therein lies what has become the major contradiction behind Labor Day: the people who the holiday is supposed to honor and celebrate are often precisely the people who don’t get to take the day off. After all, you can’t really hold a big sale at Williams-Sonoma (or the Gap, or Restoration Hardware) so that all those folks with nice white-collar jobs can get non-stick omelette pans (or pre-distressed khakis, or faux retro cabinet fixtures) at 30% off if you don’t have a full complement of salespeople on the clock to keep the shelves stocked and run the cash registers.

To be sure, a lot of traditional working-class places of business — factories, warehouses, stockyards, etc. — also shut down on Labor Day. And many of the white-collar offices that are closed today still employ people who are several steps down the income ladder from the lawyers and corporate managers and account executives who head those firms. So there are certainly a number of ordinary workers who get to sleep in today as well.

But the US economy is now dominated more by jobs in the service and retail sectors than it is by jobs in manufacturing and heavy industry. And so the bulk of the “grunts” among the nation’s workers — e.g., the people who do the basic, relatively low-skilled jobs that keep the larger wheels of the economy turning smoothly — can’t safely assume that their holiday actually is one they get to enjoy. While I don’t have hard numbers on this, I suspect that the vast majority of salaried workers across the nation officially have today off, while a substantial percentage of workers who draw an hourly wage have to put in a shift today: even if, by all rights, it’s these folks — the ones who get paid by the hour, rather on two-week pay-cycles — who should be first in line for this particular bit of vacation time.

This is also one of the many ways that the class divisions that exist in the US are rendered invisible. The mainstream media typically make much of this as one of “our” noble national holidays. Every year, it seems, you can count on a warm and fuzzy piece on the nightly news about the workers who built this country, and the sacrifices they made, and the glory of their achievements. And they’ll probably also run footage of holiday crowds lounging at the beach or enjoying picnics in the park. But the odds are good that they won’t have much to say about the sizable number of “us” who don’t get the day off at all.

In fact, this sort of news coverage helps to maintain a prominent image of “us” as a nation that simply doesn’t include working class folks — or, at best, it only allows them to exist on the margins of the national community. If “we” all have the day off, after all, then folks who actually have to work today are presumably excluded from the “we” that (allegedly) characterizes the nation as a whole. If this is what it means to have your contributions to society honored, I’m not sure I want to know what it would look like to have those same contributions ignored or dismissed.