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The Point: Academic Labors


Greetings, Colleagues:

I hope your few days away from campus were restful and rejuvenating and included at least a moment to meditate on the historical crimes and ongoing injustices that frame the national conversation around gratitude.   

This week I want to use our email blast to zoom out a little bit and take stock of the larger contours of academic labor around the country. One reason that the Executive Committee decided to start this weekly communication and call it “The Point” was to remind all of us that we are on Columbia Point, in Dorchester, in Boston, in the world. In early discussions of this we realized we could not use a name like “Campus Notes” or “The Quad”): that kind of thing is too insular for us. It felt—and continues to feel—crucial to connect our work to as many communities—local, regional, and beyond—as possible.

So, what’s new in the big(ger) picture?

Strikewave or Not: There is a pretty robust conversation taking place among union members and other political activists, labor historians, economists and political scientists about whether we are in the midst of a “strikewave” right now or not.  This article by Jonah Furman and Gabriel Winant gives a good overview of the current state of labor politics in the United States and serves as a solid reminder that whatever nomenclature we settle on, it is clear that “workers’ economic resistance—whether through organized strikes or in the refusal of dangerous, underpaid, and unappealing jobs—is shaping the political agenda.”  The current wave of activity includes coal miners and whiskey makers, nurses and members of the stage crew; it also includes all of us.  It is thrilling to be able to report on the major victories—as with the tentative agreement recently achieved by our comrades in the University of California system or the recent ratification vote taken by graduate workers at Harvard—even as we need to keep our eyes on the difficult labor battles so many—including the FSU—are still engaged in.  Quick pro-tip (as implied in last week’s blast): it might help to keep you focused if you stop thinking of the other side in our collective bargaining process as “the provost” or the “former interim provost” or by their given names or even as the relatively anodyne “administration.” The word we are searching for is “management.”  And management will cede nothing without labor struggle—not at John Deere, not at Kellogg’s, not here, not anywhere.

Attacks on Academic Labor: Even as we rightly celebrate the victories of academic labor from Cambridge to California, it would be irresponsible to ignore the continued attacks on faculty power issuing from state governments and Boards of Trustees around the country. We are witnessing an unprecedented campaign—well-organized and often funded by dark money donors— to undermine the core principles of faculty independence and shared governance. Our UMass Amherst colleague Professor Professor Asheesh Kapur Siddique regularly reminds us that the mythology of university power residing in the hands of radical faculty is belied by the evidence: the dominance of Boards of Trustees by center-right CEOs and other finance capital bigwigs is the actual hand on the tiller.  From the attack on tenure in Georgia to the sustained persecution of Rutgers University Professor Brittney Cooper in the name of anti-critical race theory politics, to the brutal layoffs at Youngstown State University in the name of austerity (including the sacking of Professor Jacob Ari Labendz who runs their Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies), there are alarm bells sounding loud and clear.  The Youngstown situation has special resonance for us: faculty at YSU argue that active union members have especially been targeted in this program of “retrenchment and nonrenewal.” While the university claims financial exigencies, it is interesting to note that the school has made these cuts while also adding 800 thousand dollars to its athletic program—which loses millions of dollars each year. Youngstown State University, in short, has cut the Holocaust to make room for the lacrosse team.  It is a sobering time to work in academia; basic premises are being renegotiated in real time. What is the social role of the research university? Why do we need the humanities? As we take note of the attack on free and informed inquiry—especially with regard to the teaching of history—in the K-12 arena, it becomes absolutely crucial for those of us who work as scholars and teachers to join the fight for fact-based inquiry and exploration at every level of instruction in the United States.  

Boston’s New Mayor: Just over a week ago the first woman and first Asian American was sworn in to take office as Boston’s mayor. This is a big deal on many levels, but we ought to take this inspiring and historic moment to reconsider our strategies for engaging with government leaders. My sense is that in the past members of the UMB community have engaged with local and state government officials in an informal and piecemeal fashion. The election of Michelle Wu—advocate of the Green New Deal and free public transportation and so many other ambitious justice- and equity-based proposals—offers us so many opportunities and challenges. We as a union must do all we can to engage with the mayor and her staff as we fight for economic justice surrounding the development of “Dorchester Bay City” (just for instance) and help her center the concerns of working people throughout Boston. And too we must pressure our own administration to refocus its attention on government relations: it was not that long ago that we had someone whose job it was to do just that, but our former interim chancellor converted that office into something called the Division of Marketing and Engagement (which sometimes seems like it could be called the Division of Public-Private Partnerships). We need to do better.

This is your union! Let us know at what larger issues in and surrounding academic labor you think we all need to be paying attention to.


Jeff Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage