A Welcome and a “Thank You”

By Bob Velez, President, GA United

 

temperamental-women            The fall 2014 semester is underway and I offer a “welcome” to new and returning SIU grad students!  We start off this new academic year with new leadership in both our union and the university administration.  Your GAU bargaining team is gearing up for meetings with the administration’s team to secure a new contract that will cover a multitude of items including stipend levels, benefits, and working conditions.  GAU will do our best to provide whatever information we can on the progress of these negotiations throughout the semester and we are optimistic that we will secure a fair contract that balances the needs of graduate students and the university.

 

GA United is, of course, part of the larger organized labor movement; a movement that has its roots in New Deal legislation that made collective bargaining legal and saw the birth of several unions including the American Newspaper Guild and the United Auto Workers.  Those unions, ironically, formed during a time of enormous strain on the U.S. Economy: the Great Depression.  Unemployment reached 25% in the United States and rose even higher in some other countries.  The widespread poverty and lack of opportunity notwithstanding, these trailblazers called for the labor provided by the workforce to be recognized as valuable to the business sectors they worked within and risked their jobs (and, sometimes, life and limb) to organize for better pay and working conditions.
minneapolis-teamster-strikeWhile we are currently not in a period of widespread want and woe, it is not uncommon for some segments of the population to criticize unions and the labor movement for seeking more for their members.  Its no secret that Illinois is in a precarious financial state and as public employees, our fates are inextricably bound to those of Illinois; at least for our time here at SIU.  While we make no guarantees regarding what we will be able to secure in our next contract, we do not apologize for a collective bargaining process that seeks to better the situation for our members.  State funding for higher education has been only one victim of the full frontal assault on public budgets over the last decade or so.

 

I invite new and returning grad students to join GA United.  As I said during the new student orientation this year and in several departmental meetings, more members gives us more clout at the bargaining table.  Membership has its privileges as well; not the least of which is having a say in the governance and operation of the union that represents you.  As an all-volunteer run union, we always need individuals to invest their time and energy in keeping our ship afloat.

 

strike-ends            One final note: you are receiving this newsletter over a “long” weekend.  While Labor Day is generally viewed as various things including the end of summer, the beginning of campaign season in an election year, and the deadline for wearing white clothing and accessories, it commemorates “the social and economic achievements of American workers” (http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm).  Some of those achievements include, but are not limited to: the 40-hour workweek, the end of exploitative child labor laws, and the weekend.  Some of these gains were bought with enormous sacrifice on the part of labor activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it is easy to take them for granted today since we rarely face the brickbats of business thugs and mercenaries eager to crack the skulls of “rabble-rousers”.  For their sacrifices and commitment to the cause of organized labor, I offer a heartfelt “thank you”.  It is my ultimate hope that we all spend time reflecting upon those that came before us and did the heavy lifting of securing for labor a spot at the table.

 

 

From a pain in the neck to Conscientização: The “untested feasibility” of humanizing the university

By James Anderson

The day before my 10-year high school reunion my neck and shoulder started aching.

This was not an ordinary ache, but a sharp and debilitating onslaught of unrelenting pain and stiffness.

While I made it to my reunion and managed to dance – hurting my ego far worse than my neck, the pain continued with the same severity for about a week.

Overwhelmed and in a world of hurt, it occurred to me: I am not as young as I used to be. The irony of the injury occurring the day before my high school reunion was not lost on me. To be human is to be fragile. Our fragility can increase with age and intensify with chosen vocation.

In addition to carrying a bag over my shoulder for too long the day before the onset of pain, another likely cause has to do with sitting hunched over a computer for hours typing away, which I have been doing regularly for some time now.

When I was TA my first few years at SIUC, I spent hours each day at a computer grading or responding to emails from students in my lab. These days I am at my laptop incessantly, either working on my dissertation or annotating texts in order to do more work on my dissertation.

CONSCIENTIZACAO_1234715043PWorking through the pain and the second chapter of my dissertation this last week, I had occasion to return the writings of Paulo Freire, the seminal thinker in the critical pedagogy movement and a major influence on the philosophical-historical approach for my project.

Throughout his work, Freire argued humans, as sentient beings, are not just conscious but also conscious of being conscious. We have an innate capacity to objectify our existing reality and reflect upon it. By critically apprehending our reality, we represent it so as to pose it as a problem. We question how it came to be so. Tracing the genesis of the problem, we consider how its historical context normally conceals but can also reveal the way unjust relations are reproduced. We problematize the normality of present configurations, evaluate how commonsense assumptions elide injustice, and assay the prevailing practices producing subjects geared to thinking in ways conducive to maintaining unjust arrangements.

As “beings of praxis,” according to Freire, humans unite action and reflection. Our endowment for objectification of experience enables critical reflection upon the world, which enables us to project beyond what is and posit what could be. Informed by our imaginary, we can transform the world. Transforming the world “is to humanize it,” wrote Freire, who qualified that transformation can lead to humanization (realization of potentials) or dehumanization (an increase in the gap between what we are and what we could or want to be).

This poses a problem. Provided we use our capacities for conscientização, for the in-depth perception of contradictions, we recognize these alternatives subject to our action. Realization of the possibility for making the world more just emerges, for Freire and many of us, as the desired course of action and object to be achieved.

To maximize our potential we need to be both physically and psychologically healthy. When graduate assistants are expected to accomplish more during the 10 or 20 hours they are contracted to work on average each week, this leads to one of two negations of our potential. It either pushes a GA to increase the intensity of labor at the expense of physical or psychological health, or it results in a GA quietly working longer than his or her contract specifies, which can imperil health and impede a person’s success as a student when overwork without remuneration impinges on graduate studies.

“The problem of graduate student overload without proper compensation is a serious one that I have frequently seen during my nearly three decades in higher education across multiple universities,” James Garvey, who recently assumed new responsibilities in the graduate school at SIUC, just told GAU.

He added that GAs “should not tolerate over-commitments that tax their degree progress, interfere with their lives, or strain their health.”

While exploitative overwork cannot be blamed for my neck injury – or the fact I feel old because 10 years have passed since I graduated high school – it has no doubt been injurious to the health and degree progress of other GAs.

As Garvey suggested, this is not limited to SIUC. It is a problem afflicting cash-strapped universities across the country increasingly reliant upon the low wage labor of graduate students.

But graduate student workers nationwide no longer see it as inevitable.

Ana Maria Araújo, who Freire married and affectionately called “Nita,” explained in the notes to her husband’s book, “Pedagogy of the Heart,” that the notion of “untested feasibility” pertains to a “belief in the ‘possible dream,’ and in the utopia that will come once those who make their own history wish it so.”

In critically articulating themselves as workers – woefully undervalued workers – members of United Auto Workers local 2865, the graduate student-workers union at the University of California, committed to the struggle for a better contract. Rejecting the notion that an academic labor utopia would be awarded as a gift, their union argued “there are only gains that we win for ourselves, together, fighting.”

The Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, the democratic reform caucus within UAW 2865, advanced their struggle by advocating social justice unionism, which encompassed promotion of internal participatory democracy for rank-and-file empowerment and formation of an “Anti-Oppression Committee” committed to addressing issues of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia/transphobia.

As a result, student-workers at UC “made big gains on both bread-and-butter and social justice issues,” in their new contract, Katy Fox-Hodess, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and a guide on the UAW statewide executive board, noted publicly.

Natasha Raheja, a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University and a member of the NYU grad union, GSOC-UAW local 2110, implored leadership to recognize the possibilities demonstrated by their sister union in California. Raheja suggested a “member-led contract victory” – set to be the first for private sector student workers at a university in the US – “will reverberate across the academic labor movement.”

Graduate Assistants United is now negotiating a new contract with the University. While conditions in Carbondale differ from the situations in New York and California, the struggle to humanize the university resonates with us. Conscious reflection upon how best to overcome conditions that limit potentials animates us as students and as workers, as it surely does those who labor and study at UC and NYU.

And we must recognize the limiting situation as more than just a proverbial pain in the neck, as it were. Following Freire and a long history of labor and syndicalist mobilization, we can recognize the situation as an open-ended reality ready to be transformed by solidarity and struggle. The new semester offers new opportunities for testing the feasibility of this.

 

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

 

 

James Garvey Talks with GAU

Having recently accepted additional responsibilities for the graduate school, James Garvey, interim vice chancellor for research and professor in zoology who writes sci-fi fantasy novels in his spare time, also accepted a request for an interview with GAU. Our union asked him about his new responsibilities, the condition of the graduate school, work conditions for graduate assistants and the protagonist with earth-communing superpowers from one of his novels.  

 

GarveyGraduate Assistants United: Susan Ford delayed her retirement to serve as interim provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs. As a result, you’ve been given additional responsibilities in the graduate school. How do you feel about your new role and about the state of the graduate school?

Dr. James Garvey: I am delighted to provide my services to the Graduate School. My days as a graduate student were among the best I ever had. It is my hope that I can provide a similarly positive experience for the graduate students here at SIU. I’ve been working at graduate training for the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences and the Department of Zoology as Professor and Director for several years and hope to take some of the tricks I learned and apply them to the whole university. I can’t do this alone. Thankfully, Provost Ford left me with a very capable, highly motivated, and extremely positive staff in the Graduate School. They make my new job fun and enriching.

The state of the Graduate School is strong. Enrollment is up, especially in terms of international students. With many new faculty members arriving on campus this fall and several novel graduate programs on the way, we should see graduate students increase in prominence on campus in the near future.

GAU: What are some of the biggest problems, and some of the most promising aspects of the graduate school you’re now partially administering?

Garvey: As with all things, the biggest problem for the Graduate School revolves around funding. We’d like to provide more fellowships, assistantships, and tuition support for our students, although resources for these opportunities are thin. My goal is to help identify sources of support through alumni, industry, professional graduate programs, and agencies to assist in the financial health of our student population. Another challenge is getting the word out to potential students about what a great place SIU is for graduate study. The world is becoming increasingly crowded with conflicting information about the job market, the fate of academia, and the utility of a graduate education. Graduate School is not for everyone. But for many fields, a solid graduate degree is necessary to be competitive in life. We need to better showcase the successes of our students and draw on those great stories to grow our Graduate School.

Our graduate students are chock full of promise and have accomplished amazing things. Without our graduate students and their hard work, SIU’s mission as a research-intensive institution with access for all would grind to a standstill. Also promising is the large number of new faculty members coming to campus, who will teach more courses, provide fresh ideas, and help our graduate students grow as professionals. SIU has a great infrastructure for doing research and creating scholarly works. We are renovating labs and studios and are watching a new interdisciplinary research facility on west campus come to life. These resources will provide unique opportunities to do cutting edge graduate work.

GAU: Many graduate students are also employed by the university as Graduate Assistants. All GAs are represented by Graduate Assistants United and are covered by the union’s contract with the Board. The union is in the process of bargaining a new contract. What do you think are the biggest issues facing GAs that could possibly be better addressed in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and make it easier for GAs to be healthy and successful graduate students?

Garvey: Graduate school is an interesting mix of work, lessons, and play. Many graduate students are lucky enough to get an assistantship, with a corresponding tuition waiver. My parents never really understood this about me when I was getting my masters and PhD degrees– that I could get a professional degree and be paid for it. The concept is sincerely a good one. Schools like SIU can attract the very best students and exchange a higher degree for the good fortune of having talented, smart people help the faculty enrich the academic environment, stimulate undergraduate education, and create knowledge.

Most graduate students have unique needs and expectations that their academic cousins in professional tracks like law, medicine, and business do not. A high-paying career is not guaranteed after graduate school, making the notion of racking up high debt post-baccalaureate prohibitive. Look at me. I scored a PhD in ecology, studying fish. If I could not get economic support as a graduate student, I would never have pursued a career path I love, and society would be less one fish squeezer. Perhaps I am not the best example, but graduate school ensures that smart people take a bit of a risk to better their world and help train generations of people who go on to better, fulfilling lives.

To stay competitive, to ensure that our graduate students do their very best, and to simply do the right thing, SIU and other universities need to balance high expectations for our graduate students with their unique needs. Graduate Assistants United is a way for students to speak with one voice to SIU and ensure that they have fulfilling, productive lives. I can see many important issues that our students need to consider, including fair workloads, a comprehensive health plan, a fearless workplace, and competitive stipends. Students need to keep the perspective that they are getting a valuable degree to do something they are passionate about for a decent price and that cash-strapped universities like SIU have limited resources to give.

GAU: What is your impression of GAU, and how important is it for graduate students who work as GAs to be involved with the union?

Garvey: Collective bargaining is part of the fabric of shared governance, such as the Graduate Professional Student Council, that SIU celebrates. As with all forms of unions, the collective unit must represent the needs of all its members, not just those that choose to pay their dues. This is the grand challenge facing GAU and other bargaining units on campus– getting the silent, non-participants to join and engage so that their voice is heard when dealing with the very important issues facing graduate education at SIU. Educating graduate students that their dues translate to binding contracts with teeth is critical for all sides, including SIU’s administration, to be successful.

GAU: Student fees for the 2012-2013 academic year totaled $3,352.68, according to the SIU Institutional Research and Studies Factbook. Based on the different wages for GAs listed in the back of the existing contract between GAU and the University, the average assistant in a PhD program on a 50 percent assignment earns $1,633.91 per month, or $14,705.19 for the academic year. That average GA thus pays more than two month’s pay back to the University in fees for the academic year. GAs also pay the full amount for parking, which affects those who have to drive to the university to work. Is all this acceptable?

Garvey: I suspect that fees and other costs of campus life will be a topic of deep consideration in the near future. Increased fees are a result of many complex factors including shortfalls caused by caps on tuition, which GAs do not pay but undergraduate students do, the cost of running the physical plant of SIU, which includes our parking lots, roads, and public safety, and the rising costs of non-optional needs like health care and potentially optional ones like recreation, mass transit, and the environment (i.e., green fee). Graduate students need to consider the benefit of paying fees that enhance the university environment and experience versus the loss of these resources, not only to themselves, but also to the integrity and value of the institution to undergraduates, who pay for the lion’s share of SIU’s costs. Alternate funding mechanisms to cover fees such as off of grants and through donations should be explored as ways to offset the burden of costs of graduate education.

GAU: SIUC has yet to become fully compliant with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The current Student Health Insurance Plan has been criticized for being underfunded, and it is expected that it will soon no longer be certified to meet the minimum essential benefits required by law. What is the reason SIUC has not yet adopted a new fully compliant plan, and what do you think the solution is to ensure that students have accessible, affordable and quality health care?

Garvey: The sad truth about all public universities like SIU is that these schools are rapidly losing the support of public tax dollars and operating more like private institutions. Costs like health care, employee salaries and benefits, maintenance, and energy are rising, while oversight of tuition income continues to be driven by state officials, who are rightly reluctant to allow educational costs to rise for their constituents. The administration of SIU has tried, with arguable success, to control costs, but health care is taxing our limited budget. The university is in the process of seeking affordable, comprehensive health care plans for all our students, but our fiscal uncertainties combined with a rapidly changing health care market make it difficult to find an appropriate plan, especially as it pertains to the unique and varied needs of graduate students.

GAU: Under the ACA, employers like universities are obligated to provide employees working 30 hours or more per week with fully compliant health insurance. After passage of the ACA, the graduate school limited GA workloads to no more than 20 hours per week (a .5 FTE). “This restriction relates to the university’s current understanding of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the way [graduate assistant] benefits will be determined,” read an email, obtained by Inside Higher Ed and sent by Susan Ford to deans, chairs and directors at SIUC regarding the new GA workload limits. “This restriction is consistent with practice being enacted at universities across the country and put in place after consultation with the various offices involved with [graduate assistant] benefits on campus.” Given that the university has yet to become fully ACA compliant, is there a possibility for making an exception again for .75 FTE GA assignments, which some graduate students needed in order to make enough money to pay bills?

Garvey: I would say that the graduate students have reason to be optimistic that a reconsideration of the caps on workload assignments for graduate assistantships will occur soon.

GAU: Per the existing agreement between GAU and the Board of Trustees, GAs have a specified number of hours they are supposed to work on average per week. While many GAs work those average number of hours (10 or 20), anecdotal evidence suggests some are also increasingly expected to do more work during the same amount of time – to grade more papers, research faster, etc. As with other jobs, when the intensity of labor is increased above a certain point, it can be detrimental to the physical and psychological health of the worker. Unduly increased work intensity for GAs can negatively affect an assistant’s studies as a graduate student and adversely affect the university because it compels reduction in quality of teaching and/or research. How serious is this problem, and if serious enough, what can be done about it?

Garvey: The problem of graduate student overload without proper compensation is a serious one that I have frequently seen during my nearly three decades in higher education across multiple universities. It is not unique to our time or to SIU and will always be a challenge in academia where it is difficult to parse apart various roles of teaching, mentoring, research, and studying. Graduate students need to be vigilant of their workload obligations and should not tolerate over-commitments that tax their degree progress, interfere with their lives, or strain their health. Any student with a valid complaint needs to document their working conditions and report them to their Graduate Director and/or me immediately. If we can’t straighten out the problem, there are clear rules for mitigation as outlined by the GAU contract.

GAU: Dr. Ford has said the university is searching for a permanent dean for the graduate school to begin in January, which is when she had initially planned to retire. Any chance you will be that dean?

Garvey: I love graduate education and enjoy this job immensely. I might consider applying.

GAU: “Both Darwin and Snoopy will be waiting for me in the afterlife, waiting to give me a tour,” you wrote on your blog. “I fear the voice of glory might sound like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon rather than a glorious celestial orchestra playing for peace and goodness.” On that blog, you also plug your book, “Earth Rising,” a sci-fi fantasy set in a world where human cities have fallen and nature flourishes, in which you tell the story of protagonist Amy Marksman who discovers she has amazing powers to commune with the earth and see little green people. What would Amy say is awaiting GAs in the afterlife, and what advice would she give to GAs who are struggling for better conditions in this world?

Garvey: Oh, you read my blog and cite my book. I’m not sure whether I should be embarrassed, flattered, or humbled. Amy Marksman is a dear character to me and goes through some pretty harrowing experiences. I hope Graduate School is a cinch in comparison. And if you see little green people like she does, you might want to visit the Student Health Center. Amy would say that you get what you work for, no matter how daunting the task. If you fight for what is right and just, stand up for yourself, and keep a positive attitude during your graduate career, life after graduate school will be rewarding and fulfilling, even if you have a few scars and wrinkles to show for it.

 

Thursday, August 14, Happy Hour @Melange

happy-hour-melange

Where the Grapes of Wrath are Stored: Shared Struggle, Detroit to SIUC

By James Anderson

An oft-forgotten scene in the 1939 John Steinbeck novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” describes an encounter protagonist Tom Joad and his brother Al have with a “one-eyed man” they meet after stopping at a wrecking yard on their way to California.

The Joads, evicted from their family farm when they could not pay back the money owed to the bank because the Dust Bowl destroyed their crops, met the man with the missing eye when they stopped to ask for a new part to fix their broken down ’25 Dodge.

Upon arrival, Tom asked if the “one-eyed man” ran the shop. The guy with the one “raw, uncovered socket” and squirming muscles in place of an eye ball replied that he worked for the boss. The man went on to vent his frustrations about his condition and his boss.

“He got a way—he got a way a pickin’ a fella an’ a-tearin’ a fella,” the character told the Joads. “He—the-son-of-a-bitch. Got a girl nineteen, purty. Says to me, ‘How’d ya like to marry her?’ Says that right to me. An’ tonight—says, ‘They’s a dance; how’d ya like to go?’ Me, he says it to me!”

In front of the man who said he had not been with a girl since he lost his eye, the boss had also asked the girl to go out to his yacht. The character resentfully recounted this as he threatened to whack the boss man with a pipe wrench, before feeling his way to a mattress on the floor and crying after the Joad brothers left.

In a few pages Steinbeck illustrated the effects of interlocking internalized oppression. The relationship of power-over in the hierarchically-organized workplace exacerbated the insecurities of the “one-eyed man,” related to his disfigurement. Likewise, the low self-worth and powerlessness experienced as a result of perceiving his self as inferior and unloved because of the missing eye, made his institutionally-imposed subordination unbearable, especially given the boss’ teasing. That teasing, enabled by ownership of the productive property and the expropriation of surplus associated with the boss’ capacity to purchase the labor power of the “one-eyed man,” as well as the wealth and greater social power that accompanied those relations, dehumanized the worker but also the boss.DSC_0112

Such social relations are not relegated to the past or found only in pages of award-winning novels.

When I received my last Southern Illinois University Carbondale bursar bill for $1,141.48, due August 10, and considered it in relation to my last monthly paycheck for my graduate assistantship of not quite $1,500, I felt powerless as well.

At its best, labor militancy has historically transformed people’s sense of powerlessness, mitigating the power-over relations at work while stoking the oft-denied power-to of workers.

Labor strikes increased in the 1930s, from 2,014 in 1935 to 4, 740 in 1937, although many were not officially union-sanctioned, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward point out in “Poor People’s Movements.” Not only the outcomes, but also the collective action undertaken to disrupt the oppressive arrangements workers faced, recuperated people’s power and humanity.

To overcome a pervasive sense of powerlessness today means addressing attitudes of indifference, exhibitions of shadenfreude, and belief systems precluding comprehension of reality – all animating the rising ratios of disparate income not seen since the Great Depression.

For example, when Graduate Assistants United emailed out our first newsletter at the beginning of the fall semester in 2013, we received a non-specific fault-finding response from one graduate student exemplifying those aforementioned obstacles to overcome.

“As up and coming academics, you should know that your writings should be concise and accurate,” the student told us, suggesting lack of concision and inaccuracies in our writing, which were never specified.

Reflexive ideological rejection of our efforts to communicate and organize in ways that overcome the dehumanizing affairs described by Steinbeck in his novel – affairs unfortunately experienced by too many Graduate Assistants subjected to intensified and demeaning work – reinforce our powerlessness.

Likewise, always adhering to conditions of concision demanded by the technical structure of most media precludes providing the kind of context, analysis, explanation, theoretical frameworks and compelling narratives necessary for understanding. There’s only so much you can fit into a 450-word article or a 30-second sound bite – let alone a 140-character tweet. Yet for many today, if it isn’t a meme that can be shared on social media, it doesn’t exist.

Our first newsletter featured a contextualized news analysis I wrote about Detroit, after the city declared bankruptcy. I recently co-wrote a news story, featured at Truthout, with a friend after witnessing a massive demonstration in downtown Detroit on July 18. The demo followed other direct actions in response to the thousands of water service shutoffs in the city. Not everyone has been as concerned about the situation, however.

DSC_0040“The fact those people can’t pay their bills even with the money me and every other American (or should I say citizen paying taxes gives them), I’d say not my problem,” one person wrote to me with that parenthetical comment included, undeterred by the United Nations referring to the water disconnections as potential human rights violations. If there exists “genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation said.

To the point, water rates in Detroit increased 119 percent in the past decade, making it harder for people to pay, especially considering the city’s poverty level stood at 38 percent as of 2012, compared to 16 percent for Michigan as a whole and 14.9 percent for all persons in the US.

Yet, while a select few exercise power from above and over others in Detroit, others in the city are “joining millions of people from around the world in their power from below – horizontal and direct action power,” wrote Marina Sitrin.

Indeed, “people together are blocking and chasing away the trucks that come and try and disconnect the water,” wrote Sitrin, whom I admire and have an unabating intellectual crush on. “They are also reconnecting water once disconnected.”

Protagonists in Detroit, acting to create a different story for the city, said some unions have been involved in the direct actions, but not enough.

“I think unions are going to have to step up more to the plate,” said Cecily McClellan, who spoke at the rally in Hart Plaza on July 18 and served as vice-president of the Association of Professional and Technical Employees in Detroit. “I have not been satisfied with their activities, and as a result of that I think there’s been an assault on the unions.”

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a pastor at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit where he facilitates a restorative justice center among other community self-managed projects, admonished historical attempts “to narrow the focus of the unions to very narrow self-interest,” resulting in “bureaucratic unionism,” focused on institutional self-preservation at the expense of workers.

“The struggle is to keep unions alive and radical,” he added. “It’s very similar to trying to do that work in the church as well.”

Greater numbers of rank and file on the streets – perhaps also self-organizing together – are needed, said Wylie-Kellermann, who was arrested in two different blockades in Detroit organized to prevent a private contractor from shutting off residents’ water.

Recognition of shared struggle with Detroit should be obvious everywhere, especially at universities across the country where inflation-adjusted tuition and fees have increased some 46 percent since 2003, while the number of campus food pantries have also shot up in response to growing numbers of students going homeless and hungry in college.

Graduate Assistants at SIUC, who pay almost two months of their (low) wages back to the university, similarly struggle, in more ways than one. We struggle to survive, but also struggle to transform the institutions exerting power over us.

Toward the end of his novel, Steinbeck provides further inspiration for struggling against domination and power-over. Tom Joad, the story’s protagonist, tells his Ma that he is going to follow the lead of a former preacher and friend of the family, Jim Casy, who helped organize a union in response to the exploitation of labor and later died participating in a strike.

“Then I’ll be aroun’ in the dark,” Tom answers his Ma when she asks what to make of her son’s assertion that we are all part of a collective whole. “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”

 

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

Creating out of crisis

By James Anderson

My older sister, a friend of the family and I were driving on a bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard in Dallas, Texas, when the car tire popped.

Despite the jolt, my sister managed to get over to the shoulder of the road. However, the narrow shoulder was only wide enough for the car – not enough space for someone to change a tire.

We drove almost one mile on the shoulder of the bridge going about five miles per hour, shredding the remnants of the tire along the way as the vehicle bumped up and down. We made it to the next exit and over to a parking lot, where our friend – a mechanic – made do with a rusted jack, borrowed a lug wrench and got air for the flat spare in the trunk so he could put it on.

The three of us were making our way from Love Field Airport to Hunt Regional Medical Center in Greenville, Texas, to visit my dad. He had been hospitalized and put on a ventilator because his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease had taken a turn for the worse. The same day I arrived my mother was admitted into the emergency room back in Illinois because of severe hypotension. Just a few weeks before, I visited my grandmother at a hospital in St. Louis after she suffered a heart attack.

These synchronous crises contributed to a lot of stress, frustration, anger, grief and a whole cocktail of other emotions. Yet, I’ve discovered crises can be reason for reflection, which can lead to new understanding.

Sociologist John Holloway recently offered, “Think Hope, Think Crisis.” Holloway’s conception refers mainly to the incompatibility of humanity with logics of ceaseless capital accumulation.

Yet from many sorts of crises, admittedly often related, new openings can also emerge.

Crises are not always acute, however. Many are protracted and painful.

Impacts of Protracted Crisis

Nicole Troxell critiqued the prolonged pain of “Academic Sweatshop” labor, which too many workers at university find themselves in.

She explained that she first accepted the low pay, precarious arrangements and overwork of an adjunct because she wanted so much to teach college.

“But after seven years of struggle, I have had to admit that academia is a sinking ship,” she wrote. “It is no longer a middle income job with a promising future, but a field that pays poverty wages and increasingly runs schools like corporations, where the dollar comes before both students and employees.”

She added, though, that union organizing gives adjuncts reason for hope.

Graduate students too are in perpetual crisis. We face low wages and fees that wipe out about two months’ worth of pay for Graduate Assistants at SIUC. Prerogatives of “productivity” and “efficiency” – normalized under the rhetoric of “grade faster,” “grade smarter” and “I just need it done” – get pushed at the expense of the health of both GAs and education generally.

Much of this has to do with the broader, systematic attack on labor over the last few decades. It continues today in the form of ideological assumptions constituting an affront on any kind of critical thinking and an assault on economic justice.

Growing economic inequality of course correlates with deepening economic injustice. Statistics show just how much and why that inequality has grown in the US: The gap between bloated CEO pay and average worker compensation has exploded in the past few decades, from 20-to-1 in 1965 to 259.1-to-1 in 2013, an Economic Policy Institute report explained.

Similarly, an Institute for Policy Studies report found that major state universities with the highest executive pay or administrator salaries are also schools with the worst student debt crisis – a predictable but appalling correlation.

All this rising iniquity corresponds with declines in union mobilization and membership over the last couple of decades. The drop in union activity, in turn, corresponds with the greater initiatives to discipline labor – from the Reagan administration breaking the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization during their strike back in 1981, to recent attacks on public school teacher tenure in California championed by Students Matter, an Orwellian-named organization backed by a Silicon Valley mogul whose home is worth more than $10 million.

Higher education has also been in crisis. Before breaking PATCO, Reagan started the push toward privatization of university education as governor of California by relaxing restrictions on the amount of fees students could be assessed. While students in the early 1960s could attend the University of California for basically free, now students’ ever-increasing tuition is being pledged to boost bond ratings. Exorbitant fees accompany these less visible privatization schemes.

Crises Birth New Beginnings

From many of these crises, however, have sprung new modes of organizing, new methods of resisting and new ways of relating to one another.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, Greece’s economy contracted: Activist-scholars Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini explain in their new book that the country’s GDP declined by about 25 percent from 2008 to 2013; 68,000 businesses have been shut down since 2011; unemployment jumped from 7.7 percent in 2009 to 27 percent in 2013; and the once common collective bargaining agreements “have practically ceased to exist” throughout much of Greece.

One of the subjects Sitrin and Azzellini interviewed for their book, Anna, 42, has done union organizing since the 1990s and participated in student collectives while at university. She is now with the Union of Bookstore Workers and Publishing Houses in Athens.

“We want to feel as workers that we are active subjects and protagonists,” Anna said as she explained the importance of horizontal organization and how her union holds an open assembly, called the Open Council, every Thursday, where anyone discuss what is going on at the bookstore and coordinate actions.

In the US, workers in the education sector have initiated both resistance and made new creations out of crises.

The Chicago Teachers Union conducted an historic grassroots organizing campaign when they went on strike in 2012. In the wake of the court ruling that effectively eliminated tenure for public school teachers in California, the United Teachers Los Angeles union started work on a project, modeled after a Chicago Teachers Union study, designed “to make a case for the structural changes that would help students and place the union in a central role in fighting for those demands,” reported Yana Kunichoff, a Chicago-based journalist who covers labor, education and social movements.

The UC Student-Workers Union, also known as UAW Local 2865, represents teaching assistants and some undergraduate academic employees throughout the University of California system. The union went on a two-day strike back in April, which generated enormous solidarity despite faculty cowardice and administrative repression. They have since settled a contract with the Board of Regents.

In the same vein, Graduate Assistants United is continuing to bargain for a better contract to address injustices at our own university.

Certainly, crises continue to occur and are manifest as individual hardship, family strife, economic woes and other forms of duress. But reacting to, reflecting upon and going beyond crisis situations can be truly transformative. When this is done, those crisis events, acute or recurring, engender new subjectivities, different ways of doing and sometimes better ways of relating to and educating each other. As we experience the insecurity, hurt, frustration and surprise crises inevitably induce, it is important to remember that and reassert our agency in ways that make for a more meaningful journey.

 

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

Velezian Protagonism: Problematizing Power to Tell a Story

By James Anderson

With the camera zooming in for a close-up under the pavilion at Evergreen Park in Carbondale, Ill., the president of Graduate Assistants United took off his sunglasses.Velez pic

As he exposed his eyes to the light early that Friday evening at the union family picnic on May 16, he threw light on power.

“Bargaining is not about making good arguments,” he said. “We make those all the time. We need the power to go along with it.”

Union members elected Bob Velez president of GAU on Tuesday, May 6. Velez, 44, said he “was approached” to run for office.

“I guess you could say I was recruited to do so,” he said. “And I’ve never been the top dog in the union before. Oh, that sounds horrible doesn’t it?”

Velez, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and attended P.S. 108 and then John Adams High School in Ozone Park, problematized power while waxing facetiously reflective.

“How Machiavellian of you, Bob?” he asked rhetorically.

Self-deprecation aside, Velez said he draws inspiration from historical labor leaders who understood the paradox of power, from Eugene Debs to Mother Jones. Elaborating further the nuanced ways in which power functions, he earnestly qualified his previous statements.

“I don’t covet power, as a rule,” he added. “I certainly do not.”

Putting Faith in Power or Power in Faith: The Promises of Political Praxis

Having recently attained doctoral candidacy in the political science department, Velez has started work on his dissertation. The project involves a broad study of members of clergy who vied for positions of formal political power.

While there is a lot of literature on religion and politics, and some on the political behavior choices of religious leaders, Velez said, there has been little – if any – research on clergy that run for office. The primary reason for that is because “not a lot of them do it,” he said.

He said names like Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee – or kindred religious conservatives – often come to mind when people think about politically-oriented individuals whose faith is front and center.

In a class taught by Jean-Pierre Reed, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Velez first learned about lesser-known ecumenical political activists too, like Óscar Romero.

Romero, an Archbishop often referred to as “the voice of the voiceless,” held the highest Catholic Church office in El Salvador when he was assassinated while offering Mass in March 1980.

“At the time of his murder,” authors Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky noted in their book “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” “Romero had become the foremost and most outspoken critic of the policy of repression by murder being carried out by the U.S.-supported military government,” and he “was an important activist in opposition to the local alliance of army and oligarchy and to U.S. policy in El Salvador.”

In contrast, the killing of activist leader and Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko, “murdered in an enemy state,” in October 1984, Herman and Chomsky wrote, received far greater media coverage than the assassination of Romero, greater than the 72 religious leaders killed in Latin America between 1964 and 1978, and greater than the 23 religious affiliates murdered in Guatemala from Jan. 1980 to Feb. 1985.

Using content analysis “to calculate the relative worthiness of the world’s victims, as measured by the weight given them by the U.S. mass media,” Herman and Chomsky found “worth of the victim Popieluszko is valued at somewhere between 137 and 179 times that of a victim in the U.S. client states; or, looking at the matter in reverse, a priest murdered in Latin America is worth less than a hundredth of a priest murdered in Poland.”

Velez, who will be teaching Political Science 341i: Politics and Media in the fall as a graduate assistant instructor of record, said that in Reed’s class he also learned about Liberation Theology, a religious movement for socioeconomic justice with roots in Latin America, which Romero was closely affiliated but not directly involved with.

Reed, in his 2012 essay, “Theorist of a Subaltern Subjectivity: Antonio Gramsci, Popular Beliefs, Political Passion, and Reciprocal Learning,” published in the journal “Critical Sociology,” described Liberation Theology as integral to the Sandanista revolution that in 1978-79 overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.

Gramsci, an Italian theorist imprisoned during Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, advocated intellectual leadership predicated on trusting the potential of “the independent self-conscious development of subaltern consciousness into critical consciousness” necessary for social transformation, Reed explained.

Religion, can be an oppressive institution but also the “perfect suture between intellectuals and the people,” Gramsci wrote in his prison notebooks. It can promote, he argued, “the exercise of thought, acquisition of general ideas,” as well as the “habit of connecting causes and effects” to make “the vague concept of freedom of thought” felt, real and imbued with transformative potential.

Reed argued in his essay that religion functioned to promote that habit of critical questioning linked to social change in the Sandanista revolution. Like other applications of Liberation Theology, the Sandanista movement was attacked by the US.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, US administration officials funneled arms to Iran – despite an arms embargo – so as to support counter-revolutionary Contras in Nicaragua who aimed to subvert Sandanista governance.

Velez pointed out the “offensive since the Reagan years,” against organized labor as well.

Reagan inaugurated the ongoing systematic attack against labor after he fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 when striking workers ignored his order to return to the job, Velez recounted. Reagan also did away with California’s free college education program when he was governor before coming to Washington. Once president, he further cut federal aid to higher education and incentivized government interest-seeking on student loans.

The Reagan administration drew ire not only from the domestic unions and public education advocates, but also from the International Court of Justice, which sided with Nicaraguan plaintiffs in the 1986 case, Nicaragua v. United States of America. The ICJ decided that the US, “by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua,” had acted “against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State,” as the court’s judgment stated.

Inequity and the Power of Re-Articulation

Velez, who has been reading the biographies, “Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem,” and the “Bob Drinan: The Controversial Life of the First Catholic Priest Elected to Congress” – both about the foray of religious leaders into the arena of political power, said “getting the narrative,” be it through Gramsican re-articulation or straight truth-telling about repressed events, continues to be a big part of mobilization.

A recent Brookings Institute survey about religion and politics reaffirmed that notion, noting that although “there may well be too much emphasis in our political discussions about how issues are ‘framed,’ it is clearly the case that different ways of framing economic and social justice questions provide each side with opportunities to move opinion.”

Yet, the Brookings report acknowledged, “qualms about social injustice affect religious respondents of all stripes,” as demonstrated by the survey results. The study found “few differences on this question across theological lines,” from the Left to the Right side of the political spectrum.

For example, 44 percent of Americans said capitalism is not consistent with Christian values, according to the survey, while slightly fewer – 41 percent – said it is.

Velez said he thinks some people probably have taken advantage of welfare provisions, which disturbs the “inherent sense of justice” people have, but he also points to the growing justice gap that privileges a select few with immense wealth and power over everybody else.

The Brookings survey findings and the growth of disproportionate justice Velez alluded to come after several decades of growing inequality.

The top one percent of the population took home more than half the total increase in income in the US between 1979 and 2007, an Economic Analysis and Research Network report published February 2014 found. In 15 states, including New York where Velez grew up, and also Illinois where he has lived since 2010, the top one percent expropriated more than half of all income growth during that 28-year time period, the report also stated.

Similarly, a multivariate analysis study conducted at Princeton University concluded “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Speaking “most directly to the ‘first face’ of power: the ability of actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues,” the study found that compared to “the preferences of economic elites,” who “have far more independent impact on policy change,” “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Velez said agglomerated political-economic power has the advantage when it comes to crafting a narrative at odds with many shared realities, human sentiments and the interests of the majority of the population. And, “certainly the corporate media doesn’t help,” when it comes to getting the narrative straight, he added.

To provide one example, he said he only learned about faith leaders protesting the School of the Americas from the daily independent global news hour Democracy Now, hosted by journalist Amy Goodman.

School of the Americas, located in Fort Benning, Ga., and known now as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Social Cooperation, “used to train Latin American soldiers in combat, counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics,” Goodman reported on her program. Many officers involved in the November 16, 1989 murder of six Jesuit intellectuals on Central American University campus by a unit of US-backed military in El Salvador were graduates of the School of Americas.

Velezian Protagonism: The Power of Telling a Story

Velez discovered Goodman’s program when he was delivering newspapers at 4 a.m. to inner-city Minneapolis residents. He had moved to Minneapolis after leaving New York and serving in the Navy for a little more than 6 years.

He moved to Minnesota in 1993. Velez said he worked for a while at Harmon AutoGlass where the Glaziers were unionized. He said he had “no clue what a union was” prior to that first private-sector job.

Later, he returned to school. He said he had previously attended SUNY Cortland in upstate New York for one semester, “and they invited me not to come back for a second semester,” he added.

At Brown Institute, now Brown College, in St. Paul, he studied radio and television broadcasting for 18 months. While there, he said he first “dabbled in politics too,” and he shot the video of Winona LaDuke’s acceptance speech for the Green Party vice-presidential nomination at White Earth Reservation in 1996.

Velez earned an associate’s degree soon after.

“I graduated from Brown the same year that Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act,” he said, “and so I thought for sure that the career I’d chosen is over.”

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed limits on the number of radio stations a company could own nationally, enabling a firm to own eight stations in large communities, double the previous limit. It also enabled the Federal Communications Commission to allocate existing broadcasters, including many large media corporations, double their spectrum for digital transmissions – an estimated $70 billion dollar value for free.

In the documentary “Free Speech for Sale,” journalist Bill Moyers explained this “giveaway of the digital spectrum” as handover of the public airwaves for the benefit of concentrated private media power, which has become increasingly consolidated since President Clinton signed the act into law.

The signing of the Telecommunications Act did not immediately end Velez’s media career, however. In the process of becoming a protagonist, the subject or singularity in a common story constructed with others, Velez continued to exercise agency through dialogue and remediation.

He was offered a job to do full time radio at a country station in Winona, Minn., but he turned it down.

Velez ended up elsewhere as “community and information director or something like that,” he said. “It was a weekend gig at a small station in Stillwater, Minn. WEZU – that I remember – 1220 on the AM dial.”

While a Stillwater radio personality, he also assumed multiple media production and newscaster roles.

“I was responsible for doing the community calendar events that came up,” he said. “I’d produce that segment. It’d run three times a day – any picnics or public affairs things. Then I would do the weekend news. But I really just read off the wire.”

One morning, driving into work, he said he spotted a long line outside of a department store. He decided to investigate.

“So I’m like, ‘Hey! I could do an actual news story on this,’” he said. “And I went out there, and people were waiting in line for Beanie Babies.”

Velez said he was the only person at the station that Saturday, so he covered the Beanie Baby story, and it aired. He said he had a feeling when he first saw the line of people that it might not be an earth-shattering scoop.

“I had my suspicions. I was like [beforehand], ‘I hope this isn’t for Beanie Babies. But, sure enough, it was. I interviewed a couple people in line. And they’re like, ‘Oh, they’ve got a shipment of the new ones.’ And I’m like, ‘All right. Good for you.’”

Opening up the Paradoxical Toolbox of Union Power

While Velez came to recognize the power of consumer culture, it was not until he became a public employee with the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department that he started to fully realize the importance of union power.

At the time he was married with three kids. The employer had made a proposal during the first bargaining session that would have increased the family health insurance premium about 70 percent, he said. So he got involved and became an active member of AFSCME local 34.

Not having any prior bargaining experience, Velez did what anyone might do in a situation without expertise. He called his mother for advice.

“My mom for many years worked on the ‘dark side,’” he explained about his mother’s job at New York Racing, which includes the Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga race tracks.

So he phoned her before that first bargaining session back in 2001-2002.

“I called her up, and I’m like, ‘Alright, you’re going to have to tell me. What am I facing here? You worked on the other side, and I’m on the union side,’” he said.

He said his mother told him the experiences would not be too similar.

As part of the bargaining process at the tracks, her boss would sit down with the union guy and they would have a three-martini lunch, Velez said, as she had explained to him. The union leader would inevitably stomp off when the boss would not accept initial offers, Velez recounted per the conversation with his mother, adding that this would happen two or three more times and then they would work something out.

In between the multiple bargaining sessions he participated in, and in addition to going door-to-door, trying ‘to organize a diaspora of childcare workers,” Velez also become a steward for the union, and he served two terms as vice president of his local.

Organizing for union power, which is directly tied to membership and involvement, he said, remains essential for advancing workplace democracy.

“For any union, the more members, that’s how you get clout at the bargaining table,” he said, reiterating a point he underscores often, as he did at the family picnic. “There’s just no two ways about it. Bargaining, I’ve said it before, bargaining contracts is not about making good arguments. It’s about power.”

Michael Albert, founder of Z Magazine and author of “Parecon: Life After Capitalism,” argued in the aforementioned book that “the rule that markets and many other systems impose” is the “idea that society should enrich the thug for being thuggish,” with people getting “what they are strong enough to take,” despite how “virtually no one morally advocates brute force bargaining power as our preferred criterion” for equitable remuneration or allocation.

The capitalist organizational form is characterized by “market allocation, corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for property, power, and output,” as well as class-based domination of decision-making, Albert wrote. Like systems with centralized, top-down planning of an economy through the State, capitalism also creates a “coordinator class,” Albert argues, which monopolizes all the empowering work and, hence, decision-making power.

The growing number of administrative positions and pay represents consolidation of a “coordinator class,” within the university context, following Albert’s model.

A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies, “The One Percent at State U,” suggests consolidation of the “coordinator class” within universities continues apace, as does the economic leverage of the upper academic strata. The report found that student debt increased most at state schools where executive compensation increased by $1 million on average in 2012, which was more than double the average increase at other public research institutions.

Institutional debt is also mounting across the country.

Debt & Society, a project for research and discussion of the causes and consequences of expanded debt financing, found that public university debt almost tripled over the last decade from $54 to $154 billion, with the average increase in spending per student on interest costs rising 68 percent from 2002 to 2012 for the 232 institutions reporting relevant data included in the study. It also noted the danger of institutions becoming ever-more beholden to bond investors and the “operational performance” measures and “pricing power” appraisement of Moody’s ratings methodology.

The structural trends have lasting impacts at both the institutional and the individual level. With respect to the latter, the Pew Research Center revealed that indebtedness exacerbates growing wealth divides. A graduate with debt to repay is likely to have significantly lower net worth than someone without student debt, Pew reported.

New Paradigms of Power and the Power of New Paradigms: Alternative Ideas and Complimentary Strategies

But there are alternatives to the “neoliberal university,” which is what Henry Giroux, professor in the English and Cultural Studies Department and McMaster University, termed the prototypical institution of higher learning in an era denuded of democratic values and rife with injustice.

In an undergraduate anthropology class, Velez said he watched a documentary about one notable alternative model: the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation. Mondragón features a federation of worker-owned enterprises based in the Basque region of Spain, which was started by Catholic priest José María Arizmendiarrieta.

“The professor showed us that film, and I was blown away,” Velez said.

Mondragón has a university embedded within it. It also has an average pay ratio of about five-to-one for executive workers compared to field and factory workers.

In the above-mentioned Institute for Policy Studies report, one of the solutions offered for creating a more equitable university has to do with establishing pay ratio requirements so that the highest paid administrator cannot make more than the lowest paid full-time faculty member.

As far as transforming the university into a worker self-managed place of higher learning, Velez said “you would think,” it would be possible. “It’s the perfect environment right?”

Velez, whose daughter will start college in the fall at Illinois State University, said despite its “transitory nature,” and problems arising from continual cut backs in public funding, the university still has an environment that seems “conducive” for such democratic experimentation.

“You would think that we should be able to be that, to be the petri dish, to form these kinds of things,” he said.

Since she is heading off to school, Velez said he gave his daughter a copy of “Rules for Radicals,” a seminal text by the late Saul Alinksy, celebrated community organizer famous for experimental methods but also long-term mobilization techniques.

Paul Engler, founding direct for the Center for the Working Poor in Los Angeles, and Philadelphia-based journalist Mark Engler, senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, wrote a piece juxtaposing what they called Alinsky’s “art of the slow, incremental building of community groups,” with the seemingly divergent theory of “disruptive power,” popularized in the book, “Poor People’s Movements,” by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward.

That “disruptive power,” existing apart from stable organizational resources and outside established political institutions can be a more powerful mechanism for social change, Piven and Cloward argued. This is particularly true for poor folks unable to address concerns through formal electoral-representative channels, they wrote. Established institutional structures are often and increasingly unavailable to the lower classes, Piven and Cloward explained, and those institutions are also inherently cautious in order to survive.

Velez, who had a printout of one chapter from “Poor People’s Movements,” sitting on his office shelf in Faner Hall on SIUC campus, said he really likes “the idea of a toolbox” for any organization or group of people “seeking social change – whether it’s workplace democracy, unions; whether it’s ‘Poor People’s Movements'; whether it’s welfare rights activists, environmentalists – there’s value in all these organizing models.”

With respect to differences between the Alinksy strategy of long-term community cultivation for collective action compared with the Piven and Cloward notion of obstreperous power to advance working-poor interests, Velez said “we should view them as complimentary models rather than competing.”

Both getting the narrative and employing a plethora of tactics – especially those conventionally conceived of as most purposeful for the poor – appears essential now, as Velez said, because while “most people think that they’re almost rich,” there’s really “many people that are almost poor.”

Graduate Assistants at SIUC in doctoral programs and on 50 percent full-time equivalents – the lowest paid being those in the college of mass communication and media arts who, according to the current GAU contract, make $1,498 per month, but also pay back about two months’ worth of salary in fees over the course of the academic year – are not usually under any illusions of being rich.

But other people are, Velez offered.

Velez said he got a keener sense of people’s attitudes about class when he did his undergraduate Capstone project several years back.

For the project, he interviewed union members and talked to both activists and non-activists. So many of the members he spoke with said they were “middle class,” he recalled. After doing the project, he realized that label did not accurately describe his own class status during his formative years.

“I realized that I wasn’t middle class growing up,” he said. “I was poor.”

The meanings for and reasons behind class divisions are not really taught or discussed in schools, he admitted.

It would be helpful for many social movements, “not just the labor movement,” he said, if people could accurately assess their position in society and assay the structures that engender stratifications – those reified gross disparities that fail to comport with popular notions of justice. Velez suggested that those notions of justice may not always be well-articulated: they may be felt primarily on a visceral level, and they may also get frequently subjected to ideological inversion by institutions like education and the media. But the potential for turning desire for justice into a powerful movement remains.

The Value of People Power

The absence of class consciousness in popular discourse, he said, also has to do with the value-systems major institutions inculcate.

The trend of “measuring outputs versus outcomes,” especially in education, coupled with the push for ever-greater productivity and efficiency, devalues us as people, Velez said.

Diane Ravitch, former US Assistant Secretary of Education, has decried pedagogical subordination to standardized testing typical of the business-model approach to education and its prioritization of “value-added measurement,” or evaluation of teachers based primarily on student test scores.

An April 2014 study by the American Statistical Association found “value-added measurement” for educational assessment problematic because the “scores themselves have large standard errors,” which make “rankings unstable,” and “it does not provide information on how to improve teaching.”

Similarly, Velez challenged system-wide hegemonic measures of value.

“That’s what makes you a value to society? Whether or not you’re producing enough widgets in your vocation?” he asked with exasperation regarding the corporate prerogatives of surplus production.

Velez entreated people to consider what they truly value, and he critiqued the “cultural overemphasis on work,” which privileges exchange value production over people’s health.

“How many employees get zero sick time?” he asked before emphatically offering answers. “Restaurant workers! People that are handling food! People that are handling groceries! Produce!”

Recent restaurant and fast food worker strikes for fair pay and basic rights are more significant than some people realize, Velez added.

Jane McAlevey, a former SEIU organizer interested in building “real power” for unions, argued in her new book, “Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement,” that supposed “strikes in the fast food and Walmart campaigns aren’t strikes just because someone spelled them s-t-r-i-k-e-s; they are press events and opportunities for liberals to wash away their guilt at this country’s disgusting levels of inequality.”

Velez disagrees. The tide of food service and retail strikes “applied some social pressure,” to structures of power, and it helped spark a national debate about the minimum wage, he said.

Actions involving thousands of fast food workers demanding the right to organize and the right to a decent wage spread to dozens of cities in mid-May with participation in more than 30 other countries. More than 100 people were arrested at the Illinois headquarters of McDonald’s shortly thereafter, demonstrating for the right to unionize and for living wages.

The labor movement also predated fast food, Velez noted, so well-established forms of worker resistance are not necessarily applicable to that sector; hence, there is a need to innovate.

However, he said he does not disagree with McAlevery’s point about the need to build union power.

The “business-model unionism,” based on writing a check for a political donation and hoping for the best, does not cut it, he contends.

Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, who edited “Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present,” wrote in their book that “creative and constructive practices” – exemplary “expressions of participatory democracy on the job and within society,” have led to “genuine innovation within unions,” often “outside established business-union structures,” which impede collective empowerment.

Indeed, Velez reiterated, workers should be innovative – like the fast food organizers have been – but, “blindly going ahead and saying ‘yes’ to everything,” spells disaster. That a-critical attitude led to foolish business-model approaches to begin with, he added.

New Superpowers for Social Change during Critical Junctures

Velez said he did not come to SIUC blindly, but he did not have the sort of financial wherewithal to ensure complete predictability either.

Velez said he and his partner, whom he met at a union event, constituting a veritable “union romance story,” came down in their 1972 Winnebago.

“We lived in that thing for five weeks,” he said.

Working with limited funds, he said he “floated the idea of getting an RV and just living in that thing the whole time,” while he attended graduate school in Carbondale.

He likened the Winnebago, which is about one hundred square foot, to the vehicle seen in the “Shazam!” TV series that aired in the 1970s. The show revolved around teenager Billy Batson, endowed by the powerful immortal eleders with the power to turn into Captain Marvel. Batson traveled the highways of the land with a mentor in an RV helping people along the way.

“So I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s cool. It’s like a ‘Shazam!’ RV. That’s cool,’” he said.

When he and his partner arrived in Southern Illinois in their Winnebago they first drove through Giant City Park, and considered staying there.

“I’m from New York City,” he pointed out, “so I’m not a camper by nature.”

Recognizing his “novice camping” skills, his partner recommended staying at a place more appropriate for him.

They stayed at a KOA in Benton, Ill., for four or five days before they received an offer to stay for free if they would help out cleaning toilets and the pool.

“So we’re like, ‘Score!’’ he exclaimed.

Eventually they got a house in Benton, and Velez continued to progress in the political science doctoral program as he became involved with GAU.

He signed his union membership card the first day of graduate student orientation back in August 2010.

It was at orientation that he met Matt Ryg, a fellow Minnesotan who was recently elected president of Graduate & Professional Student Council after just finishing his term as president of the union prior to the election of Velez.

Ryg said the experience Velez brings to the bargaining table will be an asset for the union, and that Velez can build on the work that was done this past academic year.

“Bob will continue to add value to the university via GAU,” Ryg said. “Over the next academic year, GAU will be at the bargaining table to negotiate our next contract; we will also continue to build new membership and resolve outstanding grievances with the university. I look forward to increased and mutually beneficial partnerships between GAU and GPSC.”

Initial jocular, self-reflective Machiavellian comparisons aside, Velez said assuming the role of president “seemed like a logical step,” even if it will “be really hard to fill Matt’s shoes.”

Velez described Ryg as having “high energy,” and being “very hands-on,” but not as having a markedly different leadership style.

“We’re going to get back almost the full complement of activists,” added Velez, who is hopeful that the union can continue to build the sort of power that will “make it easier for grad students to be grad students.”

The University surely realizes “it’s going to be cost-prohibitive pretty soon if they don’t do something about the fee-to-salary ratio,” he said with respect to one of the biggest bargaining issues.

Despite movement toward workplace democracy often coming “at the margins,” he said that does not preclude future advancements.

“There have been moments in history where there are big changes that occur in a seemingly – sure not to the people at the time – but seemingly short periods of time,” he said, recollecting critical historical junctures.

Whether we have entered such a pivotal point in history, has yet to be decided, but people power makes a difference, Velez proffered.

“We should keep fighting, absolutely,” he said.

 

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

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