NEA locals appointed co-chancellors, lessons from history leave chancellor position abolished

By Feargus O’Connor

After receiving endorsement by the Chancellor Search Advisory Committee, four union locals on Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus refused to accept the appointment to co-chancellor leadership, declaring the chancellor position obsolete and abolished instead.

The search committee narrowed applicants for the chancellor spot in March. It settled on the four unions affiliated with the Illinois Education Association/National Education Association – the Association of Civil Service Employees, the Faculty Association, Graduate Assistants United and the Non-Tenure Track Faculty Association – and remarkably, the Board of Trustees approved, only to have the unions reject the offer.

Organized labor on campus claimed the chancellor position superfluous at best and counterproductive at worst. In a solidarity statement, the unions said they would together help facilitate participatory self-governance at the university, returning all power to the people.

“We’re not sure what to make of it,” Board of Trustees chairman Randal Thomas said. “Those of us on the Board are afraid we’re next to be dismissed. This is what happens when people take affairs into their own hands. But where would we – us at the top of the academic hierarchy, I mean – be without un-democratic layers of bureaucratic administration? How is the gross inequality in pay and iniquitous standards of living that privilege us and other administrators over everybody else at the university going to be justified now? Did the unions think about that?”

Union officers remain undeterred.

“The unions will become the germ of the future free society,” said Rachel Stocking, president of the Faculty Association, channeling her inner Emma Goldman. “Our union structures are essential at this stage of the revolutionary process to ensure smooth and fair coordination across departments and colleges. But we’re really just watching faculty and students self-organize horizontally at this point. New cooperative relations are going swimmingly.”

Bob Velez, president of Graduate Assistants United, echoed similar sentiments.

“I’d always said, ‘graduate assistants might not run the university, but we make the university run.’ I have to revise my aphorism now,” Velez said – or might have said if this fake news story were true. “I’ve always fashioned myself as a 21st century William Dudley “Big Bill” Haywood, only with greater sex appeal. So it’s awesome this radical experiment is taking place under my presidency.”

The university’s president also offered his endorsement.

Randy Dunn, a previous winner of the “Syndicalist of the Year” award, said this is the transformative move he’s been waiting for.

“I love autonomous and direct action,” Dunn said. “I have faith in autogestión, especially at my – our – university. “It’s amazing how adept students, faculty, service workers and others on campus are at rotating responsibilities, collectively educating for the liberation of all and generally doing everything without us higher-ups giving orders. Hierarchical authority in higher education is overrated.”

The elimination of the chancellor position and popular empowerment, facilitated by unions, while remarkable, is not totally unprecedented.

“Nobody reads your publication, so I’m probably wasting my breath,” a professor at SIUC in history, or sociology or microbiology or some such told the Advocate on the condition of anonymity. “Seriously, you better not use my name in your bush league organ. That said, it’s important to turn to history.”

The professor who feared being quoted in a third-rate publication said during the Spanish Civil War the anarcho-syndicalist CNT – the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo or National Confederation of Labor – facilitated a decentralized form of comunismo libertario with freely associated syndicates. Workers and the community came together to make decisions at a local level with near-complete autonomy, the professor added.

“The local syndicates – or sindicatos unicos, as they were called – became the basis for popular community assemblies after the anarcho-syndicalists initiated a revolution in response to an attempted fascist coup,” the professor said. “They were loosely federated through regional and national organizations ensuring anyone who assisted the collective in accord with their strength, intelligence and ability would receive the satisfaction of their needs. When the republican government realized the workers were ‘in the saddle,’ as George Orwell famously phrased it, authorities offered CNT leaders positions in the government.”

Citing the “bottom barrel nature” of this outlet, the anonymous professor declined further comment, suggesting readers stop reading the Advocate and instead pick up a copy of Murray Bookchin’s “To Remember Spain” to actually learn something about the topic.

In that book, Bookchin’s descriptions suggest possible parallels that could be made between revolutionary Spain and SIUC at present.

The Spanish anarcho-syndicalist leadership “far less decisive than their rank-and-file militants, refused to take power in their Catalan stronghold as a matter of principle in the opening weeks of the revolution – only to compromise their most basic antistatist doctrines later by humbly entering the central government as ministerial fixtures,” Bookchin wrote.

Union entrance into positions of state-institutional power led to increased centralization of socio-economic life, coeval with the emergence of a political bureaucracy that virtually destroyed workers’ control. Other challenges compounded matters and proved insurmountable for the revolution, including: early dithering of the republican government wary of arming workers in the fight against fascism; the ongoing war; the Moscow-affiliated Communist Party opposition to the anarcho-syndicalist revolution; and the complicity of Western liberal democracies in abetting Franco’s fascist forces.

Rita Cheng, a former chancellor at SIUC, said she doubts the unions at SIUC will succumb to a similar fate as befell revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism in Spain. Cheng, who irked many pro-union students on campus with thinly-concealed attempts at union-busting during her tenure, now says organized labor deserved the chancellor position.

The unions also made the right to decision to get rid of the chancellorship entirely, she said.

“If the unions at SIUC would have shown this sort of leadership while I was chancellor, history might have played out very differently,” Cheng said.

 

 

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