Wednesday, March 8, 2006

When Labor Strikes Come to Law School

Um_logoSteve Vladeck over at PrawfsBlawg and Michael Froomkin at are both in the midst of dealing with a labor strike at the University of Miami School of Law.

Steve has decided to move classes off campus out of respect for the strike by the UNICCO union, which represents workers who provide janitorial and other services to campus. (Michael is not teaching classes this semester so he did not have to make a similar decision).

Both Steve and Michael have shared their thoughts (Steve's here and here and Michael's here and here) about what obligations professors have to the university community, co-faculty, and students, under such circumstances.

Of special note is the rapid fire exchange of comments to Steve's first post between Kate Litvak (Texas), Joe Slater (Toledo), and Matt Bodie (Hofstra), concerning the rights of law professors to honor picket lines under such circumstances.

As this is such a controversial topic, I would love to hear other readers' views and I will certainly share your thoughts with Steve and Michael.


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Several people who are engaging in this discussion have what appears to me to be an erroneous view of human beings. We exist – and only exist – in society together. Humans have not ever reproduced, and cannot reproduce, their species existence except through cooperative social activity. We are thus all connected together and have resulting mutual obligations of various sorts to and from each other – as individuals sometimes, more often as members of subgroups within humanity. Those connections, those obligations, are often chosen by humans, and are often matters of full awareness to humans (or at least to some of them). But often the connections are not chosen, and often the connections and obligations are not matters of full awareness. Voluntarism and individualism are among the most enduring, and misleading, erroneous assumptions of our time.

For example, did you choose your parents? Can you choose not to have obligations to them?

One of the most pervasive of connections, resulting in multiple obligations, arises from the wage relationship as embedded in the system of ownership of the means of production called, now universally, capitalism. This relationship is ubiquitous if not universal and is everywhere just about the same: in order to eat, humans are employed by other humans who control the means of production, and the amount the employee will have to eat is some portion of the surplus her labor creates for her employer. The portion tends to be much smaller than employees think it should be. Individual activity on the part of an employee, to increase that portion, is almost universally unavailing because of the power relations of the wage relationship. Most employees have nothing but the sweat of their brow, and are essentially fungible to the employer, who (though his social activity, in conjunction with other employers and with much aid from a state generally beholden to them) helps to maintain a huge reserve army of the unemployed from whom he can easily pluck other employees. So employees organize together, to achieve what they consider to be a more just portion of the surplus. Since all waged employees are in precisely the same boat, whether they have different employers or not, all waged employees have obligations to all other waged employees, to aid in the struggle to obtain more by increasing, hopefully to 100%, the power of waged employees against (to them) unjustly-enriching-themselves employers. These connections and obligations exist because of the material economic and social nature of waged labor, whether a person understands them or not, whether a person knows she is a waged laborer or not, whether a waged laborer chooses to call herself something else, and whether a waged laborer chooses to aid other waged laborers or not.

An injury to one is an injury to all. Crossing picket lines is not merely impolite, it is self-destructive to a waged laborer as it injures all waged laborers. A law professor – though most laugh at the appellation, and though the US Supreme Court has made a mockery of the situation (but has shown which side it’s on) by claiming the reverse – is a waged laborer.


Posted by: Wythe Holt Jr. | Mar 8, 2006 1:19:17 PM

Professors have the right--and the moral obligation--to stand in unity with their fellow campus workers (because what else are we academics?), even if that inconveniences their students. I agree with Prof. Vladek--academics should care about the entire university community that encompasses their students. We have a responsibility to more than just student's Spring OCIP's schedules or their precious time and sense of self-importance. There are greater lessons to be learned than those learned in the classroom--which can be learned anywhere, really. It's just the professor talking usually. S/He can talk anywhere. The important thing is to learn that there are things bigger than yourself. There is no violation of the covenant of teaching, much less a contractual obligation to teach in a certain room at a certain time. I don't think refusing to cross a picket line is shoving a political belief down a student's throat--the student is free to disagree, every day, that s/he doesn't want to be there and doesn't support the strike. But if that student wants to learn in group of her peers, taught by her professor in an academic community which necessarily serves more than just her own self-interest, well, she should go to class, wherever that is.

Posted by: Belle Lettre | Mar 9, 2006 1:22:48 AM

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