This story has been bugging me since I read it last night. Look, tenure is an imperfect system, but why has it become such a knee-jerk reaction to blame labor for organizational faults? Union membership is way down in the US, and as we saw during the Great Auto Company Crisis of ‘09, people are all too happy to point the finger at those overly entitled factory workers, what with their pensions and their job security and their health care. (How dare they! Shouldn’t they just scrape along with prayers and private charity like the rest of us?!) Unions certainly have their flaws, but as a mechanism for employees to improve their lot, there really hasn’t been a better idea than collective bargaining.
I don’t mean to suggest that everything was better back when more people were in unions — it wasn’t — but all too often now, a “flexible” labor force has come to mean an anti-labor force. Instead of supporting tenure, more and more universities are upping their numbers of adjunct faculty, paying extremely intelligent people who have devoted years to earning a terminal degree an amount that our grandparents would have found paltry. Instead of supporting the broad middle class that organized labor and manufacturing wrought together, jobs are outsourced, wages have stagnated, and we’re told that it’s all good because, hey, consumer goods are cheaper than they’ve ever been! Too bad housing is more expensive than it’s ever been, and an iPod is a small comfort when you’re living out of your car. (Trust me.)
Republicans have somehow been able to play both sides against the middle, and claim that by extending unemployment benefits we are devaluing work whilst at the same time supporting trade and tax policies that further chip away at the bargaining power of anyone below the highest tax bracket. Clearly, many Americans are frustrated, but rather than celebrating the antics of someone like JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater — whose damn-the-man rebellion felt like an awesome fulfillment of a nationwide, working-class dream — why don’t we try something more productive? No less a capitalist hero than Henry Ford figured out that it would be mutually beneficial if he paid his workers more; they would be happier, and they’d also be able to buy Ford cars. Right now, however, we’ve got companies hoarding cash, stratospheric unemployment, slow sales, and a bunch of folks on the right crying out for tax cuts for the wealthy. It’s an absurd situation in which no real solutions have yet been presented, and the best method of demanding real change — organizing — has been made out as downright anti-American. Perhaps the lone upside to labor disenfranchisement reaching as far as academia is that people with real power and influence might actually start to pay attention.