UC Berkeley professor’s anti-union letter is anti-education

Campus workers picket at UC Davis

Photo via the UC Student Workers Union – Davis and In These Times.

University of California service workers and graduate students went on strike for one day to protest unfair labor practices last Wednesday. The day before the strike, UC Berkeley professor and scab Alexander Coward sent his class an e-mail telling his students why he planned to cross the picket line  (and even teach sessions typically led by striking Graduate Student Instructors) and why they should do the same: their education is too important. The e-mail has gone viral, thanks, in no small part, to Berkeley promoting his anti-union missive.

I agree about the importance of education. I just think Coward has a dangerously narrow view of what education is, and it disturbs me that his take is so popular. I happen to think one of the most crucial things I’ve learned in a capitalist context is to not cross a picket line. This is especially important to learn in higher ed, which is full of scholarship kids like me but is also designed for the children of privilege, who should certainly get the opportunity to gain class consciousness.

Coward tells his students point blank that they have nothing to do with the economic injustice within their own institution:

Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for.

Coward says politics are “complicated” and “interconnected,” which are reasons not to take action around injustice that impacts others in your community. “Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades,” he says. Apparently, challenges facing service industry folks working for you right now don’t matter. (By the way, Coward’s use of the broad term “society” would never pass in any college course I’ve taken or TA’d. Not to mention education is less and less affordable, so I’m not sure about this mythical investment.) Coward concludes: “Your education is really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate.”

Contrast this actually very disconnected, myopic, individualistic, complete-lack-of-responsibility-for-the-world-around-you approach to learning how to solve problems in the world around you to the actions of Graduate Student Instructors (GSI) who are striking in solidarity with service workers. GSIs are actively showing their students that the issues facing service workers should matter to everyone on the campus and that they can stand up to wrongs done in their community and make an impact. Oh, and politics totally are interconnected – graduate student and UAW 2865 recording secretary Amanda Armstrong pointed out to In These Times that the striking unions supported students who organized to defeat an 81% fee hike in 2011. But there’s no reason for students to devalue their education by supporting folks who helped ensure those students could afford an education (or maybe Coward only cares about students for whom money is no object).

I learned way more from being a campus organizer than I did from my classes. I learned how to work well with others. I learned how to follow direction and how to lead. I learned complex problem solving in real world situations, which is much more challenging than problem solving in a controlled classroom setting. I was a scholarship kid, but prioritizing organizing absolutely wasn’t throwing away the education I fought so hard for; the jobs I’ve had since college have been a result of my organizing work – connections I made and skills I learned – and not my time in the classroom.

I’m not saying classes don’t matter, not at all. A lively classroom debate is one of my favorite things in the world. I so appreciate the opportunity to step back from immediate issues and look at the broader picture. While my organizing experience got me into positions like writing at Feministing, my time in the classroom helped me develop intellectual skills and learn information that’s served me as a writer here. But this wasn’t independent of my organizing experience, either – rabble rousing helped me make those ideas real, gave me an opportunity to test them and most importantly, put them into action. Which I kinda thought was the point.

Coward recognizes that education is about developing a generation that can solve real world problems, but misses the reality of how this happens in a learning community that involves much more than just classroom education. A crucial part of learning to address serious problems is developing an ethic. College organizing is an amazing opportunity to work through this process, one I’m very grateful for. Hell yes, I think it’s worth missing a class to spend time supporting striking service workers. Education isn’t just for the future – you’re not just supposed to make the world better when you’re done with school. We learn best through practice, after all.

Higher education in the US is in crisis, with institutions taking advantage of grossly underpaid campus workers including service industry folks, many staff positions, adjuncts and grad students. What’s being done to the people who provide an education is unconscionable. Taking some time to support the people who are giving you an education isn’t hurting your education, it’s fighting to make your learning opportunities better, to learn from people who aren’t being stretched to the breaking point. Additionally, some of Coward’s students will want to work in the academy. Coward and I both agree education is important and want classroom learning opportunities to exist in the future. I’d also like people who don’t have trust funds to be able to teach, and I think service workers matter and should be treated well. Coward and I seem to disagree on those points.

Colleges and universities are invested in their students not developing a class consciousness because these institutions are designed to perpetuate the privilege of the wealthy. Yes, there is increasing space for scholarship students, and there are (still expensive) state schools, but there’s a constant tension between making education accessible and a higher ed system designed by and for the ruling class. Hampshire College, bastion of lefty radicalism, only had one course on class while I was there, called “Class Matters.” Elsewhere, we learned about gender, race, sexuality, colonialism, but economics were typically left out. Identity-based oppression tends to play out through class in a capitalist context. Employment, housing, education, access to resources – these are places groups of people experience privilege or are marginalized. When economics aren’t discussed you may gain tools to deal with inter-personal bigotry, which is incredibly important, but leave out addressing structural, systemic oppression, which is also vital. A class analysis was missing from a lot of student organizing, but it was front and center and impossible not to learn about when organizing happened around labor disputes (particularly in our dining hall and down the road at UMass).

Higher ed institutions are invested in capitalism for obvious reasons – they are big, expensive businesses designed to teach the children of wealth how to stay wealthy. This is in contrast to what education can be – a way to change your circumstances and your world. Campus organizing, pushing back with love against the institution I was a part of, encouraging it to be better, taking action in my own community, gave me a much more well-rounded education than just sitting in classrooms. For example, it opened doors for me to think about class and justice, and realize that despite being raised in an anti-union household where we wouldn’t have had a roof over their head without a union, I will never cross a picket line.

Jos Truitt Jos Truitt doesn’t think perpetuating injustice is the best way to learn to make a more just world.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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