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The Point: The Ability to Function


Greetings, Colleagues:

Happy New Year!

I truly hope you got what you needed—rest, focus, fun—over this winter break. 

Somewhere in there I hope you also took a minute to at least skim the details of the tentative agreement our core bargaining team came to with management.  As someone who attended almost every bargaining session as a member of the expanded team, I can testify that it was an arduous process—slowed down by administrative stalling and an unwillingness to recognize the basic needs of our most vulnerable members.  You will have a chance to hear more details this Wednesday at 3, during an open meeting to discuss the agreement, but for now I just want to commend the core bargaining team for its tireless and intrepid efforts to forge the best contract possible.

Having seen how hard it was to wrest even the most basic concessions from management, it was bracing to get the usual “we are all one family working together” type emails from upper administrators during the break.  Such messaging has gotten increasingly difficult for me to abide over my 25+ years as a full-time academic worker—even as I recognize that the contradictions baked in are constitutive of the modern university.  Having our upper administrators at once nickel-and-dime our Non-Tenure Track members when it comes to salary floors on the one hand, and then send out commemorative emails for Martin Luther King Jr. Day  urging us to “work across divides, brokering conversations, prompting engagement, and always challenging injustices” is challenging to say the least:  it really puts one in mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”!

But function we must.  It is time for us to take a hard look around at others matters of labor justice on campus and think together about how to leverage our power as the FSU. We all need to think about how to support our colleagues in the three distinct staff unions on campus, and also, urgently, to support the graduate workers who so many of us work with on a daily basis. 

I have written recently about the wave of graduate worker activism around the country and am delighted to call your attention to the successful resolution of the Columbia University strike which was, for a time, the largest strike in the nation.  Speaking of The Nation, Columbia University Professor Katherine Franke has recently published a piece there about how that strike revealed that the modern university acts as a “kind of predatory business, more like a real-estate holding venture than an institutional actor.”  Franke is writing about private universities, but much of her argument could be applied to our own campus in the era of Public-Private Partnerships (hey there Dorchester Bay City!). What really hits home is her depiction of university management as purposeful agents of zero-sum extractive logics, within which graduate workers are understood as plentiful and disposable resources meant to bolster the bottom line and not the mission of the university. They are certainly not treated as…actual people, with full humanity (and the need for food, shelter, and healthcare, just for instance).

But what really struck me most about Franke’s piece was the discussion of how management at Columbia communicated with faculty about the graduate workers on strike: the short version is that the messaging was glib and cruel. But it also made me realize that I don’t think we have heard a word from management here at UMB about the status of our graduate workers’ contract. The leadership of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) has made it clear that they have faced the same kind of obstructionist tactics so familiar from our own negotiations. But they have also faced truly cruel and insulting counteroffers—months and months, I should add, after their team first put proposals on the table: 1.5% raises for the life of the contract, no bonuses—like that. 

We need to pressure management on our campus to at least have the decency to speak with a consistent voice.  If our lame-duck graduate dean and his colleagues on the management bargaining team are going to insist on trying to force graduate workers to accept wages far below what it takes to live in Boston, let’s see what we can do to get administrators to admit that graduate workers are not included in the grand plans to transform UMB into an antiracist and health-promoting institution. You really can’t have it both ways.

The rhetorical erasure of our graduate workers in these regular and high-flown pronouncements bespeaks a swaggering institutional cynicism that we must resist. If management is going to continue to pressure GEO to accept a contract that will exacerbate existing (and racialized) inequalities on campus and the larger community, it will have to acknowledge that the talk of UMB’s transformation is really one more game of three-card Monte that the dealer always wins. 

For a number of reasons, it has become harder and harder to engage upper management in real dialogue—including that what gets called a “Town Hall” is, increasingly, a carefully orchestrated infodump.  We will need to continue innovating new ways—and use existing opportunities like our regular labor-management meetings—to insist that the graduate workers have their labor valued and be treated with dignity. 

This is your union! Let us know at how you think we all can fight for labor justice across campus.


Jeff Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage