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The Point of No Return


Greetings, Colleagues:

Well, my title is a little melodramatic, but indulge me for a minute. 

I have been on the Executive Committee of the FSU for half of my 12 years at UMB, have served as communications director and vice president—term ending in June—and have regularly written these weekly email blasts for longer than I can remember.  First, and above all, I want to express gratitude for the opportunity to have been part of all this: I came to the Executive Committee as a member of the Caucus for a Democratic Union, a group of colleagues who worried that the FSU had become too top-down, too parochial in its concerns, and too chummy with administration.  I am proud of the changes we have made to push the FSU to become more transparent, more engaged in broader community issues, and yes, more democratic! 

I have especially treasured having the opportunity to write this email blast regularly: I have learned so much in doing so and enjoyed having the chance to use it as a platform to try out some ideas, make some provocations, and, above all, to hear back from so many of you who have responded.  But it’s time for me to make room for other people to serve on ExCom and also focus on writing my next book, which I just got a contract for (about Boston music, race, and youth culture from 1974-1999): going forward we hope to turn the Point into a more collective effort, so start thinking about whether you want to take a week!

I would be remiss if I did not reflect for a moment on the resistance our efforts have been met with from upper management on campus.  When Joseph Berger became provost of UMB he met with Steve Striffler, then FSU President, to discuss (among other things) how the union and administration could work more productively together; this conversation long ago became part of the public record—through direct communications with membership and other vehicles--as I believe all such conversation should.  The provost did not say anything about wanting to hear more from faculty or librarians about our working conditions at UMB, or our hopes for the future, or how to center the voices of contingent faculty, or anything like that. He had only one item for Steve, and it was “can you get Jeff Melnick to tone down his criticism of administration.”  Whew!

Some months later, the administration bargaining team refused to return to the table and it took our team some time to get them to say what the holdup was: and it turns out it was my live tweeting of sessions to try to get more information out to our members and to the larger community.  I will always have the greatest admiration for Steve Striffler, who once looked at our chancellor and provost (this was at a Faculty Council meeting) and said something to the effect of: you are the highest paid and most powerful people on campus—you should not only have a thick skin for criticism, you should actively seek it out. 

Over a year ago, I wrote in The Point that “I would just love if upper administration acted like they wanted to hear the voices of our community.”  But they have demonstrated—from the carefully stage-managed campus update meetings to the provost’s call of Do Over on the campus reorganization committee that didn’t give him the answer he wanted, to administration’s current refusal to engage in expanded bargaining with us—that if we want our input taken into account we will have to continue to struggle as a collective.  That is why our collective bargaining team refuses to budge on its very reasonable position that all of you have a right to observe what happens at negotiations.

I have been and will continue to be willing to raise my own individual voice even though doing so has come at painful personal cost (the fallout of which is still being litigated at the Department of Labor Relations), but the profound lesson remains that union power is always rooted in the collective.  An injury to one, as the saying goes, is an injury to all.  One reason this ExCom has been so committed to supporting our colleagues in Africana Studies—hurt by years of benign neglect from upper administration and then direct attack more recently—is that we recognize that what happens to them can happen to any and all of us.  Plus (of course) it is just ethically necessary for us to join their fight.

We are in the midst of a thrilling wave of academic labor activity.  From grad worker strikes across the country to the recent news that precarious writing faculty at University of Chicago are organizing a union, we see compelling evidence of a new labor consciousness.  But one thing that is also clear—as I wrote last week about the Rutgers strike—is that it is absolutely crucial for tenure-stream faculty to use our relative privilege for the common good. 

So I’ll just finish with a direct appeal to my tenured colleagues: come on in—the water’s great!

This is your union! Please let us know at if you have an idea for a Point column for next year.


Jeff Melnick

Vice President