I recently got into an argument with a professor online over the value of education and why people may still be politically sympathetic to “the cause,” but simply will not ever cancel classes. This is the single most common reason given for why faculty and graduate students would not abide the strike.
First of all, I would like to say that I thought we kind of already made the choice to join the union to protect our individual liberties, so we should probably stand up for our fellow colleagues. Because when we are injured we would want our colleagues to stand up and defend us… right?
Here is my most important point: generalizing “education as more important than” creates a very slippery dichotomy that erases the labor people of color have put into building the university and making it run every day, including today. At the strike in my University, it was not surprising that most of the rally and the picket chants were in Spanish. In fact, if you participated and did not know Spanish, chances were that you understood about 20% of what was conveyed. The reason for this is very simple: most AFSCME workers are people of color, predominately Latino service workers. This reality is very specific to the University of California, and it is a reality that the University management exploits every day with unlivable wages, unaffordable health care, and blatant discrimination and intimidation. No, your education is not more important than the struggles of these workers; in fact, it does not even come close. Your education is not more important than the actual daily struggle of having to put food on the table, or having to tell your children why you don’t have enough money to pay the rent. In fact, your education is not more important than any other struggle. It is simply not OK to argue that missing one day (or one week, or whatever that length of duration of a strike is) is comparable to the misery and pain of not earning a decent wage. It is also not OK to delegitimize a strike as unimportant or not a “real strike,” because there was not a hunger strike involved. Let’s set this straight – management has already proven that it does not care about its workers and its students, why in your right mind would you think they would care about your health? A hunger strike is a very risky form of protest, and I would not recommend it to anybody. It is largely contingent on whether you can get public awareness and sympathy to your struggles, and in a world where political struggles easily become marginalized and delegitimized (key word of the day), populism is a tough shot to guarantee your demands will be met without serious health repercussions.
It is not OK to say that missing out one day of your privileged education is on the same pedestal as the grievances of those who will never be students or teachers of the university. It is an insult. It is a slap in the fact of any person who has ever experienced what it really means to struggle for a livelihood. It is also an insult to those whose struggle is exemplified on the picket lines. To those who have woken up at four in the morning to be at the picket lines all day, through hunger, through lack of sleep, through constant marching, and constant chanting, because that is their only hope to make any gains to not have to suffer in the world. If you think that missing out on an education is suffering, you need to “keep your privilege in check.”
And lastly, it is not OK to argue that your education is something you as an individual struggled to earn. First, as an individual you did nothing and as only an individual you could never do anything. And if you recognize this, you know that many people struggled to get you where you are today, and you owe it to them to stand up for those same things they stood up for when they sacrificed so much to get you where you are. That does not mean that missing a day of your education would be to dishonor them, but that you should in fact do them the greatest honor by sacrificing one of your “average” days, to struggle with them for a change. After all, your education was a result of political struggle it was given and it can be taken away.
It is ridiculous to me that on strike day, people come out of the woodwork to feel guilt that they have never felt before at canceling or not attending classes. On every other day, students can miss sections when they’re sick, when they have family emergencies, when they haven’t done the readings, when they are hung over, and when they just don’t give a fuck. When it is strike day, for some reason people feel that making a political allegiance means having to prove that you are not one of those lazy people just finding an excuse to get out of class. My very serious question is: who cares? Who cares if people cancel classes because they are lazy, because they find any excuse to cancel?
A strike is a goddamn strike. There is nothing in between. There is no “I choose to strike,” “It is my opinion to strike.” When the union tells you to strike, you strike. This is the entire purpose of the union, to hold solidarity amongst workers. The slogan, “an injury to one, is an injury to all,” is not a catch phrase some angry baseball player came up with to begin a mob fight. It has a long history with the Industrial Workers of the World who defended skilled and unskilled labor alike, protecting the interests of both while their management was attempting to break them apart. Also insert “divide and conquer” slogan here, which is also a thing, for similar reasons but rooted in colonialism.
The thing with American individual exceptionalism is that we think we are these autonomous individuals granted with all the rights and liberties to make independently educated choices and we forget that, hey, guess what, we are not autonomous individuals granted with all the rights and liberties. We are actually social beings who, especially under capitalism, have historically suffered great injustices and just because we climb the social ladder it does not mean these injustices go away. It just means those injustices have not become a nuisance enough to us as individuals to stand up against them. The thing about American individual exceptionalism is that it is not until the individual is personally hurt or attacked that he will stand up to find for its rights. This is the culture of labor struggle that we have lost, and the history we have forgotten about. And, while I am all for making informed “choices” as the next person, this is the pitfall of the American logic when it comes to the union. It is not only about your choice. It is also about your colleagues choice to make a goddamn choice. And that means making a choice to not be exploited, to be fairly compensated for work, to be treated with dignity and respect. Stand up for that every once in a while as much as you stand up for your own thing when you get pissed.
Don’t choose to conveniently overlook that optional sections means the TA has to show up but undergrads never do, that your office hours are only ever predicted to be full on the only day they are cancelled, and that somehow you now believe your sections means that you are going to save the world one student at a time. You are not a superhero, American individual exceptionalism may make you believe this, but in fact you cannot fly.