Faculty should join staff wage fight

By Robert Jensen

Published in Daily Texan · October, 1998

[This article appeared in the Daily Texan, newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin, October 12, 1998, p. 4.]

When I joined the UT faculty in 1992, I would often lunch in the office of a friend who worked in a staff position in another department. One day, a co-worker of his stopped in on business, and asked where I worked. I told her I taught in the journalism department.

“You’re a professor?” she asked, surprised I would be socializing with a staff member.

“What’s so odd about that?” I asked.

“We’re staff,” she said. “You know, like ‘staff infection.'” She was so used to being devalued by the institution, that she assumed anyone above her on the flow chart shared that opinion.

That chance encounter taught me a lot about the role of staff members on this campus, and the problems with faculty-staff relationships.

Obviously, many professors–maybe even the vast majority–treat staff members with the respect due a co-worker. But it’s also obvious that staff members often feel more like second-class citizens than co-workers. No matter what the relationships between individual staff and faculty members, it’s obvious that there are deep-seated institutionalized problems.

Faculty members now have a chance to help change that, by joining with staff members to build an even more powerful movement for fair wages and a decent working environment for everyone on campus.

This past summer, the old University Staff Association transformed itself into a dues-paying group. Last year’s Campaign for Fair Wages was a great start, but staff members realized that to achieve their goals of fair pay and equitable treatment they would have to be able to show administrators, regents, and legislators that they are a political force to be reckoned with. Though they stopped short of affiliating as a group with a union (though individual staff, faculty and graduate assistants can join a union, as I and others have), the staff took an important step.

Faculty members can be part of that step by joining USA as supporting members. Few have taken the opportunity (actually, at this point only myself and philosophy professor Paul Woodruff have joined). Many people I have spoken to don’t see the point of joining a staff group, except possibly as a symbolic gesture, and they have been reluctant to part with $50 a year for symbolism.

While joining USA certainly has symbolic value, faculty members should understand that more important things are at stake.

First, I believe the most privileged folks in the world have an obligation to help in the struggles of those less well off. It’s not mere symbolism; it’s about a moral and political commitment to progressive social change.

But faculty members also have a self-interest in joining because, like the staff, we are workers at UT. And like the staff, we work in a system that subjects us to the arbitrary authority of administrators, regents, and legislators.

In other words, the staff has something to teach us about being ranch hands at UT.

Now, some faculty members may object, saying that as intellectual workers and professionals we have a different status than staff, or citing the relevance of faculty governance. Yes, we do different work than staff members, but that doesn’t change our place in the system. Custodians do different work than librarians, but they understand that as workers they are in similar positions and share a common struggle.

As for faculty governance, there simply isn’t any at UT. We have a Faculty Council, and there are faculty committees. But one should not confuse representation on advisory committees with governance. Being able to give feedback is not the same thing as power. Prisoners can give feedback to the warden, but we all understand they have no power to put their suggestions into effect. Faculty, in this sense, are in the same boat.

The staff association has figured out that collective action is the source of power, and that such power can bring about fair wages and decent treatment. Faculty should take note. Even though we are relatively well paid and pampered at this point in time, one can easily imagine a future in which the screws are put to us as well. Look at the fate of the increasingly large number of adjunct faculty around the country–the most exploited teachers in universities–or the moves to gut tenure, and it’s hard to be sanguine about our own future.

Management, of course, loves divide-and-conquer strategies, and management in higher education is no different. Faculty, as the most privileged workers on campus, might be tempted to believe that their interests lie with those above. But our fate lies with the staff and the graduate student instructors, who have a different set of problems and need our help as well.

At UT, faculty are fortunate to have an energized staff association that is willing to lead the way. Will we have the sense to join them? I hope so. Faculty can become supporting members by sending a check for $50 to the University Staff Association, SOC #331, 100-C West Dean Keeton St., Austin TX 78712. Staff dues are $15-$40 a year, depending on salary, and students can join as supporting members for $10.

In a culture that takes every opportunity to defame unions and organizing, a term such as “solidarity” may seem naive and out of date. But solidarity is the key to justice. And until we have a just workplace, UT will never be the flagship institution that the folks in power claim to want.