Class Struggle 101
A cynic might say that the true purpose of college is to teach exactly such lessons. After all, college graduates are a relative elite, comprising only 25 percent of the adult population, and they are expected to fill the kind of administrative and managerial jobs that make it a positive advantage to be able to starve workers, impose layoffs, and bust unions without losing a minute of sleep.
Published in the November, 2003 Issue of The Progressive
Class Struggle 101
by Barbara Ehrenreich
On the evening of August 24, I had dinner with Randy Marcum, who works in the boiler room at Miami University of Ohio. Joining us were about ten other campus workers, plus some of their student supporters. It was a hefty meal--the best the Holiday Inn had to offer--complete with wine and dessert. Which was a good thing, because three weeks later, Marcum was on a hunger strike to dramatize the poverty of Miami University's food service and maintenance workers.
Welcome to higher education, twenty-first-century style, where the most important course offered is not listed in the college catalog. It's called Class Struggle, and it pits the men in suits--administrators and trustees--against the men and women who keep the school running: maintenance workers, groundspeople, clerical and technical workers, housekeepers, food service workers. Yale has gotten all the national attention, with its tumultuous three-week-long strike that just ended in a stunning victory for the university's clerical and maintenance workers. But similar clashes are going on in less illustrious places, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where housekeepers, who have been trying to win union recognition for years, led a lively rally and teach-in on September 23.
As for Miami University, 460 maintenance workers are now out on strike, as I write at the end of September. Randy has ended his fast in order to build up energy for the picket line. The students have erected a tent city in front of the administration building. And faculty members are planning their own night in the tent city. Union picketers humiliated the university by turning away the union camera crews who had come to televise a Miami RedHawks vs. Cincinnati Bearcats game.
College presidents, deans, provosts, chancellors--along with their deputies, assistants, and other members of the ever-proliferating educational administrative workforce--insist that their labor problems are a sorry distraction from their institutions' noble purpose of enlightening young minds. But administrators like to cloak themselves in the moral authority of Western Civilization, such as it is, which means that labor issues are hardly peripheral to the university's educational mission. On an increasing number of campuses, incoming students are greeted at a formal fall convocation in which the top administrators--suited up in full medieval mortarboard-and-gown attire--deliver platitudinous speeches about Character, Integrity, and Truth. The message is that these weirdly costumed folks are not mere executives of a corporation but the guardians of an ancient and sacred tradition. So when these same dignitaries turn out to be grossly underpaying their employees and harassing the "troublemakers" among them, they do so with the apparent blessing of Aristotle, Plato, and Shakespeare.
If the university has so much to teach about social inequality, why shouldn't the students get credit for learning it? The covert lessons from the administration should be formalized as course offerings. Here's the curriculum.
Elementary Class Structure of the United States: The University as Microcosm. In this four-credit course, we will examine the pay gradient from housekeeper (approximately $19,000/year) to president (more than $270,000 for Miami University's James C. Garland and about $500,000 for Yale's Richard Levin). In the final exam, students will be asked to discuss the rationale for this pay gap in terms of the payees' contributions to the university, ongoing housing and wardrobe expenses, and intrinsic human worth.
Presidential Architecture: A three-credit seminar course featuring field trips through university-provided presidential dwellings, including "great rooms," wet bars, saunas, guest suites, and exercise rooms, with a side trip, if time permits, to the trailer parks favored by the housekeeping and maintenance staff.
Race, Gender, and Occupational Preference: In this advanced sociology seminar, we will analyze the way campus workers sort themselves into various occupations on the basis of race and gender, and we will explore various theories attempting to explain this phenomenon--for example, the Innate Athleticism theory of why African Americans so often prefer manual labor, and the Nimble Fingers theory of why females can usually be found doing the clerical work.
Topics in University Financing: A four-credit business course tracing the development of the current two-pronged approach to financing institutions of higher learning--tuition increases for the students plus pay decreases for the staff. Alternative approaches to financing, featuring militant campaigns for adequate public funding for higher education, will be thoroughly critiqued.
A cynic might say that the true purpose of college is to teach exactly such lessons. After all, college graduates are a relative elite, comprising only 25 percent of the adult population, and they are expected to fill the kind of administrative and managerial jobs that make it a positive advantage to be able to starve workers, impose layoffs, and bust unions without losing a minute of sleep. Some students catch on with lightning-like speed, such as Yale's precocious Scott Wexler, eighteen, who confided to The New York Times, "I kind of like walking through the picket lines." This young man will make a fine assistant regional manager at Wal-Mart--or possibly a college president.
Fortunately, not all students are buying the administrations' lesson plan. At Harvard in the spring of 2001, students occupied an administration building for twenty-one days to persuade the administration to bargain with campus janitors, many of whom were paid only $6.50 an hour. Last spring, Stanford students went on their own hunger strike in support of campus blue collar workers. And it's not just the super-elite schools that have been generating vigorous student-labor alliances. At mainstream public universities like those of Maryland and Virginia, there are plenty of students who would agree with Miami University's Justin Katko, when he writes that he got involved in the campus workers' struggle because "I could not allow such extreme disparities as are found on college campuses . . . to exist without being ashamed of myself for apathy."
It's hard to concentrate in classrooms that were cleaned during the night by people who can barely make rent. You tend to choke on your chicken fingers when the cafeteria is staffed by men and women who have to work a second job in order to feed their own children.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive. She is the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" and "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War."
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