Academics and Labor Unite

John Young jya at pipeline.com
Sun Sep 22 06:23:54 MDT 1996


   The New York Times, September 22, 1996, p. 14.


   Academics and Labor Leaders Pulling in Tandem Once More

   By Steven Greenhouse

      The teach-in speakers at Columbia on Oct. 3 and 4 will
      include Cornel West, professor of Afro-American studies
      at Harvard; the feminist author Betty Friedan, and
      Richard Rorty, a University of Virginia philosopher.


   After a 30-year estrangement in which union leaders shunned
   academics as too far to the left and the liberal
   intelligentsia scorned big labor as part of the
   establishment, the two sides have begun efforts to forge a
   new alliance.

   Academics are counseling students to become union
   organizers and are donating time. to teach courses to union
   officials. Cornell University professors held a conference
   with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. on how labor can do more organizing,
   while many sociology professors are revamping their courses
   to focus more on labor's role in society.

   In early October, several dozen professors will join union
   leaders at Columbia University for a 1960's-style teach-in
   intended to give the academic world's imprimatur to labor's
   new leadership and to explore how intellectuals can advance
   the goals of organized labor. Similar events will be held
   at a dozen other schools, including the University of
   Wisconsin, the University of Florida, Eastern Illinois
   University, Wayne State University in Detroit and the
   University of Texas at El Paso.

   "We want to lend the support of a large number of academics
   and intellectuals to the revitalization of labor," said
   Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University who
   is helping to organize the teach-ins.

   "From our point of view, there is no real hope for
   progressive social change in this country without a strong
   labor movement, and without a strong labor movement the
   conservative tendency of things is never going to be
   reversed."

   This labor-intellectual alliance is intended to put an end
   to three decades in which liberal academics and unions were
   at loggerheads over Vietnam, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s obsession
   with the cold war and labor's foot-dragging on allowing
   more women and minorities into unionized jobs.

   Labor leaders hope that historians, economists and
   sociologists will not only help them in union organizing
   drives, but will also help change the public's perception
   of labor.

   The alliance is being pursued by John J. Sweeney, the
   president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress
   of Industrial Organizations, at a time when he is trying to
   build coalitions with other segments of society, including
   the clergy, women's groups, students, environmentalists and
   Hispanic people.

   "As part of our effort to rebuild the progressive coalition
   in this country, it's important that progressive academics
   play a major role," said Robert Welsh, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s
   chief of staff.

   The new ties are still minuscule, compared with the
   alliance between intellectuals and unions in the 1930's,
   when academics ran labor colleges and union newspapers and
   wrote pro-labor polemics. Still, academics have promised
   that their current support will be substantial.

   "What we're talking about is not just a few intellectuals
   providing some ad hoc advice, but about some significant
   potential shifts in research time and thinking," said Tom
   Juravich, research director for the labor relations school
   at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

   Some conservative intellectuals heaped scorn on this
   effort. Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New
   Criterion, a conservative journal, called labor's academic
   allies "a rogues' gallery of politically correct
   intellectuals who have a very serious case of Marx envy."

   He added: "They are infused with an incredible nostalgia
   for a kind of political activism which they hope can infuse
   a higher purpose to their lives. They look to the 60's and
   to the 30's for models for this kind of militant activism,
   safe though they are in their ivied groves of academia."

   The new effort comes at a time when professors at private
   colleges, like Bennington, and public universities, like
   the City University of New York, are facing some of the
   same pressures that other workers face, like downsizing and
   pay freezes.

   Officials with the American Association of University
   Professors acknowledge that they hope the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
   will back their fights to preserve tenure, win raises and
   reverse cuts in education spending.

   At a news conference in Washington on Wednesday, James A.
   Perley, president of the association, said, "We've come to
   realize that we need to reach out to make connections to
   others who are experiencing the same kind of difficulties."

   Professors, writers and intellectuals say they have
   embraced the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s leadership because it is
   seeking to transform labor into a broad social movement,
   and, they say, dropping its focus on helping the relatively
   well-paid union elite. Many academics say they are pleased
   that Mr. Sweeney has focused on organizing more workers and
   raising the wages of low-paid workers.

   "In the 1930's, many intellectuals supported labor because
   it represented not just an interest group, but a social
   movement whose activities promised much to not only its
   immediate members, but to the whole society," said Steven
   Fraser, co-chairman of the teach-ins and author of a
   biography on Sidney Hillman, the clothing workers' leader.
   "The social movement character of labor began to decline in
   the 1950's and was pretty much dead by the end of the
   1960's. That's what had originally attracted intellectuals.
   Now, I'm happy to say, that social movement character is
   returning. "

   For their part, labor leaders found it hard to forgive
   liberal academics for opposing the Vietnam War. And in the
   1980's, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. hierarchy made common cause with
   some neo-conservative intellectuals in opposing leftist
   movements in Central America. In a hierarchy that was
   forever seeking to root out Communists, many labor leaders
   were squeamish about associating with academics who they
   feared were closet Communists.

   In recent weeks, professors at U.C.L.A. have advised the
   A.F.L.-C.I.O. on setting up its Union Summer program, in
   which more than 1,000 students volunteered to work for
   unions, and on carrying out an organizing effort at small
   factories in Los Angeles.

   At Sarah Lawrence College, Priscilla Murolo, a history
   professor, has encouraged some students to become union
   organizers. And at Eastern Illinois University in
   Charleston, Gretchen Knapp, a history professor, is setting
   up a teach-in and film festival about the labor movement.

   "A lot of our students, after they leave here, will be
   encouraged to join unions or will deal with unions in some
   way, shape or form," Professor Knapp said. "These students
   know little about unions, and we're trying to show them
   what the labor movement stands for."

   The teach-in speakers at Columbia on Oct. 3 and 4 will
   include Cornel West, professor of Afro-American studies at
   Harvard; the feminist author Betty Friedan, and Richard
   Rorty, a University of Virginia philosopher.

   [End]









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