Academics and Labor Unite
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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