Thursday, March 09, 2006

Would You Cross The Line?

There's currently a strike at the University of Miami Law School. Here are the details, from U Miami Law Professor Michael Froomkin:

The University of Miami employs a contractor to provide janitorial and other services on campus. This of course leads to capitalism's favorite race to the bottom, as potential suppliers compete to be the low bidder. The current winner, Unicco, achieves its status as the low-cost-provider by paying its workers as little as possible and providing almost no healthcare benefits. So far, so legal, if not necessarily very cheerful for the workers, or for the people who work around them.
Some of the Unicco workers, as is their right, decided to try to form a union. If reports are to be believed, however, Unicco decided to playhardball in response and started harassing and firing workers it thought supported the effort. That isn't legal. It's an unfair labor practice. And the NLRB says there is reasonable cause to believe it is happening.

The NLRB's finding allows workers to strike against the unfair labor practice, even though they have yet to form a recognized union. As a technical legal matter, the University of Miami is not implicated here. It's not guilty of anything (in law) other than trying to save a buck. But as a practical matter (not to mention at the moral level), this is very much the University's problem. If the University wanted to require that its contractors pay a living wage, or provide decent medical coverage, it is fully within the University's power to do so -- at a price, of course.And so far the University (Donna Shalala, CEO) (Belle: Yes, former Secretary of HHS Donna Shalala) has shown little sign of being willing to pay this price. It has, I'm told, hired a union-busting law firm to represent it.

I won't be crossing that picket line. Which is easy for me to say, since I'm not teaching this term. Many people who are teaching will be very reluctant to cross it too, but their position is very difficult. First, there simply aren't enough spaces in which to hold large classes in area churches or other local venues which might be willing to give us space. Second, there's a real issue about our contractual obligations to students who don't care about honoring the picket line, and who would be inconvenienced -- sometimes substantially -- by having to run around to various different off-campus sites to take classes.

And here's more from U Miami Law Professor Steve Vladek:

Unlike Michael, I am teaching this semester, and have 23 students (well, 22 students and one auditing librarian) in a seminar that meets every Thursday afternoon. And so, I'm torn. On the one hand, I think the best way to support the workers, which I wholeheartedly do, is to show solidarity with them and keep my class (and my students) off campus. On the other hand, although I'm not sure I accept Michael's contractual obligation point (and I don't suffer from his available space point, given the size of my class), I do understand that my decision is no longer mine alone, because what I decide to do could, if not will, have a substantial effect on my students. That is, whether the obligation is "contractual" or not, I feel the sense of obligation to the students, which, in my book, must come before my politics.

And so, I'm curious what my fellow prawfs (and our loyal readers) think: Does the obligation we as teachers have override the inconvenience that holding class off campus would entail? Is it possible to take a position that's not offensive to one side or the other? Is it necessary to take such a position?For the time being, I've deferred, and have asked my class to weigh in. Not to vote, per se, but to give me a sense of how many of them feel how strongly about having class on campus or off. But even if their responses overwhelmingly tilt in one direction, this seems like a Catch-22.Which, by the way, is all the more reason for the University to wield its big stick (i.e., require its contractors to pay a living wage), if you ask me... but I'm biased.

And more from Professor Vladek about the student reactions:

Although I was not surprised at the town hall by the substance of the comments made by some of the students, several of whom spoke out against holding classes off campus, I must confess to being taken aback at the vitriol and unabashed animosity that pervaded their remarks. One of the first students to speak, reading a statement represented to be on behalf of a "large group of students," suggested that we, the faculty, were using the cover of the strike to force our own political agendas on our students; that we have shown callousness and unprofessionalism in our response; that we have a contractual obligation to show up when our classes are scheduled and at their scheduled location, and to teach them what they've signed up to take, regardless of any supervening factors; that we have no right to "take sides" in this debate (and are doing so), let alone foist our opinions upon them; and, perhaps most surprisingly (at least to me), that those members of the faculty who have moved class off campus (e.g., me and a small but significant group of my colleagues) should be sanctioned, either by docking their pay, taking away their sabbaticals, or terminating them, for fundamentally disregarding and otherwise neglecting their professional obligation to their students.

Here is Professor Vladek's very substantive, insightful (and I think wonderful) response:

Yes, having class off campus is, one way or the other, showing some modicum of support for the strike. I don't disagree with that, either. But it is simply not forcing our political agenda on the students. If, at that off-campus class, we spent the entire time extolling the virtues of organized labor, bemoaning the failures of UNICCO, and otherwise berating the response of the University administration, then, I think, we would be introducing our political views into the classroom. I object, however, to the notion that merely moving the class is, itself, requiring our students to adhere, especially because the faculty have effectively agreed that no student will be punished for missing an off-campus class, and have undertaken Herculean efforts to audio- or video-record every off-campus class and make the recordings widely accessible to all students. Indeed, if anything, this whole mess has prompted more dissent on the UM campus than I've seen since I got here. I just cannot accept that that's a bad thing.

We all care incredibly deeply about our students. We would not be in this profession if we didn't. And, for the most part, I think we all deeply respect our students, and the importance of our obligations to them. But our obligation is _as_ teachers. Students are here to learn from us. To learn civil procedure and contracts and property and torts, to be sure, but also to learn about advocacy and the American legal system. I do not think, and cannot accept, that we are betraying our educational mission simply by having class off campus. If anything, we are using our proverbial microphone to teach more than just the black-letter law that students can get out of the casebook. We are contextualizing it. And at a University that refuses to require its contractors to pay a living wage to its employees, we are teaching our students about dissent, a lesson they are using, quite effectively, against us.

We, like our students, are members of a community. That community does not consist merely of students and faculty. If it did, we would be teaching in the dark, in piles of filth, and handing out mimeograph copies of our incoherent, handwritten notes. What I think I object to in the vitriolic nature of the students' remarks is the implicit assumption that these workers are not part of our community. My responsibility to students is only part of my larger responsibility to the University of Miami, as an academic community and as an institution. As such, I also am responsible to and for the workers who allow me to teach, and who facilitate the means by which I do so. What these students would have us do is treat our responsibility to them as completely overriding and indeed subverting our responsibility to the community as a whole. This I cannot do. True, I was not hired to bring social justice to the University of Miami, nor is that my goal. Nevertheless, my responsibility to the community includes acting in a way that I believe will make our community as a whole a better one, especially in a law school where we are purportedly teaching our students how to advocate on behalf of those unable to advocate for themselves.

Let me briefly reiterate: I don't mind the fact of the dissent, or even the substance thereof. What I object to is the insinuation that (1) I don't care about my students; (2) I am depriving them of their education by holding class off campus; and (3) my only obligation as a member of the faculty of the University of Miami is to my students. To put it as simply as I can: It's not that we don't care about our students; it's that we don't just care about our students.

My take? I'm with Professor Vladek. I went to a pretty liberal law school. When there was an area strike by supermarket workers frozen out for demanding better pay and benefits, we didn't shop at those supermarkets. The law school had a food drive and collection to support the workers. We were pretty pro-labor, and marched alongside the workers and went to their protests. But by "we" I mean the public interest students at my school. God knows where the other employer's lawyer students stood. But it was a big enough contingent of us that it felt like the school was pro-labor, and the Adminstration didn't officially endorse our food drives, but it did allow us to use administrative channels to advertise it. I have no idea how the administration would have responded if their own workers had gone on strike. There may be a campus-wide service staff strike, but the law school operates pretty independently and so can set its own wage/benefits (I think, don't quote me). I hope I can say that I went to a good, labor-friendly school.

Because if I hadn't, I'd be pushing my professor to hold the class somewhere else. You don't cross picket lines, even if it's inconvenient. Our school was attached to a huge affiliate research university though--we could have been taught in any other classroom on campus (in theory) and with the benefit of our weather could have been taught outdoors. But I wonder what UC Hastings professors could have done--it's a free-standing law school in the middle of San Francisco--take over a Starbucks or Barnes and Noble? It's the logistics that complicate things. You can teach in your living room, but not if you have a 105 student class. So I'm sympathetic to the constraints on professors to relocate their classes, and the hardship that imposes on students.

Yet professors have the right--and the moral obligation--to stand in unity with their fellow campus workers (because what else are we academics?), even if that inconveniences their students. I agree with Prof. Vladek--academics should care about the entire university community that encompasses their students. We have a responsibility to more than just student's Spring OCIP's schedules (On Campus Interviews), or their precious time and sense of self-importance. There are greater lessons to be learned than those learned in the classroom--which can be learned anywhere, really. It's just the professor talking usually. S/He can talk anywhere. The important thing is to learn that there are things bigger than yourself. There is no violation of the covenant of teaching, much less a contractual obligation to teach in a certain room at a certain time. I don't think refusing to cross a picket line is shoving a political belief down a student's throat--the student is free to disagree, every day, that s/he doesn't want to be there and doesn't support the strike. But if that student wants to learn in group of her peers, taught by her professor in an academic community which necessarily serves more than just her own self-interest, well, she should go to class, wherever that is.

What do you think?

Hat Tip: Workplace Prof Blog


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