R-E-S-P-E-C-T.*

15 03 2012

Before I forget, I want to blog about what I was doing last weekend. I went to an op-ed writing workshop at the University of California – Santa Barbara organized by the historian Nelson Lichtenstein and sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Our teacher was Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect and the Washington Post.

The format was that everybody writes a 750 word op-ed, then Meyerson and the whole group suggest ways to improve it. Let’s just say that while everyone was treated with respect, it was still a justifiably humbling experience for many of us sitting around the table.

I think the most common mistake was doing what they call in the journalism “burying the lede,” dropping the argument down to the third or fourth paragraph. When I realized that I had done this too, I explained to the group how ironic this was. I spend hours telling students to put their argument in the first sentence of the first paragraph of everything. They protest that their English professors tell them to begin with a hook and bury the argument. I (and I presume many others there) simply figured that since this wasn’t an academic paper, the English professors were right this time.

When I asked Meyerson how to resolve this hook/thesis dilemma, he responded, “Ideally, the hook and the thesis will be the exact same thing.”

There’s your teaching moment for the week.

The other folks around the table with me beisdes labor historians were Walmart workers from an organization called Our Walmart. While sponsored in part by the UFCW, what these folks are really doing is organizing and making demands of their notoriously authoritarian employer outside the confines of a union. [Of course, they had a hand in the video above too because public relations is an important way to make those demands heard.]

In terms of writing about labor issues, the Walmart workers had all us professors beat on the authenticity issue hands down. But more importantly, I think they can actually teach us academics something about how to gain respect in any workplace. While I kept babbling on to them about how brave they were, what I heard back is that they don’t feel scared when they speak up about Walmart because they know that literally thousands of other Walmart workers are standing behind them.

In other words, you don’t need a union to change life on the job. You just need to organize.

Why haven’t most of us in academia figured that out already?

* I know you were expecting Aretha. If you feel cheated, click here.

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6 responses

15 03 2012
Farah Ng @ Broken Penguins

I did an undergrad degree and went on to do a post-grad in corporate communications — which taught me to unlearn all the horrible writing habits I had adopted throughout undergrad. Habits like burying the lede, using jargon and writing waaaaay too much are still tempting.

On a side note, Walmart employees are afraid of nothing. Have you seen that place on a weekend? They should get benefits and perhaps, danger pay for Black Friday shifts.

15 03 2012
VanessaVaile

Lovely. This time I started the sharing with a local writing group. How the social conservatives among them take the labor and organizing bit will be lagniappe. This point of getting on with organizing independently has been on my mind for some time. New Unionism had a good piece on something similar in Australia. Your post is a nudge to get on with the shaping. Mulling over indefinitely could be the mental equivalent of death by committee.

16 03 2012
You’re going to miss grading when it’s gone. « More or Less Bunk

[…] If I remember my old labor history right, in his A Theory of the Labor Movement the economist Selig Perlman described American workers as job conscious as opposed to class conscious. That means that they were more concerned with putting bread and butter on the table than they were with banding together to overthrow the capitalist system. To Perlman, that was a good thing. If only academics thought that way! Too many professors writing about the future of higher ed don’t seem to care about their own long-term material well-being, which makes me think again about how much we faculty could all learn from the folks who work at Walmart. […]

22 03 2012
VanessaVaile

Take a look at Ann Larson’s blog(Education, Class, Politics, Theory) ~ both her comments about adjunct labor and less than glowing comments on Bérubé’s and MLA pro-adjunct (hustling memberships imo) address. especially treating academic as a special category with its own rules and rights. I liked it, had similar reservations and said so. He didn’t and said so.

Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers

The MLA President And The New Faculty Majority

28 03 2012
What can tenure-track faculty do about the adjunct problem?, Part 3: Don’t mourn. Organize. « More or Less Bunk

[…] (assuming the organizing union is smart enough to keep dues at an absolute minimum). However, as Our Walmart and the New Faculty Majority have amply demonstrated, you don’t need a union in order to […]

13 04 2012
Why professors are like low-wage workers (even if their wages aren’t particularly low). « More or Less Bunk

[…] I was in Santa Barbara at that op-ed workshop last month, my contribution about adjunct faculty began by comparing them to workers at […]

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