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.