From the vantage point of the pancaked fields of Illinois, it is easy to wax nostalgic about Ohio’s rolling hills. I spent four years there as an undergraduate and for many years thereafter I returned for several months each year. But my decades of AAUP activism have added a new and more telling element to my fondness for the state: respect for Ohio’s brand of faculty activism and union solidarity.
All this was first brought home to me when I spoke at the 25th anniversary of the AAUP collective bargaining chapter at the University of Cincinnati years ago. The chapter’s history, celebrated and retold, included the distinctive respect and affection across departments that faculty members forged during their union job actions. Ordinarily isolated in their individual programs, faculty members in a union can be brought together to find common cause and define a common mission. That is why unions can bring more faculty members into dialogue with one another until they form a genuine democratic community for the first time.
I saw the same phenomenon over the last year when faculty members at Bowling Green were joined by colleagues from Akron and throughout Ohio to win the right to bargain over their working conditions. No one had to ask my AAUP colleagues to work hand-in-hand with their Bowling Green comrades. The effort was stunningly spontaneous. They couldn’t resist. They just got in their cars and drove over to join the campaign.
Now all this is under threat. Substitute Senate Bill 5, sponsored by State Senator Shannon Jones (R-Springboro), proposes to end the right to bargain collectively for all public employees, faculty included. Gone would be the faculty right to negotiate wages and working conditions. Gone would be the faculty authority to assure fair due process in adjudicating grievances against the very administrators who imposed them. Gone would be the faculty role in defining merit. Gone would be negotiated rights to one’s own intellectual property. Gone would be historic guarantees of academic freedom. All this would be replaced by administrative fiat.
Substitute Senate Bill 5 should be of grave concern to all faculty members — whether they are in a collective bargaining unit or not, whether they would choose personally to be involved in a union. The issue is self-determination: whether faculty members and other public sector employees should have the democratic right to choose their own collective destiny.
Faculty members in Wisconsin are engaged in exactly the same struggle over legislation to curtail their rights. If this anti-democratic legislation can be defeated in these two states, it is likely to be defeated elsewhere as well. If, on the other hand, it wins approval in Ohio and Wisconsin, it is likely to spread. Michigan is likely the next battleground.
Like so many other principled struggles, the battle in Ohio and Wisconsin to retain faculty rights is really a struggle on behalf of faculty members and public sector employees everywhere. It is also a struggle over the soul of our democracy. In the coming weeks and months, a massive local and national campaign will be required if public employees are to retain the collaborative workplace that collective bargaining at its best makes possible.
Cary Nelson, Professor of English and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the President of the American Association of University Professors. This article was first published in the AAUP Web site; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes. For more information, visit <oh.aflcio.org/index.cfm?action=calendar>, <www.afscmecouncil8.org> and <www.facebook.com/pages/Stand-Up-For-Ohio/167952849919161>. See, also, “Ohio Labor: No on SB5!”; Dan La Botz, “A New American Workers Movement Has Begun” (MRZine, 18 February 2011); Dan La Botz, “Thousands Rally in Columbus to Stop Anti-Union Bill” (Labor Notes, 18 February 2011).
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