Op-Ed: As a UC professor, I support the strikers. Our schools shouldn’t have let it come to this.
“If I have to stand up here and say that I believe in the right of workers to organize, to create a mass movement of workers all together, as one, and not in spite of each other, I’ve done what I could.”
With that ringing endorsement of the right to unionize, former Chancellor Robert Birgeneau set the tone for his time in office. In the years after, with new chancellor Bill Irsch, it has become a mantra for the university, and one that I think holds good for many campuses across the country.
But as Birgeneau’s tenure has continued, one question has come to dominate my thoughts: How did Birgeneau get to this point, and why has campus workers and their supporters become so fixated on the details of an agreement that is not in keeping with the spirit of the 1960s or the vision of the 1960s?
The question comes from an unexpected place.
When I asked Birgeneau about the past 20 years of working to build a single faculty union on campus, he turned our conversation to his own background. Birgeneau grew up in Detroit where his father worked to build a union at the Ford Rouge plant in the early 1960s. With the help of others, Birgeneau was able to help the workers at the plant unionize. With much smaller numbers, they were able to do the same.
But even with these victories, Birgeneau had to face his own opposition. “I’m not the kind of person who would work for a person who was anti-union,” he said.
Birgeneau spoke of how one of the founders of the University of Michigan, William Shockley, told him that the university’s goal would be to recruit a union of the world’s best minds. But Birgeneau refused to be intimidated. “I said, ‘No. We’re not going to have that.’ We will never have that.”
And in the end, Birgeneau