Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Solidarity and the Future of American Labor

Christopher Hayes, a columnist for The American Prospect, published a column last week on the concept of solidarity in the American labor movement (and especially in December's TWU strike). Hayes's main point is that we have become conditioned in the United States to respond to all matter of social, environmental, and political problems merely by throwing money at them. But, he says, millions of New Yorkers managed to get beyond this conditioning and show their solidarity with the TWU strikers.

Hayes defines "solidarity" both mundanely (as "a robust feeling of togetherness") and sublimely (as "a powerful moral aspiration to realize the fundamental fellowship of humankind"). And he notes that labor unions are really one of the only places left in the United States where solidarity is possible and is practiced--that outside of the labor movement, we in fact seem to ridicule the concept of solidarity.

As Nerds noted in the comments to this article, we experience solidarity every day on the picket line, though usually the mundane kind. This occurs when we talk to each other and reinforce the fact that this strike is a collective struggle in which we share the same interests and face the same troubles. It also occurs when passersby show their support by giving us thumbs-up, stopping to chat, or honking their horns (especially those great Teamsters truck horns and the fire engine sirens). And it happens when workers of all varieties refuse to cross our picket lines.

But what about sublime solidarity? Are we experiencing and expressing that? It is important to remember that this strike is not only about graduate assistants at NYU, even though that is the reality that we live in. It is also about graduate assistants at other universities who wish to have their conditions improved and their right to collective bargaining recognized. It is about the future of higher education and whether we and our undergraduate students will be treated merely as products of an assembly line rather than as members of the knowledege community.

And, indeed, it is about the future of the American labor movement. As time goes on, more and more American workers will be like us--part time or contingent workers engaged in knowledge and service work whic management will try to define as "not-labor" because it doesn't look like what the teamsters, factory workers, construction workers, or miners do. More and more people who have advanced education and training, who thought they had worked their way out of the working class, will find that advanced degrees are no longer the ticket to secure futures. We are only one small part of this struggle, but we are an important part.

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