On unions, doctors, and Thanksgiving turkeys

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Tonight's Grey's Anatomy featured a nurse's strike as the umbrella plot device. While I wasn't happy with its portrayal, considering it fairly trite and one-dimensional, there were issues raised by it that stirred a few responses in me.

You might remember my previous identification with the character of George. In this episode, we're shown George in contemplation of his responsibilities, being a self-described "union man." In the long run, he refuses to cross the nurses' picket line. Longtime watchers might expect George's "union man" status to be derived from his hypermasculine father and brothers, so cartoonishly portrayed in the Thanksgiving episode. Perhaps they work at Boeing or some other Seattle-area union shop? No, actually, George ties being a "union man" to his mother having been a teacher during a 48-day work stoppage. This inconguous statement isn't really acknowledged at any other point in the episode, and it makes you wonder why the writer (Zoanne Clack, Speech Comm major at Northwestern, staff MD of the GA writing staff) chose a white-collar source for George's self-identification as a "union man."

This is not entirely arbitrary for me, of course. My father, a teacher, was on strike for 107 days in 1993-1994. A tabula rasa of political thought at the time, what I observed in that period would come to shape my worldview of labor politics for, probably, the rest of my life. In Napoleon, it was a battle between the union pressing for a pay raise and the school board being dedicated to a pay freeze. From the beginning, the union had optioned binding arbitration, but the administration refused until late January when they finally acquiesced, paying a considerably higher amount than they would have if they'd just agreed to arbitration from the outset.

The bitterness and isolation in my community will sit with me for the rest of my life. I remember the support that came from other unions: Christmas cards, a Thanksgiving turkey from Toledo, phone calls of support (though not enough to overcome the 5-10 obscene phone calls we'd get daily.) Napoleon is not a union town, despite its blue-collar reliance. The animosity that remains within that community is striking. To this day, I am not allowed to set foot in several business establishments.

Yet George is not a nurse. He's a doctor, one contracted to perform work within the hospital, with whichever union or non-union nurses are necessary. What keeps him from crossing the picket line?

Flash forward (or backward, depending on where your mindset is right now) to September, 2000. I'm a full-time faculty member at Eastern Michigan University, having just finished my MA and seeking desperately to escape my $20,000 salary and five-class courseload. Since I'm not tenure-track, I'm not invited to the AAUP (professor's union). Efforts were in play to establish a union for non-tenure-track faculty, as we were being increasingly relied-upon and yet were offered no benefits or summer pay, but the university refused to negotiate with our elected leaders.

On September 5, during the first week of classes, the AAUP of EMU went on strike, protesting (mainly) the replacement of tenure-track faculty with non-tenure-track cheapos like me. I was full agreement with this stance; I knew that I was nowhere near as strong a teacher as a "real" professor. Simultaneously, I was put in the bind of being a "union man" with his own union aspirations who was being told to report to work despite a strike that had pretty much crippled the campus. (EMU's reliance on adjuncts is pretty well-revealed in the fact they could keep classes open during a full professor's strike.) While my boss was adamant about my presence at work, the faculty were equally-adamant about my not crossing the picket line. I came to work incognito, wearing a grey Eastern sweatshirt, and slipping past the line of marching faculty, hoping none recognized me.

I struggled with the decision of whether to go to class. On one hand, I was a "union man," and by enabling the university to stay open during the strike, I was seriously hindering the effort of the professors' union. On the other, I had a contract that required me to do a job, and my own union didn't exist yet. In the end, I went to class and talked to my students about their thoughts and feelings about labor unions in the 21st century. I didn't really teach, so in that aspect I didn't cross the picket line. But I did go to work, so I pretty much screwed the pooch on standing by the union.

The strike ended a week later, though the faculty would again threaten a strike four years later after seeing no change in EMU policies on hiring. Tenured faculty continue to be replaced by nontenured faculty. The university's reputation continues to fall. And nobody really cares, since academic reputation is a consideration for, what, maybe 10% of college students? In 2006, students are attending whichever university they can get to from their day job, or whichever one will admit and graduate them after five years of debauchery. The top 10% of universities will strive for academic excellence and the students who seek the same. The bottom 90% will stay in business because a college degree is a necessity in the 21st century.

In the long run, I appreciate what George did. He was in the opposite situation I was at EMU. I am curious to know if any of the faculty would have refused to come to work if our EMU Lecturer's Union had existed in 2000 and we'd gone on strike. I imagine some of the Leninist ones would, but not many. And thus in that I see nobility in George's attempts. Yes, he's privilieged, being white, male, and a doctor, but he tied his ethic of labor to a specific event and how it defined his identity. As always, he moves me a little closer to a communion of my history and my identity.

3 Comments

You may be interested to learn that the EMU-AAUP is currently on strike again - for pretty much the same reasons. Now, only 55% of credit hours are being taught by faculty, and there's pay issues at stake as well.

Random thank you to having the number of days from the strike written down. You are the only easy to find reference for that data on the internet.

The shit is hitting the fan again and I was trying to look up details about the strike without having to ask my dad as he is more than tense right now with the current goings on.

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    This page contains a single entry by tim published on January 30, 2006 9:18 AM.

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