Response to strike missing disgust for stratification

If student and faculty support of the clerical workers’ strike has been so weak, it is undoubtedly because of the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor (precisely what is at stake in the strike) has become so normal for us – social and economic stratification has truly become the “law of the land.”

The signs are everywhere: a president is elected whose campaign promises revolve around making the rich richer; the salaries of CEOs skyrocket while working people see their wages decrease; and people’s health benefits and job security disappear. At the University, the number of administrators making six-figure salaries has quadrupled in the last nine years, while the clerical workers find their tiny annual salary increases under attack.

The problem is even more serious than it appears at first glance. It is not simply that the gap between rich and poor is widening, it is that the rationalization of this gap is becoming the very language by which we make sense of our social and political experience. When this occurs, the attainment of individual gain through the imposition of collective misery ceases to shock us. On the contrary, only that which fits within this schema appears rational, sensible and logical.

This is why the clerical workers’ strike appears, to many students and faculty, as nothing short of scandalous. By not blindly accepting the decrees of University CEO Bob Bruininks, by not cowering in the face of the mean-spirited threats of Carol Carrier, by standing up to an administration that wants to bully them into a de facto pay cut and a weakening of health benefits, the clerical workers break a set of unwritten rules (don’t they know their place?) – and force us to question our passive acceptance of these rules; our silent consent of the stratification of rich and poor. Our “comfort zone” is disturbed, and we react to this disturbance in one of two ways: Either we feel genuinely threatened (for in a society ruled by a “winner take all” mentality, we are only able to understand someone who stands up for his rights by imagining that he is infringing upon our own), or we merely feel “inconvenienced” (an ugly word that places individual entitlement above collective well-being, and thus fits perfectly within the logic of consumerism).

Now, what is missing is a response to the strike that would lie outside – that would reject – this false alternative of threat and inconvenience. Luckily, we don’t need to look far to find this response. When a student joins a picket line, professes solidarity with the clerical workers, attends a rally or takes part in a sit-in, he or she does not simply support the strikers. He or she articulates a refusal to accept the reduction of society to the workings of accumulation and individual gain.

When faculty members or course instructors hold class off campus, they affirm that teaching and learning is not a product bought and sold by the administration. Indeed, teaching and learning is not a product at all. They assert the freedom of thinking, versus those who would seek to turn it into a good that can only be obtained at a certain location. They declare that the University belongs not to the administration but to those who teach and learn – that the University is located wherever this teaching and learning take place.

When students and faculty respond this way, they do not just stand in solidarity with the clerical workers: They articulate a certain vision of the University, one that rejects the corporate vision of the administration. Nothing less than this is at stake in our response to the clerical workers’ strike.

Cory Stockwell is a graduate student and course instructor in the department of cultural studies and comparative literature. He welcomes comments at [email protected]