[Note: This is my personal blog, and while I talk about some union work in this post, and I’m talking to union members–and non-members, and other people–I want to be clear that the claims are mine, not on behalf of the organization.]
Facebook Memories tells me that four years ago today, I wrote a post for the State APSCUF blog (which I can’t link to for some reason) in advance of our strike where I tried to articulate what I see as the key emotional stance of solidarity: resoluteness. We can be angry; we can be scared; we can be lots of other things. But the moment at which we resolve to stay together, arms linked (metaphorically while we’re socially distancing), we have tremendous power.
That reminder couldn’t be timed better as we approach Fall 2020 semester; across the PA State System of Higher Education, management’s willingness to hear and react humanely to our professional and personal concerns about safe working conditions is all over the place. Last week, West Chester University announced what I think is a model policy: most activities, including classes, will be online. Courses like clinicals, some labs, and some performance courses, will be face-to-face following strict safety protocols. Some campus common spaces and resources will be open and will follow strict safety protocols. We make everybody, including people who need access to campus, safer by sharply reducing the number of people who go there. A few days ago, East Stroudsburg University announced a similar policy.
At the other end of the spectrum, stories like this one from my friend and collaborator Amy Lynch-Biniek at Kutztown are appallingly common. I’ve heard from faculty at at least four universities that HR departments are rejecting requests for flexible work arrangements that aren’t specifically ADA-mandated. Faculty report being instructed to disclose confidential medical information and then being denied accommodations; being told if they don’t qualify for ADA accommodations that they can take unpaid FMLA leave (because we can all afford to go a semester or two without pay, amirite?); being told that childcare responsibilities aren’t the universities’ problem; you get the idea.
Our union’s response to such positions has been clear; these rejections of simple arrangements because the law doesn’t strictly require them are unacceptable morally (it’s inhumane to risk people’s lives where alternatives obviously exist) and professionally. Our chancellor was lavish in his praise of our emergency move online in Spring 2020, and his own System Redesign plan requires the exact pedagogical commitment to remote teaching that our institutions are denying so many of us. Apparently, we did something heroic and must keep doing it to save the system, but we can’t do it when the lives of tens of thousands of students, staff, and faculty are at risk from a global pandemic.
APSCUF President Jamie Martin responded to this…awkward logic in her remarks to the Board of Governors on July 17:
We are asking that our faculty be permitted to feel safe, that their concerns about their health and the health of their loved ones be taken seriously. My colleagues want to teach — they just do not want to become sick.
All of which leads to calls that are burbling up from faculty. Even those of us whose local management made smart decisions are angry and scared for our friends/colleagues/union siblings across the system. Faculty on campuses where local management is being inhumane have every reason to feel those and more. The call that’s emerging from the ground level takes on several different voices. A petition drafted by the APSCUF Statewide Mobilization Committee (disclosure: I chair the committee) calls on the Chancellor to recognize that faculty’s commitment to safety isn’t selfish but is motivated by the same concerns for our most vulnerable community members as he is. We need him to respect faculty’s decision-making about how we can best protect safety and do our best work, and he needs to tell his campus managers to do the same. A group of faculty at Shippensburg University are circulating a petition calling for online teaching across the system until safety protections for everyone are much stronger, and also calls for an array of justice-based overhauls around fighting white supremacy and other forms of bigotry. A Facebook post from Kevin Mahoney, APSCUF member and one of the best labor activists I know, calls on us to follow the lead of K-12 teachers around the country, and refuse to work until it’s safe for everyone–students, staff, and faculty alike.
As chair of the APSCUF Mobilization Committee, my primary responsibility is to work with the campus chairs to mobilize members at the direction of our leadership. For right now, that direction is to get signatures on the petition. I have also signed and promoted the Ship petition because I share its broad vision of how interconnected the issues of labor justice and racial justice are. I would commit in a second to a collective action aimed at refusing to threaten tens of thousands of lives for no discernible reason.
If you’re not resolved to the last one, then at least do the first two. And think hard about your reasons for hesitating to go further (there are explicable reasons). But we have about six weeks, in some cases not even, before students, staff, and faculty are made to return to conditions that aren’t safe for anyone and are profoundly threatening for many. Our system leadership needs to know that we will not sit idly while lives are risk. Let’s hope that saying collectively-but-quietly (via petition) is enough, but I’m asking you start thinking hard about what you’ll do if it isn’t.