Tuesday, March 1, 2011

UWM profs considering strike action tomorrow?

UWM profs considering strike action tomorrow?
by Vicki McKenna on Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 5:47am

I am an instructor at UW-Milwaukee . Should any of the following information be used, I respectfully ask to remain anonymous.

According to a series of exchanges with colleagues across campus from various departments, there is a strong possibility of a campus-wide (and possibly a UW system-wide) strike beginning on Wednesday, March 2nd. I am attaching a copy of email communications that I received via a campus listserv from 2/22 to 2/28 in which the possibility of a “failed semester” was discussed and the potential impact on our students was debated. While it remains to be seen whether the strike is ultimately “called,” there are disturbing comments in these emails that reveal a crass disregard for our students, their families and their economic situations; likewise, there is (as one would expect with academics) an attitude of self-serving intellectual superiority that seeks to pit students against their own families. While this attitude has long been assumed, some of my colleagues revealed this as an actual sympathetic strategy to gain potential student allies and pit them against their families (many of whom are – unbeknownst to them - financing this attempted wedge) all for the sake of scoring political points.

Sadly, it appears as though many of my colleagues at UW-Milwaukee will attempt to accomplish their goals by “any means necessary” with little thought to the collateral damage to our students. This is why I am bringing this information (and potential appeal to inform the public) directly to you. Given that many Wisconsin taxpayers choose to spend precious resources financing the tuition of their children, I believe some external pressure can be exerted on the university by the families themselves. In addition, attention should be brought to the public at large about the potential for this egocentric move at great expense to the students that many of these “professionals” claim to serve. Much like the K-12 teachers who walked out on their students during the early days of this public debate, the UW system educators would illegally abandon their contracts and their students. Unlike the K-12 teachers, this strike could have more dire consequences for individual students and their families in terms of financial aid ramifications, delayed graduations and careers, etc. Below I have included a sampling of the troubling comments of my colleagues that reveal the dismissive nature of their aims as well as the potential impact on our students:

● From 2/25: “In yesterday's meeting, Rodney brought up the possibility of a "failed semester" if there was a strike. I have searched Chapter 36 and Chapter 227 (and google, of course), and asked my UWM mentors, but can't find a mention of this term. Rodney, can you (or anyone else -- Connie Jo? Winson?) direct us to the documents explaining "failed semesters," who declares them, under what circumstances, etc.?”

● From 2/25: “Let us remember what an outrage such an event would be. Our students come here seeking a better life through the education we provide. A failed semester would only occur if we denied them our classes…A strike under such circumstances would not only be an outrage against the students but also counter-productive to the goals of continuing the growth of UWM.”

● From 2/25: “It is my understanding that our MGAA (GTA, RA, PA, etc) current contracts have a specific "no strike" stipulation, rendering it against the law. However, these contracts expire on March 13. If, under the current radical restructuring to promote the upward redistribution of wealth, new contracts are not created and/or unions are broken, there could conceivably be no more stipulation against strike. This is all worth fact checking, as I am certainly no expert in this matter….If TAs (etc) strike, will we cross the picket lines? And also, how will we, as their teachers, handle their absences from our seminars, labs, etc? In my understanding, our "not crossing picket lines" would mean that we, too, are on strike. Collective actions only work as a collective, and are sometimes thrust upon us by outside forces, and yet, we certainly have serious duties and responsibilities to *all* current students, both present and future.”

● From 2/25: “If it is any comfort as we cry in our porridge... from my vantage point, I believe most of our students know. Many are also getting conflicting messages from home, and they are grappling with the issues. I am so very very impressed with their sincerity and sense of fairness.”

● From 2/26: “I think it is important to frame the so-called "failed semester" argument as a possible red herring. As an instructor, I certainly care about my students and place their learning environment as one of my top priorities. In this framing, I do not see an absolute separation between my working conditions (including my collective bargaining rights and contract) and my work. I therefore see my efforts to defeat Walker's budget and budget "repair" bill as in line with preserving and improving the educational environment for my current AND future students. Another point that should be made in regards to the claim of "outrage" that a labor action may have: what this discussion is not accounting for is the vast numbers of students here and elsewhere who support their teachers and oppose Walker's budget bills. The "failed semester" concern presupposes that our students would not be our allies were they to be educated on the real effects of it, that they would not take a stand with their university's workers who provide the educational environment they deserve. To treat students only as consumers of education or to treat them patronizingly as "students" rather than potential allies is a disservice to them. I'm not one to resort to historical judgement, but if we were to lose this struggle for collective bargaining rights and the quality of education they ensure, a possible historical reexamination of our efforts would not judge us dignified for "respecting" our students' "investments" in education, but judge us harshly for refusing to build alliances with the very people whose support we need and indeed already have.”

● From 2/26: “You will do what you want but please understand there are real consequences for your potential allies. There are several thousand students who expect to graduate this May - some with jobs lined up that require them to have a degree - others with plans for grad school, med school, or other professional schools where again a degree is necessary. A "failed semester" will likely not result in a degree being completed for these people. I don't even want to begin to ponder if there are financial aid paybacks that students will need to make in a "failed semester". I also worry about the visa status of our foreign students in such a case. So please do not idealize the consequences of a labor action because some students are going to be severely impacted.”

● From 2/26: “What I understand are the "real consequences" of allowing a tyrant and extortionist like Walker to determine the choices faculty and students must make about their fundamental values as members of the human community. Education is more than amassing enough credits to land a job--I don't even want to ponder the cost to our culture of accommodating a bankrupt moral policy just so faculty and students won't be disrupted. This is not about idealization--this is about hard choices, social responsibility, and a vision of education that goes beyond self-serving credentials. I believe we are now at war for the very soul of Wisconsin, its working people, and the integrity of its university system--business as usual isn't acceptable, and sacrifices will have to be made by EVERYONE if we hope to preserve our common dignity and academic freedom.”

● From 2/26: “I think the concept of "failed semester" may not have an exact definition but I think its meaning is reasonably clear. A colleague described it as follows:

Under any definition it involves denial of classes to enrolled students. If applied to a situation of, say, epidemic, war, or asteroid collision, it would be understandable that those classes would be cancelled in such numbers as to render the semester educationally meaningless.

Everyone has an oar in the water on this and everyone has an agenda both here and in Madison. There may be eventual winners but I believe it is our students who will end up the losers in a prolonged labor action regardless of who wins.”

● From 2/27: “… I don't think a teaching staff walkout is likely to have much of an impact on the people who *temporarily* have charge of our government. They haven't listened to 150,000 plus. They don't appear to care at all about education or having an educated public in Wisconsin, so why would a walkout by instructors phase them? A walkout will only hurt our students and their families. Yes, so will this appalling budget "repair" bill, but we can undo some of that damage by working to recall these "officials" and then changing this retched bill. Laws can be changed. In fact, this will be easier to do than undoing the damage done to public opinion if there is a lengthy teaching staff walkout. And, Lee, I do think you have a point that many of our students support us, but they likely won't continue to do so if supporting us ends up hurting their education, their pocketbooks, and their futures. I think our energy would be better served working to recall these officials. This is where I plan to spend my energy.”

● From 2/27: “In my mind, a “failed semester” is not an option. Such a situation would be a public relations disaster that would undo the progress that we have recently made in the eyes of the general public. I believe a ”failed semester” would further galvanize the public’s anti-educational and anti-intellectual views. A “failed semester” would irreversibly harm this institution. It would greatly harm our public image, it would hinder the future of our students by keeping them from making timely and meaningful progress towards their degrees, it would hinder our ability to recruit quality students and new faculty to our programs, it would obstruct our probationary faculty from timely developing their scholarly records, it would damage our future research potential by preventing timely completion of currently funded projects, and it would be a financial disaster to our students, their families, our staff, this university, and to us personally. Our current state government has no intentions of listening to our concerns and demands. Walker and the media are very good at framing us as irrelevant, insignificant, and out of touch with the needs of the populace. A “failed semester” would be used to emphasize their current views.”

● From 2/27: “If this means the semester doesn't count or doesn't finish, would the students get "Incompletes?" What would that do to financial aid students? Would they then be required to stay for an extra semester and finance their own education? Would they have to immediately pay back this semester's loans (as if they had failed?) This is something that I feel I need to know before possibly assessing the situation. If it means that the semester doesn't count but that students still have to foot the bill for it (as well as a make-up semester), I can't imagine that they would readily stay "allies" for very long.”

● From 2/28: “So let's make our positions clear. What do advocates of caution propose to do on the hypothetical Thursday above? Do we cross picket lines in order to teach our classes? Do we pick up the grading responsibilities of TAs? Their teaching responsibilities? Do we muddle through, making our own copies, filing our own documents, etc. in the absence of office support staff? Do we empty our own garbage cans, clean up messes in dirty classrooms, etc. in the absence of custodial staff? I submit: an answer of "yes" to any of the last four questions would make us scabs, and reserve for us a special place in one of Hell's innermost circles. The first question ("Do we cross picket lines to teach?") is trickier; a range of possibilities, some of which already mentioned, can be contemplated. Holding classes off-campus or on-line are options; these avoid a literal crossing of picket lines, but arguably amount to the same thing. (Anything we do to mitigate negative consequences of a job action--the very point of which is to bring about negative consequences--tends to undermine its aims.) Delaying instruction--pushing it into the summer, issuing incompletes, etc.--is another option; I have no idea the feasibility of this. I'm sure other possible courses of action are available; I second someone else's call for creative thinking on this question. My position is this: I won't cross picket lines unless it's clear I'll be fired otherwise; I won't be a scab under any circumstances.”

● From 2/28: “I'm not too sure just what's at risk of changing here except losing part of our summer if things are handled badly. You really can't be a "scab" laborer in a situation where there is no legal right to strike--and even union employees don't have that right. And, I don't know about you, but I already pick-up coverage for TA's I supervise when needed, do my own copies--when digital alternatives escape me, and empty the trash cans in my office--and have often found myself lugging overflowing trash cans to dumpsters behind our building. It would be nice if occasionally we had some changes that actually improved on the SOP of our workplace. So, the very last thing I want to see is anything that forces me to cut into what little time I have in summer because a probably well intended but ultimately ineffectual protest sandbags time already allotted to the spring term and forces it into summer.”

● From 2/28: “I share the concerns some of you have voiced about the negative effects a work stoppage might have on our public image and on our students. But I ask you to also consider what a positive message we might send our state (and one another) by peacefully and respectfully standing together to protect education and civil rights. When academics stand with and fight for the rights of nurses, prison guards, janitors, and road crews; when we risk our jobs and our public image to demonstrate our commitment to our students and our state, we show the public a side of us that they may not always see. We lead. We dare. We teach….The walk-outs at Michigan stand out as my most memorable, lively, and meaningful days on that campus. This is because we didn't stop doing our jobs when we opted not to enter the buildings… Some students supported us and some didn't, and that was A-OK. Because most of all, what they learned was that the political process isn't the job of some stale strongmen in Washington but the responsibility of each citizen, to pursue according to the better angels of his or her nature, through direct action, and with courage.”

In addition, there is evidence in these emails of UW-Milwaukee employees who are in violation of the UW System’s prohibition against “engaging in political activities” during work time and/or using university resources. In this case, the resources that are being used are (possibly) university computers, (clearly) the listserv, and (clearly) the email communications mechanism. Two employees in particular who appear to be in violation are Peter Blewett (a lecturer in the English Department who also serves MPS board VP) and Cathy Kaye (Director of the ESL program who also serves as the UWM TAUWP chapter President). Blewett has used UWM resources to forward his work at MPS. In the emails I’ve included, Blewett’s most recent MPS resolution. Earlier in the public debate, Kaye was openly organizing protests and performing union activities. Then, someone publically “reminded” the listserv that it was a violation to do this. However, after this warning and the formal “reminder” dated 2/22 from Rodney Swain (Interim Dean at the UWM College of Letters and Science), Kaye changed her tactics but still attempted to use UWM resources to organize. Below you will see her email; Kaye’s reference to a “lunch gathering” is in regard to a planned “tuition protest” at Spaights Plaza that is being promoted by SDS (Students for A Democratic Society) on 3/2.

See this link: http://www.studentsforademocraticsociety.org/?q=2011%2F2%2F16%2Fall-out-education-rights-call-protest-march-2nd-2011:


  1. This is nonsense!!

    NONE of the faculty want a strike, and there's no talk of having one. The faculty aren't in a union. The question on the reflector is addressing what would happen if the union workers (custodians, librarians, food workers, IT staff, etc.) go on strike. We can't run a university without our union employees, and we are all concerned what could happen if THEY strike. But there's been no discussion among them of striking either. The ENTIRE conversation has been a "what if" conversation on how damaging such a thing would be to everyone, especially students and our education mission.


  2. It is also worth noting that the link provided is to a student organization and in reference to a national issue and activities that happen annually, and on many campuses around the country. In coordination with the national actions regarding education rights and tuition, there is a student event planned for March 2nd at UWM. This event was not planned by faculty, or by union members, but by the undergraduate students. It is for a "Walk-out" at a specific time. This is not in any way a strike or work-stoppage of any kind.

  3. You paint a picture of careless professors, but the first half dozen emails or so are nothing but sympathetic to the students. The failed semester phrase was not a legal term used, and has since been explained as a coined phrase to describe a point at which we have to provide refunds to students for -our- failure to provide them a fully taught semester. The actual numbers on when we would fail our students in fully educating them a curriculum, or how much a refund would be, are still to be discussed.

    Most of the dissenting emails or ones with any hint of outrage speak of scabs and responses to strikes, rather than students or lack of care for them. Also, as far as sampling, I believe this is every single email that has hit that particular listserv over the last few days.

  4. I'm the author of the e-mail excerpt dated 2/28 that begins, "So let's make our positions clear."

    I believe your alarming headline to this post can be traced to a misunderstanding by your anonymous source of something I said in my message--only part of which has been reproduced here.

    You'll notice that the second sentence of the excerpt mentions "the hypothetical Thursday above." The key word is 'hypothetical'. I was referrring to an earlier sentence in my message, which read, "The central question can be put simply: If, for instance, the TAs and/or classified staff walk out on Wednesday, what do we do on Thursday?" The key phrase here is 'for instance'.

    I was asking my colleagues to conduct a thought-experiment, to contemplate a hypothetical scenario. 'Wednesday' refers not to this--or any other--actual Wednesday, but the day of the hypothetical job action by members of unions on campus.

    I hope there never is such a day, but the way things are going, it seems prudent to think about what we would do should there be one.

    Anyway, I'd be much obliged if you'd change the headline of your post to something less likely to get people all worked up. It is based on a simple misunderstanding.


    Matt Knachel

  5. Kiel,

    Didn't you drop out of a class with Frank Wilson you started two weeks late last semester?

    Maybe you should focus on your studies OR join the conversation at UWM rather than trolling . . .

  6. Please. This "non-partisan" website that "supports candidates that have constitutional values and support state rights,"
    is an even bigger joke than the idiot that purposefully misrepresented decontextualized e-mails.

    Ironically, this "UWM Instructor's" analysis fails to meet even the minimum requirements of UWM's basic writing curriculum for undergraduates. How he/she is in a position to teach anyone anything should be the question of concern here.

  7. So... the title poses a question, and the answer to the question is nowhere to be found in the ridiculous text that follows. Allow me to provide the answer, as someone who has received all the e-mails in question, read them attentively, while having yet to add any of my comments to the thread. The answer is very cleary, "no, UWM professors are NOT EVEN CONSIDERING strike action tomorrow. I believe that the "UWM instructor" who posted these e-mails also needs a remedial reading class.

  8. I'm a UWM TA who's been following this e-mail conversation as well, and as other people have pointed out, this instructor wildly misrepresents its tone and character. No one on the listserv--not one person--has called for a strike. Several faculty--that is to say, 4-7 people out of the hundreds of faculty on the list--asked questions about what might happen if TAs had a strike. Most voiced opinions that it would be a disaster. (I agree). Whoever summarized and titled these e-mails is willfully misrepresenting the facts to try to give fodder for local right-wing talk radio. Again, out of _hundreds_ of professors, not one has proposed striking, much less a majority. It's ridiculous that this was even posted.

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