Our guest post today is by Dr. Seth Kahn of West Chester University.
I had lunch the other day with a junior colleague on my campus during which we started discussing the current negotiations situation and what might happen in the event of a strike. At some point, she told me pretty plainly that she, and other people she’s friends with who are in their first few years, haven’t been reading the updates and newsletters coming from State APSCUF very carefully because the faculty have reached a point of saturation with the tone they hear coming from those of us in leadership positions (or who are just outspoken) over the last few years. The person I was with is strongly supportive of the union, but the way she put it, the people she’s talked to about the union have simply gotten to the point where they’ve shut down when they hear the “harsh” (her word) tone we often use in our communications.
Of course, my immediate reaction was to claim (and yes, I believe it) that the intention isn’t to sound that way at all, particularly in relation to the current negotiations, but instead to sound resolute and strong. I made that case, briefly, and it wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. But the conversation that followed made me realize three things. First, it doesn’t really matter what we intend if that’s not what you’re hearing. Second, what anger we do voice is often the result of years of managerial and political inattention to the realities of the system (as President Mash’s remarks to the Board of Governors from July 14 lay out). Third (and I never would have figured this out without my colleague’s conversation, especially for people who have only been in the system for a couple of years), the angst has been pretty relentless and has come to sound all the same — even when it isn’t.
It’s that third point I want to focus on for now. When I asked my colleague to say more about what she was hearing, her explanation began with the announcement and implementation of the mandatory-background-checks policy. She’s right. It was confusing trying to follow a policy that was oblique, complicated by the fact that it changed, complicated further by the fact that the timeline changed, and so on. By the time that situation settled down, or seemed to, the “activist” (As somebody who identifies as an activist, I want to wash my mouth out with soap after using the word to describe him.) who hates public unions had filed the sunshine-law request for our home addresses, which set off another hail storm of confusion, mandates, complaints, anxieties, conflicting responses, and in some cases pleas for advice that never got answered. (I’ll admit, by the way, to overreacting publicly to that situation; I was ready to go hard against that guy, and then realized I’d rather he know how to find me so I could see what he was sending people. But by then enough people had heard me screeching bloody murder about it that I don’t blame them for hearing “the union” reacting that way.)
By the end of our lunch conversation, my colleague had also helped me realize one other important thing. Not so much the background checks policy, but most certainly with regard to the home address request, what that guy really wanted to do was create tension within APSCUF. It worked — to an extent. People were mad, and people were scared, and people were confused. More to the point, people (leaders and members) were vocal about all those anxieties, for months, trailing off only in time for contract negotiations (or the lack thereof) to take the stage. And while the long-timers who have been through negotiations cycles are used to hearing an increasingly aggressive voice from State APSCUF when the State System bides their time waiting for … never mind that. I understand why people who haven’t been through it before have heard a pretty continuous supply of angst for a while now.
Knowing that, I hope you’re willing to start reading material that comes from State APSCUF again, especially as we head into a new semester. Contract negotiations are not moving as quickly as they should be, and we need to convince the State System to pick up the pace. In order to do that, we almost certainly will have to let them know that we are, in fact, angry at the way things have gone (or haven’t gone). Like anyone else, I’d have preferred that we could focus on our negotiations and other positive union work instead of responding to oblique and clearly inflammatory mandates designed to prevent us from getting real work done. If we’re going to make real progress in negotiations, we all must get on the same page, and in order to do that, we need everyone to hear this: We don’t want to strike, but we’re resolute that we will not accept a contract that harms our students, our system, and us.
Seth Kahn is an English professor at West Chester University.