Thursday, April 3, 2008

"What does that stand for, again?"

Ever since October, I've been telling people - friends, colleagues, family - that I'm working for the SEIU this summer. I make a point of saying "SEIU" to see who knows what I'm talking about. The number of people around here who know what it stands for turns out to be astoundingly few. Out of that few, virtually everyone who doesn't have to ask me "what does that stand for, again?" is a current or former union activist. Even a legal aid attorney who I spoke to a couple of days ago didn't know what it stood for. Others register recognition, but then say, "Oh, the ACLU?"

I suspect that what's going on is some good ol' fashioned elitism. Not in the sense of adopting a superior attitude, but in the sense of the legal and academic worlds, belonging to the professional/managerial class (what Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel call the "coordinator class"), being so insulated from the concerns of working class people so as to not recognize a major working class institution.

If you're like the majority that I'm lamenting, you might like to know that SEIU stands for "Service Employees International Union." The SEIU is not obscure. It is the largest union in the US in membership, representing about 2 million workers - that's four times the membership of the ACLU. And it is not an inactive union that's never in the news - it's been growing fast, adding workers by the tens of thousands; and it's recently received news coverage in connection with some internecine fighting that's been going on, between the national leadership and United Health Care Workers West, which is part of the SEIU, as well as between the SEIU and the California Nurses Association, a separate union.

Perhaps the SEIU is less well-known because it doesn't fit with the old-timey image of the industrial union like the United Auto Workers or the Steelworkers. Nor is it quite like teachers' unions, which might be more widely known because the capitalist press loves to villify them. It could be that people occasionally hear information about the SEIU, but it doesn't seep in; it's not processed because a union that represents janitors, health care workers, security guards and other service workers doesn't fit our prototypical concept.

Certainly when most people I know engage in union-bashing, it's the auto workers and teachers who tend to get it, not service workers. Now, I do sometimes hear people bash the SEIU, but that's an entirely different critique, and it comes from a different political place - from radical or progressive people who are well-informed about unions, and who dislike SEIU president Andy Stern's approach to organizing. The people who bash auto workers and teachers generally do it from a more ignorant position.

Notice that in the first paragraph I said that few people around here know who the SEIU is. Around here is Cleveland, and more particularly Case Western Reserve University. Previously, I lived in Western Massachusetts and attended UMass. Pretty much all my friends from UMass recognized who the SEIU was when I brought it up.

A few things might account for that. First, UMass until about three years ago was in part organized by the SEIU (at that time the workers switched to the Massachusetts Teachers Association because they didn't like the SEIU's national leadership's new direction). Many people I know at UMass worked within the SEIU or with the SEIU. At Case, in contrast, I don't believe any campus workers are unionized.

Second, UMass has a greater level of labor-awareness in general (or maybe I should say a lower level of labor-illiteracy). UMass has one of the few graduate programs in labor studies in the U.S., and the faculty and students are active and involved. It also has an economics department with a heterodox orientation, which draws students from the U.S. and abroad who tend to be interested in labor issues. It has other departments and programs which draw leftists, such as sociology and Social Thought and Political Economy. Perhaps most importantly: despite the efforts of its business-friendly administration, there are still a critical mass of UMass students and staff who come from working-class backgrounds, and who think critically about social and economic issues.

In Case law school, by comparison, there appear to be few students who are interested in such critical thinking. It's hard to tell what people's backgrounds are when there's little talk about society and economics outside of classroom "law and society" and "law and economics" talk, which tends to be superficial, broad, abstract and unsophisticated, and not of the kind that would lead a person to become knowledgeable about issues of economic class. But to the extent that I know people's family backgrounds, they tend to be drawn from the professions, especially lawyers.

Not too surprising, considering that many people stick with what they grow up with. But the fact that so few people around here register recognition of the country's biggest union is a symptom of the class divide in higher and professional education that should be of great concern for people who value democracy and its concomitant - elimination of the class system.

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