It’s about 3:30 am and I am up preparing for today’s PASSHE Board of Governors meeting in Harrisburg. I am printing out the last faculty letters to the Chancellor that I received late last night, reviewing my notes for my 90 seconds before the Board of Governors, rechecking Google map directions to ensure I can return to KU in time for my office hours and afternoon class, and hoping that enough faculty members from our 14 university system will make the trip to Harrisburg today to pack the Board of Governor’s meeting. As an academic – especially one that teaches writing and advocacy rhetorics, I am compelled to accept the persuasive power of rational discourse and I hope that the words of my colleagues and I will have some degree of impact on the Chancellor and the Board of Governors. I want to believe that we can help convince PASSHE administrators to bargain in good faith and help us secure a good and lasting contract.
However, the activist in me, the labor unionist in me, is also compelled to recognize that the persuasive power of words – yes, even in an academic context – have power only insofar as they are backed by people willing to act upon those words. Words, by themselves, are constrained by context – e.g. if there is no one listening, or a decision has already been made, or there are no institutional rules that require those in power to listen. If words are not empowered to be meaningful in any given institutional context, then their source of power must come from outside that institutional context. As Frederick Douglass memorably put it:
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
For sure, Douglass was no slouch when it came to a commitment to the persuasive power of words. However, he was also no fool. His direct experience with slavery and racism taught him otherwise.
Late yesterday we found out that the Chancellor’s Office has limited the public comments section of today’s meeting to three speakers. Each speaker will be limited to three minutes. Then, that’s it, comments are cut off. The Chancellor’s Office limited public comments to three speakers at least once before – when cafeteria workers from IUP, represented by SEIU, were protesting the Board of Governor’s meeting because of Sodexo. The take away? When workers in the PASSHE system – from cafeteria workers to academic workers – seek to make their concerns part of the official discussion, the Chancellor’s Office turns off the mic after providing just enough time for comments so they can claim to have been “open” to public concerns, but not enough time for any substantive discussion. It’s not about discussion after all. It’s about control.
I will be splitting my time with our local APSCUF-KU President, Paul Quinn. Before hearing that the Chancellor’s Office was going to limit debate, each of us had three minutes. But, we’ll take what we can get. I will deliver faculty letters and I will make some brief remarks. But, in the end, what will matter is if the Chancellor and the Board of Governors see that they are not up against three or four faculty members, but hundreds. The power of our words will be measured by the number of faculty members packing the meeting room and manning the picket lines outside the Dixon Center.
I prepare to drive to Harrisburg knowing full well that the Chancellor’s Office has already stacked the deck against us. That the only reason I am being given time to speak is because the Chancellor’s Office needs to appear to to be open to public comments. I don’t have any illusions about that portion of today’s meeting. I am going to Harrisburg to stand with my colleagues from across the state who, through their physical presence, are saying, “Enough!” I am going to Harrisburg to provide the Chancellor’s Office with a small taste of what a picket line looks like. I am going to Harrisburg to begin a process of demonstrating what gives a union power at the negotiations table – not simply the negotiation skills of the people at the table, but the collective power of our more than 6,000 members across the Commonwealth. I am going to Harrisburg to begin a process of putting limits on the aspirations of would-be, petty tyrants.