No Justice, No Teach

Photo by James BunoanOn a 20-yard stretch of butcher paper taped to the concrete in front of the UC Irvine administration building, dozens of undergraduate students were scribbling messages of solidarity for striking lecturers.

Most were straight-forward: “Good luck!” “You deserve better treatment!” “I Love My Lecturer.” Others were harder to gauge, as in “More tenured positions, assholes!” Still others seemed flat-out hostile: “Get back to work, socialists!”

The butcher paper provided a roadmap to the somewhat lackluster student reaction to a two-day walkout that hit the UCI campus on Oct. 14 and 15. The walkout was part of a statewide strike that involved several thousand lecturers (the walkout completely shut down UC Santa Cruz). At UCI, activists estimated that about 20 percent of classes were canceled due to the walkout.

Since the 1980s, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has represented lecturers—academic jargon for college teachers who don't primarily publish or have tenure—in fruitless negotiations for better pay and job security. For the past 30 months, UCI lecturers have worked without a contract. Every year, they've been saddled with more classes. The strike seemed more symbolic than strategic given that activists timed it so it would not interfere with semester final exams or term papers.

“We didn't want to disrupt student's coursework any more than necessary,” said Tira Palmquist, an English department lecturer. She said the AFT has charged UC Irvine with a number of unfair labor practices—such as summarily dismissing lecturers and sending representatives to the bargaining table who have no authority to negotiate.

“We just want to bring the university back to the bargaining table,” she said. “They are wasting our time at these negotiating sessions.”

Lack of respect and job security seemed to be the real reason behind the two-day walkout.

“We teach more than half of the undergraduate classes at UC Irvine,” said Andrew Tonkovich, a UC Irvine lecturer who doubles as an AFT shop steward (full disclosure: Tonkovich is also a frequent Weeklycontributor). “If UC Irvine really values undergraduate education, it would treat its employees with dignity, respect and justice. We are not slouchers; we are people with Ph.D.s, we win awards, we publish textbooks, and we consistently win excellent evaluations from our students.”

Excellent evaluations from students is a double-edged sword, according to Tonkovich, who is one of only a handful of UCI lecturers who enjoys a three-year teaching contract, which is the closest thing to job security available for lecturers. He said lecturers must receive extremely high marks from students for six years in a row to obtain a three-year contract. “They can fire us at any time,” he said.

The two-day strike culminated on Oct. 15, when several hundred lecturers and graduate students, plus a gaggle of professors and students, attended a rally in front of the administration building. Among the speakers was Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, who said he had been an “underpaid lecturer” at UCI in the 1970s and 1980s. “There are two sources of power in this society,” Agran said. “One is the right to vote and organize; the other is to refuse to cooperate with an oppressive administration. I'm with you all the way.”

History professor Mike Davis derided the administration for providing poor pay and non-existent job security to its lecturers, comparing the campus to a “plantation.” He seemed especially chagrined with Chancellor Ralph Cicerone, who sent a campus-wide e-mail urging students to cross picket lines. During the rally, Davis read from an e-mail he sent back to Cicerone, in which he said he planned to use the chancellor's communiqu as a topic for student discussion.

“Although crossing a picket line may be, as you point out, a 'legal right,' it is also a betrayal of what Abraham Lincoln called the second most fundamental of human solidarities (after the family)—the common cause of labor,” Davis said. “Speaking as one aging and overpaid functionary of the state educational bureaucracy to another, is it not our responsibility to take the clear side of justice?”

Shortly after the rally ended, the lecturers returned to their circling picket lines, chanting, “No justice, no teach!” While some students joined the circle, most returned to their classes.

Observing the flow of students who seemed completely uninterested in the picket line, Mathew Orchutga, a graduate student in sociology, remarked, “This campus is pathetic, really.” He estimated that 60 percent of his fellow teaching assistants were “withholding their labor” in solidarity with the lecturers.

“We aren't holding our discussion sections or lectures today,” he said.

At that point, an eavesdropping undergraduate student standing nearby raised his hands triumphantly in the air. “That's all I needed to know,” he said. “Now I can go home and sleep.”

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