September 22, 1996

New York Times

Labor Leaders and Intellectuals Are Forging New Alliance


After a 30-year estrangement in which union leaders shunned academics as too far to the left and the liberal intelligentsia scorned big labor as part of the establishment, many academics are forging a new alliance with the revived labor movement.

Academics are counseling students to become union organizers and are donating time to teach courses to union officials. Cornell University professors held a conference with the AFL-CIO on how to do more organizing, while many sociology professors are revamping their courses to focus more on labor's role in society.

And in early October, several dozen academic luminaries will join union leaders at Columbia University for a 1960s-style teach-in intended to give the academic world's imprimatur to labor's new leadership and to explore how intellectuals can do more to advance the goals of organized labor.

Similar teach-ins will be held at a dozen other schools, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Florida, Eastern Illinois University, Wayne State University in Detroit and the University of Texas at El Paso.

"We want to lend the support of a large number of academics and intellectuals to the revitalization of labor," said Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University who is helping to organize the teach-ins. "From our point of view, there is no real hope for progressive social change in this country without a strong labor movement, and without a strong labor movement the conservative tendency of things is never going to be reversed."

The teach-ins are intended to draw the attention of students, academics, the media and the public.

This labor-intellectual alliance puts an end to three decades in which liberal academics and unions were at loggerheads over Vietnam, Cold War politics and labor's foot-dragging on allowing more women and minorities into unionized jobs.

In the view of labor leaders, this new alliance is important not just because historians, economists and sociologists might lend their brain power to organizing drives, but also because through their writings, intellectuals can change the public's perception of labor.

And the alliance, which flourished in the 1930s, is being renewed as John J. Sweeney, the president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, has broadened labor's reach by building coalitions with other segments of society, including the clergy, women's groups, students, environmentalists and Hispanic people.

"As part of our effort to rebuild the progressive coalition in this country, it's important that progressive academics play a major role," said Robert Welsh, the AFL-CIO's chief of staff.

This new alliance pales compared with the assistance that intellectuals gave labor in the 1930s, when they ran labor colleges and union newspapers and penned pro-labor polemics. But today's intellectuals promise that their support for labor will prove far more substantial than mere talk at teach-ins.

"What we're talking about is not just a few intellectuals providing some ad hoc advice, but about some significant potential shifts in research time and thinking," said Tom Juravich, research director for the labor relations school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Some conservative intellectuals heaped scorn on this new alliance. Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion, a conservative journal, called labor's academic allies "a rogues' gallery of politically correct intellectuals who have a very serious case of Marx envy."

He added, "They are infused with an incredible nostalgia for a kind of political activism which they hope can infuse a higher purpose to their lives. They look to the '60s and to the '30s for models for this kind of militant activism, safe though they are in their ivied groves of academia."

At a news conference on Wednesday in Washington, James A. Perley, the president of the American Association of University Professors, joined Sweeney to announce the group's support for the teach-ins. Acknowledging that their new-found friendship with labor is not altogether altruistic, officials with the association say they hope the AFL-CIO will back their fights to preserve tenure, win raises and reverse cuts in education spending.

Academics are allying with labor at a time when professors at some elite private colleges, like Bennington, and some public universities, like the City University of New York, are facing some of the same pressures that other workers face, like downsizing and pay freezes.

Perley said, "We've come to realize that we need to reach out to make connections to others who are experiencing the same kind of difficulties."

Professors, writers and intellectuals say they have embraced the AFL-CIO's leadership because it is seeking to transform labor into a broad social movement, and, they say, because it is dropping its focus on helping the relatively well-paid union elite. Many academics say they are pleased that Sweeney has focused on organizing more workers and raising the wages of low-paid workers.

"In the 1930s, many intellectuals supported labor because it represented not just an interest group, but a social movement whose activities promised much to not only its immediate members, but to the whole society," said Steven Fraser, co-chairman of the teach-ins and author of a biography on Sidney Hillman, the clothing workers' leader.

"The social movement character of labor began to decline in the 1950s and was pretty much dead by the end of the 1960s. That's what had originally attracted intellectuals. Now, I'm happy to say, that social movement character is returning."

For their part, labor leaders found it hard to forgive liberal academics for opposing the Vietnam War. And in the 1980s, the AFL-CIO hierarchy made common cause with some neo-conservative intellectuals in opposing leftist movements in Central America. In a hierarchy that was forever seeking to root out Communists, many labor leaders were squeamish about associating with academics, who they feared were closet Communists.

Academics' support for labor is taking many forms. Fraser, the co-chairman of the teach-ins and executive editor of Houghton Mifflin, has shepherded into print Sweeney's new book, "America Needs a Raise." Professors at UCLA have advised the AFL-CIO on setting up its Union Summer program, in which more than 1,000 students volunteered to work for unions, and on carrying out a vast organizing effort at small factories in Los Angeles.

At Sarah Lawrence College, Priscilla Murolo, a history professor, has encouraged some students to become union organizers. And at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Gretchen Knapp, a history professor, is setting up a teach-in and film festival about the labor movement.

"A lot of our students, after they leave here, will be encouraged to join unions or will deal with unions in some way, shape or form," Knapp said. "These students know little about unions, and we're trying to show them what the labor movement stands for."

The teach-in speakers at Columbia on Oct. 3 and 4 will include Cornel West, Afro-American studies professor at Harvard; feminist author Betty Friedan, and Richard Rorty, a University of Virginia philosopher. The workshops include "Working Families on the Fault Line," "Labor and Immigration," and "Organizing in the Global Economy."


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