Five lessons from the heartland

September 16, 2014

Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Mullen look at the interlocking economic and political issues at stake in the struggle to get UIUC to reinstate Steven Salaita.

AT AROUND 12:15 p.m. on September 11, word began circulating around the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus that Arab American scholar Steven Salaita's appointment to the faculty had been voted down by the Board of Trustees.

Salaita, a distinguished scholar and author of six books, was fired by University Chancellor Phyllis Wise two weeks before his appointment at UIUC was to begin because of pro-Israel and donor complaints about his tweets criticizing Israel's massacre in Gaza.

But the scene at the reception of this news was anything but defeatist.

At the Alma Mater statue on campus, more than 250 people had gathered in protest against the university administration, a many-headed hydra of UIUC's angry, enraged and dispossessed.

They included members of the university's AFSCME unit who were in the middle of a hard-fought contract negotiation with the administration.

They included members of the Campus Faculty Association, as well as the AFT/IFT/AAUP Local 6546 of Non-Tenure Track Faculty, who had been hit with a "wage freeze" by the administration.

Protesters defend Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Protesters defend Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

They included members of the University of Illinois-Chicago faculty union who had driven 90 miles to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters at UIUC.

And they included a wide layer of students and faculty representing both the Graduate Employees Organization on campus, Students for Salaita, a support group, and an ad hoc faculty collective led by, among others, Robert Warrior, the head of American Indian Studies which had recruited and hired Salaita to his position.

As the rally got under way, two things became clear.

First, that the University administration had been consistently arrogant across the board, alienating wide swaths of people--especially ones who did the hard work of keeping the campus running. Staff members had been disrespected, faculty members had been denied their say. And now the Board of Trustees--an elite group--who had never taught a class on campus or kept a departmental office functional, got to put their final seal on the hire decision of a preeminent scholar.

Second, that the campus had figured out a way to fight these multiple crimes of their administrators. With their practical organizing, they embodied the old slogan: an injury to one is an injury to all.

As we stood listening to speaker after speaker connect the threads between Salaita's firing, apartheid Israel and the violation of labor rights at home, we realized that these people at UIUC were showing us something important. They were showing us the way to a new social movement that could constitute a fighting force against neoliberalism, both at home and abroad.

SO HERE are five lessons we learned from our friends and colleagues at UIUC campus that day:

1. A broad struggle is needed against neoliberal university administrators because they serve political interests, not academic ones

The convergence of the Salaita firing and attacks on workers at UIUC had made clear to all that the university administration was in many ways a proxy for an American political elite whose agenda they were defending. What people were realizing is that the contours of academia were no protection from a political class determined to run roughshod over campus democracy.

As we have argued in Electronic Intifada recently, the decision-making process about whether the Arab American scholar Steven Salaita could teach at UIUC branched out all the way from Chancellor Phyllis Wise's office, through Board of Trustees Chairperson Chris Kennedy's business empire, and on to Board of Trustee member and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's junkets to Israel. As has been documented as well, pro-Israel donors and advocates made clear to the university that they didn't want Salaita on campus. This is politics, pure and simple.

2. Labor organizing cannot be blind to Palestine

Traditionally, U.S. labor leaders have urged their members to shut their eyes to this panoramic view of U.S. imperial interests and how such interests have affected wages and working conditions at home.

In 2009, newly elected AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka stood before the Jewish Labor Committee to denounce efforts to boycott Israel. Significantly, Trumka's attack on the boycott of Israeli apartheid and occupation echoed charges of anti-Semitism that have been used by Steven Salaita's detractors such as the Anti-Defamation League, which lobbied UIUC President Robert Easter to fire Salaita.

For someone entrusted with leading the struggle of ordinary people against powerful interests, Trumka most irresponsibly tried to squash all resistance by Palestinian supporters against Israel by equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Luckily, rank-and-file union activists have not always followed this path dictated by their leaders.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in Oakland recently refused to cross a community picket line set up by Palestinian and Occupy activists, an action that stopped an Israeli ship from docking at the port. The ILWU have had a proud history of engaging in similar actions. In 1978 and 1980, ILWU refused to load military cargo headed for Chile and El Salvador. And in 1984, most famously, the union refused to unload a South African ship for 11 days.

3. An injury to one is always an injury to all--Palestine is not an exception

This kind of inspiring intersectional solidarity between struggles was on full display at UIUC on September 11. For example, Robert Warrior, chair of American Indian Studies at UIUC, argued for the importance of continuing to connect the struggles of unionized AFSCME workers on campus to the fight for faculty governance and Salaita's reinstatement.

As speakers mounted their attacks on the university administration, American Federation of Teachers campus organizer Anne Dietz-LaVoie outlined for us how solidarity formed the connective tissue between the various struggles on campus.

The same administration, Dietz-LaVoie said, that was "disregarding shared governance, squelching academic freedom...or going against their own process to 'de-hire' someone based on personal communication rather than scholarly attributes" was the very same one that was "freezing non-tenure track wages [and] refusing to bargain with them."

We asked her how the occupation of Palestine or the question of Israeli apartheid have affected the labor contract battles on campus.

"I think," said Dietz-LaVoie, "any time people stand up for what they believe to be a just and right course it does nothing but good. So for us, having people who are linking multiple tough issues together, and saying there is still a common solution you can have, has given us a lot of motivation and energy."

This creative labor organizer is pointing to an important approach to organizing working people, namely that the working person's struggle for a better life extends beyond the workplace.

As Dietz-LaVoie told us, any good labor organizer knows that organizing workers must not be limited either to the work place alone or between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. because attacks on the community are part of any working person's life. So school closings, police shootings, reduced public services due to war spending are all part of the fabric of workers' lives. Community organizing and workplace organizing should learn from each other and, when the need arises, act in concert.

4. Tearing down organizational silos

This idea of a deep and braided struggle was echoed by UIUC Ph.D. student Julie Laut, who told us she planned to put up signs in supermarkets saying, "Steven Salaita can be my neighbor."

Julie's idea was a reminder that since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge we have seen emerge new forms of solidarity and public consciousness that have refused to remain isolated in traditional organizational silos.

Who can forget Palestinians tweeting out support for Ferguson residents under siege? Or Ferguson residents referring to the use of military hardware and tactics by police as "occupation" and strolling the streets waving Palestinian flags?

The inspiring Ferguson-Palestine example, however, also helps us understand what we are up against. While public consciousness of intersecting oppressions has never been higher, the structures in which people are currently organizing their resistance remain discrete.

We need new social formations and new social movements in which the fight against Islamophobia and racism is seen to be as important and central to the fight for workers' rights. We need existing structures that fight injustice, like Richard Trumka's AFL-CIO, to understand that smashing Zionism and Israeli apartheid are actual building blocks of labor solidarity.

That is why we are heartened by the resolution passed this week by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the national federation of trade unions in England and Wales (roughly equivalent to the AFL-CIO): to "increase the pressure on Israel to end its occupation of all Palestinian territories, the TUC, working in conjunction with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, is calling for a targeted consumer boycott of goods from the illegal Israel settlements."

5. "Our masters are joined together, and we must do the same thing"

If Steven is not reinstated to his position at the UIUC, it will not just be a blow to workers' rights on campus, a blow to academic freedom or a blow to the cause of Palestinian struggle. It will be blow to all of them.

As the UIUC campus is showing us, solidarity between our various struggles is not an optional nicety--it is the only specter that can haunt the bosses of our Zionist-Neoliberal University.

First published at Mondoweiss.

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