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  • Alexander Riccio

Strikes Are Not For Spectacle

Universities’ Scholar Strike for Racial Justice is neither a strike nor a protest that amounts to power.*


Perhaps nothing better reveals the character of modern universities than the fact that scholars created a two-day conference when attempting to conjure a strike.


The recent Scholar Strike for Racial Justice took place on September 8th-9th, and was organized through social media by Anthea Butler, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and Kevin Gannon, a Professor of History at Grand View University. 


Replete with consciousness-raising panels from a constellation of academic workers, the Scholar Strike for Racial Justice billed itself as “both an action, and a teach-in” inspired by recent strikes from professional athletes. The irony, of course, is that those athletes actually did conduct a strike, labelled by pundits a “boycott,” whereas the Scholar Strike is neither of these things but nevertheless claims to be a strike. 


In an article from CNN, the event is described as an effort to “recast direct action” by providing public lectures and hosting them on an accessible website as a protest against police violence and racial injustice. Butler clarifies that the protest is not directed at “our individual universities” but, presumably, casts the entire public at large as its intended audience. 


Presenters included academic workers across Canada and the United States, and it’s anyone’s guess how many of these presenters were actually refusing to perform their regular work functions during the two days. All indications suggest that Scholar Strike will continue as an anti-rascist educational resource hub, but what tangible actions or recasting of direct action are in store remains to be seen.  


This kind of symbolic protest appears to stem from a general misunderstanding of what makes the strike a powerful weapon. Scholar Strike organizers misconstrue Twitter platforms rather than their co-workers as base-building, awareness-raising rather than withdrawing labor as power, and appeals to the general public rather than specific targets as a substitute for demands. 


Players Strike Was More Than A Hashtag

Spotlighting racist oppression is laudable, and it is logical for professors to believe their role is to provide educational foundations within broader social justice efforts. But a teach-in is a distinct tactic from a strike, wherein the operative power of a strike is its withdrawal of labor to gain concessions from an opponent. 


Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon, the two professors who initiated calls for #ScholarStrike, celebrated professional athletes who staged a wildcat strike in the wake of Jacob Blake’s murder by police in Kenosha, WI. Academic workers were urged to follow the athletes’ lead by participating, if they can, in a two-day teach-in branded as a strike. 


Before digging into the details of the Scholar Strike, it’s worth pausing to consider the lesson being learned by the athletes’ example. Reported by Dave Zirin, the strike was catalyzed by both the Black Lives Matter movement and the particular working conditions faced by the NBA players. Separated from friends and family, NBA athletes have been working in the confines of what’s known as “the bubble,” in, of course, the heralded lands of Disney World. Hollywood likely could not have scripted a more surreal setting. 


In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and conflagration of protests organized under the banner of Black Lives Matter, players expressed discomfort with returning to play a sport that felt trivial by comparison. At worst, they viewed a return to performing on the court as a distraction from the issues raised by activists. As a lukewarm compromise, the NBA agreed to adorn the courts and players’ jerseys with racial justice messages, and provide press coverage giving players and coaches a platform to speak on the issues. It is in this context that the murder of Jacob Blake provided the catalyst for a strike, because players, already ambivalent about their conditions of work and its meaningfulness, recognized that the “woke branding” and awareness-raising offered as a compromise by the NBA is insufficient for effecting societal change. 


NBA players went on strike explicitly because they were fed up with the exclusive focus on consciousness-raising. Their strike targeted bosses, and demanded these bosses use their economic and political capital toward making concrete changes. In other words, these workers had a plan to leverage their labor power to gain concessions from their bosses. 


Methods For a Fake Strike


Returning to the scholars inspired by the players’ strike, one wonders why they chose to revert to slogans and consciousness-raising as a demonstration of solidarity? They learned precisely the wrong lessons; pivoting away from building an actual strike toward a digital conference which resembled their existing day-to-day work. It’s all the more confusing when Butler and Gannon’s own framing around the action proclaimed it as “time for the academic community to do more than teach classes and offer reading lists on racism, policing, violence, and racial injustice.” Quite bizarre, then, that they proceed to explain how “some of us will, for two days, refrain from our many duties and participate in...YouTube ten-minute teach-ins...and a social media blitz on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to share information about racism, policing, mass incarceration, and other issues of racial injustice in America.” (italics in original) How precisely does this “recast direct action?” 


The outcomes achieved in any campaign are determined by the means used by organizers, and the methods chosen by the Scholar Strike all lead to what is, in the end, a fake strike. Audience sizes ranged from roughly 1,000-3,000 during each online presentation during the so-called strike, but there were no metrics for capturing who was in the room and whether these audiences extended beyond higher ed students and professors. By taking the shortcut of Twitter engagement, the base being built is, at best, a dispersed patchwork of individuals with no ability to leverage power into meaningful demands against a specific target. 


Demands were not issued as organizers deliberately avoided selecting their bosses as targets. A straight line can be drawn from lacking demands to then setting a goal as imprecise as “awareness-raising”. Whose awareness is being raised? How does the education received translate into power? The end result from such methods is a series of conversations where self-selecting “activists” talk amongst themselves while going largely unnoticed by the opponents and potential supporters that should have been the focus all along. Actions such as these are perfectly condoned by university bosses whose endowments, the booty of massive plunder and colonization, remain safe and secure. 


No doubt some will object by pointing to the fact that Butler and Gannon expressly highlight 1960’s style ‘teach-ins’ as a tactic they want to recreate for today. But there are a number of incongruities between these analogues, an obvious one being that the sixties teach-ins were practices at occupying space where specific universities were targets. Natasha Lennard has spoken about the “misplaced nostalgia for what radical politics can look like,” when invoking the sixties legacy. It’s quite a different feat of strength, she explains, to organize events such as the 1960’s large-scale teach-ins, sometimes with more than 30,000 participants, in an era where communications had to take place through face-to-face conversations and word of mouth, as opposed to today’s online methods. The difference being that during the 1960’s those in power observing such feats took their message far more seriously because the tactics required extensive organizing on the ground. This isn’t to say that we should dismiss modern teach-ins wholesale. They can be useful tactics for building support within a larger strategy, but we should reconsider the effective weight of teach-ins by asking what their particular (or exclusive) impact is on those in power. What force do they inflict to those in power on their own?

Perhaps it’s harsh to conclude that in the end, the Scholar Strike amounted to nothing more than thousands of academic workers shouting in the wind. But in trying to discern what is attempting to be accomplished, the closest thing to a concrete source I could find states the purpose being for scholars to “share [their] dismay, disgust, and resolve.” We are left to understand that somehow through the sharing of ideas, action will just organically follow. A more charitable take is that in observing a tweet go “viral,” Butler and Gannon likely rushed to meet the excitement expressed online without pausing to consider the outcomes they hoped to achieve.  


Build Organizations, Not Conferences


It is hardly surprising that academic workers without unions on their campuses would cast the strike as mere spectacle. Already the organizers of this strike have used their social media platforms to complain that they are doing hard work (which certainly is true) and therefore shouldn’t be criticized for their organizing approach. Such defensiveness is understandable but ultimately misses the point. The challenges being raised to the organizing approach stem from the understanding that tenured and tenure-track professors are a social category of workers who possess considerable power if applied strategically against appropriate targets. Additionally, if you claim to derive inspiration from athletes striking, then you have an obligation to apply the lessons learned from their decades-long efforts in building the capacity and will to seize an opportunity when presented. 


Had the organizers located their power in the workplace, the “strike” likely would not have been advertised for those able to voluntarily skip (or, realistically, just delay) two days of work obligations. No doubt Butler and Gannon would point out that instructors and adjuncts are too precarious to have participated in a full-out strike without consequences, but this should have given them pause to ask why are these workers so vulnerable to retaliation, and how does their precarity shape the overall conditions of the university’s entire workforce? 


Tenure and tenure-track professors comprise an abysmal thirty percent of teachers at universities, and their ranks are overwhelmingly white and male. Since racial justice is on the table for the Scholar Strike, the organizers would do better to simply glance sideways at their co-workers to observe the increasing numbers of adjuncts and instructors represented by exploited people of color. 


Shifting the energy exhausted into actions without demands toward efforts to unionize these precarious workers would have tangible impacts and better serve the cause of racial justice. Indeed, Butler and Gannon could even take notes from graduate employee workers at the University of Michigan, whose current strike efforts include demands to disarm and defund campus police. As evidenced by the UM graduate union’s own admission, the cumulative history that led to this moment spans multiple decades with continuous battles and efforts toward both “bread and butter” victories as well as broader social justice. Building organizations, not conferences, is a necessary precondition for college workers to be in a position to launch serious demands in moments of heightened possibilities. Tenured professors possess considerable leverage in supporting such efforts in campaigns at any given university, but it is leverage often not used. 


Having worked for a number of years as a labor organizer in higher education, I can understand the allure of opting for a social media campaign rather than doing the deep grind of effective organizing. Indeed, in a given year of organizing graduate workers, the elected leadership and myself facilitated an average of 50 workshops covering basic organizing skills because we were always in the position of having to train and build capacity among workers new to the industry. 


Due to  high turnover of contingent faculty, undergraduate students, and graduate workers, ineffective tactics and strategies are often being repeated. Loss of institutional knowledge or the ability to sustain long-term strategies enables university administrators to undermine campus activism by sending the activists’ demands to a newly formed, “advisory” committee where the demands ultimately die. 


But these are not excuses for shortcuts. The dedication to delivering non-stop workshops at my former union were meant to meet the challenges of higher education head-on, and these were only some pieces of organizing required for serious campaigns. Much like any organizing campaign, efforts on campuses require identifying key issues, picking appropriate targets, generating demands, and leveraging the power necessary to win. 


Organizing is a skill. It is not as simple as a call to action on social media where, as when a sorcerer casts spells, mass collective action can be whipped up by a few easy keystrokes. Fortunately, methods can be altered. The Scholar Strike can pivot their target audience from Twitter followers toward their colleagues in order to build the base necessary to exact concessions from their own institutions bound up by histories of racial capitalism. Scholars who genuinely believe the strike is a necessary instrument to meaningfully fight racial oppression can learn from prior missteps by recognizing that their base consists of precarious teachers, that their targets are their bosses, and that their power is in withdrawing their labor instead of workshopping their research. 


Doing the deep organizing work necessary to build a strike contains potential outcomes far more impactful than a handful of stimulating panels. There are no shortcuts toward arriving at the capacity necessary to transcend symbolic protest, but the strike is not for spectacle and hashtags alone will not bring about justice for anyone.  

*Gratitude goes out to the editors at Organizing Work for their comments and revisions on this piece.

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