On “Divisiveness”

For trying to unionize, we are accused of dividing

A group of people in purple shirts with fists up in the air on a college campus
May Day Rally at Santa Clara University

ince my fellow non-tenure-track (NTT) colleagues and I started organizing at Santa Clara University 5 years ago, we’ve heard accusations that our efforts were “divisive” from both the university administration and other faculty. Now that we are days away from our NLRB election, the anti-union campaign at my institution is in full swing.

Most recently, our current president sent a message to the whole campus community, appealing once again to the problem of “division” while once again making her case against the union. She wrote:

“…my belief is our community needs more collaboration and understanding, not division. The unionization of a portion of our faculty has the potential to create a deeper “us vs. them” dynamic that detracts — not adds — to our culture and our mission.”

These were unsurprising but difficult words to read as my fellow colleagues and I have spent the past five years building connections with all members of our university community and finding new ways to come together, even during a global pandemic.

But I don’t want to simply dismiss them. I want to scratch a bit past their surface, in part, because sometimes the question “Isn’t this going to divide us further?” comes from NTT colleagues who genuinely care about the future of our collective working conditions and are afraid of unintended consequences. So I take their question seriously and try to address the potential of “divisiveness” in our one-on-one conversations. This blog post is an attempt to synthesize some of the points I make in these conversations and some of the points I’ve taken away from listening to my colleagues’ fears.

Accusations of divisiveness are a classic union-busting tactic.

The employer notices that a unionization campaign has brought together workers in ways it hasn’t seen before and knows that, to defeat them, it has to break through the unity. In Confessions of a Union-Buster, Martin Levitt, a retired union-buster writes, “The enemy was the collective spirit. I got hold of that spirit while it was still a seedling; I poisoned it, choked it, bludgeoned it if I had to, anything to be sure it would never blossom into a united workforce.” What better way to bludgeon the collective spirit than to accuse the members of the collective and their supporters of divisiveness! It’s a textbook example of gaslighting.

When workers unite, the boss accuses them of dividing. When workers follow organic leaders (union organizers), the boss discredits them, assigning bad intentions. When workers assert that working conditions are unjust and that major change is needed, the boss pushes the narrative that we are a family and that all families have problems but this doesn’t warrant tearing the family apart. Accusations of divisiveness happen in every workplace, but they’re especially effective in workplaces that claim to be communities carrying out missions and this is precisely what we’re getting from our bosses at our religiously-affiliated university despite the Pope’s endorsement of unions.

What better way to bludgeon the collective spirit than to accuse the members of the collective and their supporters of divisiveness! It’s a textbook example of gaslighting.

We are already divided.

Accusations of divisiveness only have weight when they concern an entity that is united in harmony. When members of my university community bring up the fear of divisiveness, I wave at everything and say “Look around. How can we be more divided?” At my university, we have 3 ranks for tenure-track (TT) faculty and 4 ranks for NTT faculty. Among NTTs, the disparity between the job security, salary and working conditions of faculty who get paid per course and faculty who are full-time and in continuing positions is dramatic. This means that there are divisions within divisions and hierarchies within hierarchies. There isn’t just an “us vs. them,” to quote my university’s president, but so many us’s and so many them’s that it makes our heads spin.

I love the department in which I teach, but as an NTT faculty member (one of the more securely employed), I don’t have a say in hiring priorities, a vote on TT searches, or much of a choice in what I teach. I also have very few opportunities to work with majors and my teaching evaluations are weighed much more heavily than those of TT faculty. In other departments at my institution, NTT faculty are not allowed to come to department meetings or even access the supply closet. The division is also stark in the shared governance structures at my university. For example, very few NTTs participate in the faculty senate. It’s a space where people can get verbally aggressive and doing so from an insecure job position is risky business that only the most secure allow themselves.

But it’s also true that administrators and many NTTs are invested in symbolically minimizing and even erasing the divisions that exist between us. Administrators do it for obvious reasons — a largely insecure professorial workforce is not exactly something to brag about to parents and students. For faculty, it’s about the shame of being valued as less-than. A union for NTT faculty is a structural marker of difference. “This will be yet another thing that will make me separate from the NTTs!” I’ve heard a colleague say. To this, I say: “We are differently positioned,” and ask “How has denying this helped us?”

And yet, the illusion of unity is appealing even as it doesn’t bring with it more material equity. This illusion can prevent faculty from recognizing that more equity comes with a union, which brings with it greater job security, higher wages and, of course, a seat at the negotiation table. That seat at the table means power, but we can’t gain power until we realize how divided we already are.

Accusations of divisiveness are meaningless without a power analysis.

Simply put, the boss and the worker can’t be equally “divisive” because they’re in an asymmetrical power relationship. The boss has ultimate power over the individual worker. We are all “at will” employees at my university, the NTTs being especially but not uniquely fireable. That’s because any NTT contract can simply not be renewed. But any individual worker is nearly powerless if the administration wants them out badly enough.

Divisions in ranks, salaries and working conditions are there because the boss has decided that it is profitable to divide the workers in such a way as to create different iterations of “us vs. them.” And all these iterations have the effect of obscuring power relations and clouding our ability to see the opportunities for unity. They hide the contingency of pre-tenure faculty, BIPOC faculty of all ranks, and all faculty who are vocal about issues the donors have a stake in. The many divisions between the faculty encourage us all to try and build forts around ourselves in the hopes of making ourselves indispensable. Those forts can be the service burdens we take on and the silences we become complicit in.

To say that a union for NTT faculty makes the faculty divided is to ignore academia’s obsession with individualism, which, coupled with its addiction to contingent labor, encourages everyone to be out for themselves. The way that the neoliberal university is currently run doesn’t just encourage “us vs. them” but, in fact, turns “us” against “us,” rewarding our competitiveness and making us think that the path to success is one where the worker becomes the boss.

When workers resist this division by gaining collective power, they are, by definition, working across divisions to unite in the best ways that are available to them, given the structure of the institution and existing labor laws.

The way that the neoliberal university is currently run doesn’t just encourage “us” vs. “them” but, in fact, turns “us” against “us,” rewarding our competitiveness and making us think that the path to success is one where the worker becomes the boss.

Fears of divisiveness are often fears of retaliation.

Sometimes organizing can feel a bit like therapy. A good organizer listens and asks questions. A good organizer even pushes fellow workers to try and understand why they feel a certain way and what is at the source of a specific feeling. When a fellow worker tells them that they’re afraid of more divisions, I ask them what that division looks like. What I usually get in response is a scenario where a tenured colleague or a department chair treats them badly because of their membership in the union. This tells me that the real fear is not of “division” but of retaliation.

Reminding the NTT faculty member that we are safer from retaliation with a union (which comes with representation and a grievance process) is only partially reassuring. There is still the more nebulous fear that somehow relationships will change. There will be a kind of undercurrent of resentment because the NTT worker will have the union behind them. And perhaps there may be truth to this as shifts in power can make things inconvenient or personally offensive to those who like the status quo. And maybe this will mean some snide remarks about “the union” and even awkward interactions.

But does such pettiness mean we shouldn’t unionize? And aren’t we unionizing precisely to gain employment protection from those who would prefer to keep us exploited? What I try to convey to my fellow colleagues is that we can’t let the possibility of upsetting people in power stop us from gaining our share of power. Or as Derek, one of my fellow organizers says, “If someone has a problem with you because your working conditions improve, then that’s a problem with them, not with you.”

Fears of divisiveness are often fears of conflict.

For a group of people who are supposedly indoctrinating students to become revolutionaries, many academics are conflict-averse. This is what happens when enough people benefit from the status quo and enough are too afraid to speak up due to job insecurity. In such an environment, you can squash attempts at dissent by appealing to “civility,” “collegiality” and “respect” (when you really mean “respectability”). You can paint all conflict and dissent as bad, regardless of the source, reason or the power relations of those involved. Even conflict due to exploitation, disrespect and abuse becomes “divisive.”

Accusations of “divisiveness” are also, of course, attempts at tone policing. We as organizers are “divisive” because we don’t mince words and because we outline our exploitation in great detail. We tell our stories. We articulate the specific effects on our lives, our health, our families. Those specifics are hard to hear for those who are better off. And so our words are empowering to some and offensive to others, thus becoming “divisive.”

What academics often forget is that conflict happens everywhere where people are working to make change. Conflict is inherent to resisting injustice and that includes economic injustice. One must fight against exploitation or otherwise it won’t stop. Somehow many realize that this is true outside the workplace. They admire protestors while demanding compliance in the workplace. Perhaps that’s because it’s easy to fetishize someone who is shaking the table you don’t have to share.

The truth is, conflict even happens among those who are similarly positioned and are collaborating in the fight against injustice. It happens among workers, activists, and organizers. It happens among people who have principled commitments to non-violence. Conflict emerges organically and helps people figure out what matters to them and why. The problem is not when we have conflict but when we don’t have a mechanism for resolving it. The union can be that mechanism because it gives us the power to collectively negotiate our working conditions and to resolve problems through a grievance process.

Perhaps we unionists are accused of being divisive because we like to ask “Which side are you on?” You know the Pete Seeger song,

Which side are you on boys?

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on boys?

Which side are you on?

They say in Harlan County

There are no neutrals there.

You’ll either be a union man

Or a thug for J. H. Blair.

Perhaps there is no unity without drawing some lines, but these lines are not arbitrary and not for the sake of divisiveness. Fighting for justice means distinguishing justice from injustice and working on the side of justice. By building a union we are asking workers to unite on the side of justice. Anybody can be on the side of the worker. And many of my TT colleagues get this and show up for labor justice every chance they can. Even some bosses get it and voluntarily recognize unions instead of fighting them.

The bosses at my institution have chosen to fight us and, by doing so, they have put themselves on the side of injustice.

There are no neutrals here. Which side are you on?

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Maggie Levantovskaya

I write about adjuncting, chronic illness and whatever else strikes my fancy or makes my blood boil. More: https://maggielevantovskaya.com/writing