Educate a Straussian: Support the Workers at Pomona College

by Corey Robin on March 16, 2013

Last month, I debated Mark Blitz, a Straussian neocon and former Reagan Administration official, and now professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, about the politics of freedom. Throughout the debate, Blitz expressed some skepticism about my account of coercion in the workplace.

At one slightly tense moment, I confronted Blitz directly about the situation of the workers at his college (1:08:35 in the video).

Robin: Let me ask you another question. You teach at Claremont McKenna College. Are the staff there—and by that I mean the custodial workers, the clerical workers—are they unionized?


Blitz: I would say that most people who are familiar with colleges everywhere recognize that they’re good places to work. They’re very good places to work if you’re tenured faculty, of course. But a lot of that carries on down through so that most people in my college and I believe other colleges have fairly wide protections. I would also say that most people in my colleges and other colleges would face a situation in which it would be extraordinary if the kinds of thing you’re talking about as reasons for firing actually occurred and even more extraordinary if they came to light and the managers who were involved in them were not themselves let go or fired. Again, it could turn out that if one had the vision which would enable one to see precisely what’s happening in each place, what I’m saying is wrong. But it’s my experience of any college actually that I’ve worked in, and it’s my experience working in government as well, of course.


Robin: Let me just add one thing. I’ve noticed this among many college professors, whether they’re on the left or the right, that they actually oftentimes don’t know the conditions of employment of the staff that works at their institutions. They oftentimes conflate their own working conditions—which if you’re a professor with tenure are quite good; you have a tremendous amount of protections—with those of the people who empty the garbage cans, who clean the dining halls, who serve the food, who really make up a large part of the staff.  I oftentimes am shocked, to be honest with you, at how little familiarity—again, this is not a left or right thing—professors have about those working conditions. And I would submit that unless those workers have a union or are government workers, the facts are that they have extremely few protections on their job.


Blitz: My experience, having actually been involved in management of my own college, is that that’s not the case. Perhaps you’re right about professors generally who are ignorant of all sorts of things. But not in this case on this issue.


Claremont McKenna is part of a consortium of colleges called the “Claremont Colleges.” The Colleges’ seven campuses are adjoining and are modeled, according to the consortium’s website, on the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. In other words, each college is part of a cozy little whole. In fact, Blitz at one point in the above exchange refers to “my colleges,” perhaps for this very reason.

One of the Claremont Colleges is Pomona College. And it just so happens that there is indeed, right under Professor Blitz’s nose, a rather nasty instance of workplace coercion going on there.

In 2010, the dining hall workers at Pomona began to organize a union. Many had been working at the college for years. In 2011 the administration suddenly decided to undertake a review of the immigration status of its workers. It found problems in the files of 84 employees. Seventeen were ultimately fired; 16 of those fired worked in the dining halls, including many leading union activists. Remember: many of these men and women had been working at the College for years. Only now, in the midst of a union drive, did their immigration status become a problem that was held against them.

This was hardly the first time the college had acted against the union drive. In the summer of 2011 the administration instituted a gag rule preventing dining hall workers and students from talking to each other during the workers’ break time. That order was ultimately rescinded in the face of a pending government action against the college.

These events were hardly a state secret. They were reported in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.  I had heard about them in far-off Brooklyn. Yet Professor Blitz didn’t seem to know about them at all.

Needless to say, in a climate of fear and intimidation such as this, it’s awfully difficult for workers to have a full and free debate on the merits of unionization. The dining hall workers have therefore asked the administration to sign a neutrality agreement, allowing the workers to debate this issue for themselves. Other universities, including Georgetown and Northeastern, have signed such agreements.

The workers are circulating a petition among academics calling on the administration to sign the agreement. If you want to sign the petition so that the Pomona workers can engage in this debate without fear of recrimination and retaliation, please do so here.

If you want further documentation of just how difficult it is to organize a union in the United States, and how the union election process is stacked against unions, check out this landmark study from Human Rights Watch. Additional studies can be found here, and here, and here. These will give some context for why unions are increasingly asking employers to sign neutrality agreements in advance of organizing drives.

{ 16 comments }

1

KF 03.16.13 at 9:33 am

The larger points you’re making here about the difficulties involved in unionization, faculty ignorance of staff working conditions, and so forth are all dead on. I do want to point out, though, that it was not “the administration” that began the immigration status review. This particular incident needs to be read not only in the context of labor history but also in the context of recent crises of governance on other campuses, including the University of Virginia.

As detailed in the report issued by the college’s board of trustees after its examination of what had gone wrong, the entire thing began with an anonymous letter to the board alleging that the college’s president was willfully failing to obtain proper documentation of the immigration status of workers on campus. The board chair — who, it is not at all incidental to point out, had been embroiled in what the report acknowledges were “significant disagreements” with the president for the preceding year, over issues like authority in tenure decisions and control over the curriculum — referred the complaint to the board’s audit committee, which chose to begin an investigation into the allegations by digging into the personnel files of every employee on campus, faculty and staff alike.

None of this is to obviate the issues you raise with respect to unionization and intimidation; there is no question of the effects that this incident had. But that other bit of context, about the relationship between a board of trustees and a college administration, is not incidental, either.

2

The Raven 03.16.13 at 2:46 pm

The Claremont Colleges are also Google spammers; I can’t find a damn thing in the first seven pages of results that aren’t CC PR.

3

bjk 03.16.13 at 3:40 pm

So there’s one conservative somewhere who doesn’t know about the labor situation of foreign nationals at a college that isn’t his own college . . . This is stretching it.

4

FredR 03.16.13 at 4:02 pm

I’ve been following the story for a while, and it’s not entirely clear that the college itself undertook the immigration status review was a direct response to the unionization drive.

5

Prof. Poirot 03.16.13 at 6:47 pm

@bjk, #3:

Did you read the original post at all? This is his college.

6

Bruce Wilder 03.16.13 at 8:02 pm

Ah, “the college itself”! Such well-defined entity.

KF’s comment seems to me a valuable contribution, in sketching a plausible story for how the inside-politics played out in operation. These kinds of machinations are seldom reported by journalists or historians — and even more rarely reported accurately and in depth. Power politics of this kind is largely invisible and not part of the experience of the vast majority of people, even the majority of the upper-middle-class professionals, who make up the political and ideological base for liberal sentiment. Ignorance of this kind creates a kind pervasive political schizophrenia, in which a large part of the “politically aware” (meaning they think they pay some attention to, and have some understanding of, politics, as commonly and openly discussed, in the media and otherwise) are kept corralled at a distance from power, complacent and/or cynical in their vague understanding of the principles, practices and intentions operating on the ground.

Our common language and the moral narratives, with which we are trained as part of cultural socialization, do not readily admit an informed analysis of how large-scale hierarchies are governed and act, even though such organizations have dominated the political economy for over a century, employing the majority of people in their daily work. We want individuals to be morally responsible, and we judge their responsibility by criteria of unitary intention, which we infer from planning and sincere declarations. In the context of a boardroom, where recorded actions are rituals, and policy is the outcome, not of (individual) intention, but the more-or-less-managed resolution of conflicting views and interests, most of us are simply lost. We are not equipped by either personal experience or education to understand what is going on.

As I understand their philosophical position, Straussians regard this schizophrenia as a feature, not a bug, in the operating design of a modern society and body politic: a way for feudal domination to live on peacefully and prosperously amidst a quiet bourgeois, confident and complacent that its values pervade society and the political economy. Which raises the question of why you think “educating” someone, who believes in the value of a noble lie, to the effect that his noble lie is a lie, advances your cause?

7

Bruce Wilder 03.16.13 at 8:06 pm

@ Prof Poirot

Mark Blitz is at Claremont McKenna College; the labor situation is at Pomona College — different colleges and corporations, but having a common affiliation.

8

Navin Kumar 03.16.13 at 8:08 pm

Am I the only one who finds not being allowed to unionize = coercion odd? The methods were repugnant, yes, but the equation seems to be a belief more than drawing on some universally recognized principle.

9

Bruce Wilder 03.16.13 at 8:14 pm

Navin Kumar: Am I the only one who finds not being allowed to unionize = coercion odd?

I am sure you are far from the only one.

Nevertheless, I would maintain that not being allowed to unionize is coercion. The freedom to organize is basic to democracy and the exercise of political power. If employers are the only ones allowed political power, that’s authoritarianism. You can prefer authoritarianism, but it is what it is.

10

Corey Robin 03.16.13 at 8:36 pm

Navin at 8: Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” That’s about as universal a declaration of recognized principle as it gets. But that principle is also established under US law. Abridging someone’s exercise of the right to form and join trade unions through retaliation — in this case, firing people (and for those who are uncertain about whether this particular case constitutes retaliation, I really urge you to read the Human Rights Watch report I link to in the OP) — is indeed coercion, as the courts have long recognized. That is why it is illegal under the law.

KF at 1; FredR at 4: I’ve read the trustees report. I’d be leery of it for several reasons. First, it’s hardly uncommon for employers who have engaged in illegal retaliation to have an account for what they have done that makes it not illegal. Sadly, universities, like many non-profit or otherwise high-minded employers, are not exempt from this. Again, if you take a look at that HRW report (or any of others I link to), you’ll find similar patterns. Second, if the university truly had wanted an independent assessment of the facts they could have appointed a blue-ribbon, independent investigative body comprised of respected voices in the Los Angeles area that could have determined the facts. Instead, they appointed five members of the Board of Trustees — the very body that has determined to oppose the union drive — to do the investigating. (And indeed when the college initially moved to investigate the immigration status of its employees, if you read the report, you’ll see that it was quite sensitive to this issue of conflicts of interest. So it’s hardly not cognizant of that problem. It just chose to ignore it in this instance.) So plenty of grounds for skepticism there. Third, if you read the report, you’ll see that it nowhere ever addresses what the motivations of this “employee” who initiated the investigation were. We have no idea how highly placed this employee was — could have been a very senior Vice President, for all we know — and why s/he initiated the action in the first place, and on whose behalf, if any, s/he was working. The report is overwhelmingly focused on process, not on examining why this investigation was initiated in the first place. Nor does it explain how it came about that all the firings, with one exception, were committed in the one are of the college where there is a union drive.

I agree that we don’t have the smoking gun. Again, you seldom do in a union drive. And yet workers involved in union drives are fired all the time — 1 in 17 organizing workers are fired, by the best estimate.

11

D 03.16.13 at 11:03 pm

Not wishing to derail the thread, but it’s somewhat of an open secret in the Human Rights community just how bad Human Rights Watch are on their own staff joining unions, and Amnesty International has hardly covered itself in glory in it’s recent treatment of staff and the union.

So the hypocrisy of HRW writing a report on this made me laugh out loud.

12

Bruce Wilder 03.16.13 at 11:05 pm

A useful study in the exercise of power to shape and drive academic institutions toward conservative politics would be to focus on the career of Edwin Meese, Reagan’s Attorney General. He spent most of career on such projects and had dramatic successes at a wide variety of institutions. His Wikipedia biography barely hints at the breadth and depth of his influence.

I first became aware of what Meese was doing, when I was floating around New Haven, during the conservative takeover of Yale’s School of Management in the late 1980s; a whole department was extinguished for its political views, and the character of the school changed radically, and faculty in Yale College were scarcely any more aware of what was going on, than McKenna faculty were aware of what was happening with Pomona cafeteria workers. Apparatchiks of Yale Corporation I knew mostly just shrugged at real politik in action; SOM students protested, then graduated, and that was that.

13

Nine 03.17.13 at 2:09 am

Navin Kumar@8 “but the equation seems to be a belief more than drawing on some universally recognized principle.”

Newsflash for Navin – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
I suppose one could call the first amendment a vague belief.

14

Memory 03.17.13 at 4:37 am

Please forgive an ignorant comment from an admirer rather than a practitioner of political philosophy. It is my understanding that there is no point in having a “debate” with a Straussian because their basic beliefs demand that sophistry be used as a mechanism to control and manipulate their fellow citizens for the purpose of guiding them to good and just outcomes that could not (by assumption) be achieved through rational debate for the precise reason that the demos empowered to make decisions is made up of inherently and irreducibly inferior people incapable of understanding or enjoying the good life. The philosophy is an extension of Plato as refracted through a very idiosyncratic interpretation of the collapse of Weimar Germany: noble lies (such as Christianity, nationalism, or democratic ideology itself) must be used to prevent a participatory political society from destroying itself. Since they are committed to deploying arguments from political philosophy expressly for the purpose of manipulating and directing politics, it is safe to assume that – unless you happen to share bot their goals and their methods (insert another reference to Plato and the Politics here) – they are lying to you. Or at the very least that trying to maze you in sophistry that they themselves do not believe is a legitimate and worthwhile goal if it serves their broader goals. Arguments are not ends, but means, and there is no presumption in favor of honesty in debate at all.

Even setting aside its other distasteful characteristics, Straussian thinking has always seemed to me a very intellectually sterile branch of modern political philosophy, since it treats all arguments aside from its own as tools rather than avenues of increasing understanding or creating real normative consensus. I would very gladly be corrected by someone with a greater understanding of the thinkers and writers in this area, though.

15

jonnybutter 03.17.13 at 11:38 am

Straussian thinking has always seemed to me a very intellectually sterile branch of modern political philosophy

Your summary seems pretty good to me, although I wouldn’t call Strauss’ thinking ‘sterile': beneath the exoteric blather – intended for the Many – lies a steaming compost of murky romanticism which is irresistibly appealing to some. ‘Second (or third) rate’, yes, but not sterile. By the way, within that pile of rot is also an utter contempt for democracy.

16

Tom Hurka 03.17.13 at 5:56 pm

Remember Robert Nozick’s joke that Straussians are people who think the sum total of political wisdom is that only the wise should rule.

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