Universities in Crisis; Workers in Struggle:
The Knowledge Industry, Political Solidarity,
and Applied Sociology
Worcester State College
A Brief Political Economy of Long Island's East End
The Southampton Coalition For Justice
Applied Sociology in Struggle
On February 14th, 1997 the custodial workers at Southampton College of Long Island University were sold to Laro Management Company, an outside firm that specialized in maintenance services. While the custodians' union representatives had been notified a few days earlier in order to renegotiate certain contractual terms with their new employers, custodians suddenly found themselves forced to fill out new job applications for positions some had held for almost 30 years. Laro personnel passed out forms to custodians and declared that no one's job would be guaranteed as changes in workforce, schedules and procedures would soon follow. As one custodian told the local press a few weeks later, "we felt like dogs kicked onto the sidewalk."
At a faculty meeting only a few days later, the College's Provost announced that a new management company had been hired to supervise custodial work. He explained that faculty, staff and students had long complained about the appearance of the campus and that the new contract involved only a nominal and temporary budget increase of one percent; it was essentially a "budget-neutral" decision. Eventually, the College would get increased services and new machinery for the same low price. One faculty member protested the move, asking whether the custodians had been involved in the decision. He also wondered aloud what the ramifications would be of inviting outside "sleazy" companies onto campus to exploit workers who had been part of the College's community for so long. The Provost, visibly reddened, scolded him for commenting on the character of the College's new "partner" without any background knowledge. While custodians were not part of the decision, he continued, the conditions of their employment "would remain much the same." No other faculty at the meeting said another word about the issue.
By the next week, however, the Provost's comments proved curious at best. Background research by the custodians showed that Laro had a history of NLRB violations and had tried to bust union locals throughout the New York Metropolitan area. Meanwhile, the work conditions and compensation for custodians had changed significantly: they lost eligibility for TIAA-Cref retirement benefits; they lost tuition remission benefits; they lost access to emergency loans and other "perks" offered to College employees; and they experienced immediate changes in work, pay, and vacation schedules. Laro supervisors held a meeting in the second week of February at which they threatened and intimidated custodians, asserting that they "knew" some of the custodians were "lazy workers and thieves." Laro also warned custodians that "fraternizing" with students, faculty, and staff would not be permitted. It became clear that the custodians' conditions of employment had not only changed, they had been radically transformed.
On a small scale, this event is just another example of a continuing crisis in the function and functioning of the modern university. Everyone, afterall, is writing about it. Whether it be right-wing diatribes (Kimball, 1990) against tenured radicals or left-wing critiques of academia's corporate take-over, universities are under attack for losing a coherent social identity, responsibility and purpose (Nelson, 1997; Soley, 1995). Meanwhile, continuing budgetary crises at both public and private colleges have inspired institutions of higher learning to infuse their educational mission with business ideologies and bottom-line mentalities. A recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education extols the virtue of applying corporate "downsizing" techniques to university management. According to former Monsanto CEO and present Distinguished Executive in Residence at Washington University Richard Maloney, universities must "reinvent" themselves just as corporations have by privatizing "non-essential" tasks and terminating "non-productive people." While he acknowledges that "the university is not a corporation," he makes no distinction when it comes to the "obvious" virtues of a corporatized academy (Maloney, 1997).
The resulting institutional schizophrenia has seeped into the professional discourse and practice of scholars themselves as the need to demonstrate the relevancy of research is not only about retaining government grants and administrative favor, but also about repairing tears in the philosophical and emotional fabric of intellectual pursuits. This need to link academic work to what Michael Berube (1994) calls "public access" has inspired a group of both progressive and reactionary young "public intellectuals" who wage battles over the cultural politics and values of our nation on the pages of academic journals, political magazines, and sometimes even the mainstream press. For most academics who feel a need to connect their work to "the real world," however, it is necessary to find more practical applications for both their research endeavors and their classroom teaching. These efforts mark a historical convergence of institutional and individual crises.
Amidst this maelstrom of financial and spiritual insecurity, many universities have sought to create or expand programs where academic endeavors are melded with so-called "community" interests. These efforts span a wide-range of activities that include private sector research projects and student internships as well as government agency-sponsored collaborations and grants, distance learning programs and experiential education centers. For administrators, professors and students, these programs solve a double dilemma--they expand funding possibilities by placing personnel and students at the service of government and corporate interests and they give college-based participants the feeling that they are an important part of the world outside the ivory tower. As Sociologist Sam Marullo (1997) has written, "service learning is widely perceived [and all too often designed] as 'charity work' or 'volunteerism' and hardly poses a threat" to the institutional status quo. It is within this historical and institutional context that a resurgence in applied sociology and other practice-based sociology has occurred.
But this framework for academic and intellectual activity offers little for understanding what is at the root of the institutional crisis itself and how a disciplinary practice like applied sociology might direct scholars towards more effective analyses of and actions within their own institutions as well as outside in the larger social world . Even if we examine the political roots of our research by asking a question first posed by the Radical Sociology Movement in 1968--"knowledge for whom? (Fuller, 1997)--we still need to "apply" our research in ways that challenge both the corporatization of the institution as well as the elite nature of scholarly knowledge production itself. In this project, I use the work that I have done as part of the Southampton Coalition for Justice as an example of applied sociology that emanates from inside both an institution in crisis as well as a political group in struggle. Before describing the coalition and its work in support of the custodians, I want to put this conflict in the context of the local political economy and demographic changes that have made the college's decisions possible and the coalition's work necessary.
A Brief Political Economy of Long Island's East End
Southampton has been a famous summer resort for some of New York City's trendiest elite since the completion of the Long Island Railroad in the late 1800s allowed urbanites access to the areas pristine beaches and sprawling countryside. During the major stock market booms of the 1920s, many successful financiers pored money into secondary circuit investments by building expensive summer retreats along the south shore's Atlantic coast line. In fact, major changes in the economic and physical landscape of the Island's East End have been inextricably linked to "The City's" financial markets and investments, from as early as the late 1600s when local whalers depended on venture capital from the city's commercial brokers. Since the 1920s, between Memorial Day to Labor Day, The Hamptons have hosted important artists, entertainers and publishers, bankers, CEO's and politicians whose million dollar mansions along the sandy shores create a kind of beach front skyline that resonates as New York City's companion, "anti-urban" landscape of power.
Yet, over the past two decades, changes in the transportation industry and the telecommunications industry have increased the area's access for people no longer interested only in a summer retreat. Even the city's wealthiest population cannot ignore the rise in urban blight and the fortress-style architecture that characterizes an economically divided city landscape. As Teresa Caldiera has written about a similar metropolitan respatialization in Sao Paulo and Los Angelas, "In cities fragmented by fortified enclaves, it is difficult to maintain the principles of openness and free circulation which have been among the most significant organizing values of modern cities." While these social constrictions weigh heaviest on the poor who have little economic access to private space or political power to control public space, even the wealthy have felt the negative impact of a paranoid surveillance and fortress aesthetic.
This cultural dynamic has converged with the eastward movement of developers' capital as little open space remains anywhere on Long Island with the exception of the East End. Even the region's famous Pine Barrens forest and preserve (over 50,000 acres of pine forest and wildlife) had to be "saved" recently by allowing some residential development on 10% of the area's perimeters. Meanwhile, houses and condominiums, megastores and outlet centers, are sprouting rapidly throughout the Hamptons. As one of the two largest and fastest growing residential areas in the region, the Town of Southampton is rapidly becoming not so much a suburb where people commute from everyday, but more a distant borough of New York where executives, attorneys, and entertainers send faxes, use electronic mail, create new home pages, and participate in teleconferences.
These changes have also been accompanied by global capital's new labor relations and migrations as Latino/a workers from Central America comprise the largest growing segment of the minimum-wage service sector. Meeting the increasing demand for low paid, non-industrial workers, the population of "new Hispanic" immigrants (non-Mexican, Puerto Rican or Cuban Latin Americans) has grown significantly since the beginning of the 1980s throughout the New York Metropolitan Area. While Catholic Charities has documented a segment of Latino migratory workers in the area since the 1950s, the last decade has marked a rapid rise of full-time, year round Latino families who have settled in the area. Public school statistics show an immense increase in the enrollment of Latino students in both Southampton and East Hampton. Meanwhile, labor statistics show that, while most are still employed in agricultural based occupations (farm workers, vineyards, nurseries and landscaping), Latinos/as now hold a much greater diversity of low wage, service sector jobs (Southampton Town Planning Board, 1997; Kugler, 1997; Sassen, 1988).
For many years, Southampton remained complacent in its race relations as African Americans (who lived in small and segregated neighborhood pockets throughout the East End) and Native Americans (who lived predominately on the Shinnecock Reservation across the road from Southampton College) formed the core of a low wage and often seasonal workforce. Those lucky enough to have service or maintenance jobs in the public schools, at the College, or at the local hospital made up the bulk of the Black and Native American middle class. For the past three decades, these institutions comprised the only real durable, year-round institutions in the area. Rapidly changing economics and demographics have created simultaneously a plethora of lower paying service jobs in retail and domestic work as well as a growing number of immigrant workers and even unemployed workers from "up Island" commuting to fill those jobs. Just as the area's burgeoning service sector now caters to a newly arrived full-time resident, college custodians service a predominately white, upper middle class student population who come from the suburbs of New York City's metropolitan area. It is within this context that the College custodians (predominately African and Native Americans) were "sold" to a management company who will use the growing local labor surplus to reduce wages and bust the union. And it is within this context that the custodians have begun organizing a community-wide effort to both challenge the contract's legitimacy in the short-term and build a community of support and solidarity to guarantee their union's security and strength.
The Southampton Coalition For Justice
A few days after custodians had been notified that their union contract had been passed on to an outside management company and their new employer had forced them to reapply for positions they already had with the threat that some would not be re-employed, custodians themselves began passing around a petition among students. The petition called on the College's administration to cancel the new contract and rehire them directly. While the petition did not circulate for long, it did succeed in garnering some students support as well as illustrate that workers were unhappy with the new situation and willing to resist.
During the next week, I sat down with Ella Wright Anderson,1 a Junior at Southampton College whom I had worked with as part of a Welfare Rights organization in the previous year. Melissa was a "non-traditional" student in all aspects of the description. She was 29 years old, part Native-American and part African American, she was a single mother of 3 children, and had received welfare assistance of a variety of types since she had left her abusive husband a few years earlier. She worked part-time at the school's switchboard and part-time at the Center for Racial and Cultural Diversity making barely enough to support her family and pay tuition. She was also an "A" student who had become increasingly active in local and national politics by speaking out on issues such as welfare reform, running for the New York State Assembly, and being elected as the President of the regional NOW Chapter (National Organization of Women).
Not only had the custodial situation affected both of our political and ethical sensibilities, but Melissa was engaged to the custodians' shop steward who, despite being out due to injuries, had been informed about the changes and, through Melissa, was in communication with the unit. Melissa and I decided that a group comprised of students, faculty, staff and anyone from the community might be able to help the custodians by pressuring the College as well, either by supporting the fledgling petition drive or by creating other means to publicize the situation and encourage the administration to change its decision. We called a meeting for Monday, February 18th and placed announcements in the campus and local press.
On the evening of the meeting, the professor who had spoken out at the faculty meeting, a couple of students, a secretary from an academic department, and about eight of the custodians showed up. Immediately, the coalition and its work took shape around the custodians talking about their situation and experiences and Melissa and I trying to adapt those experiences to laying out a variety of strategical and political options for the group's work. What was clear from the first meeting, though, was that custodians were angry about the way that they had been treated, wanted to act in some way, and appreciated the support that others on campus and in the community were showing them.
It also became evident in the first meeting that the situation was a complicated one and the custodians themselves had many different explanations and analyses of what had happened and why. While I had offered research evidence that outsourcing had become a prevalent institutional strategy for saving on labor costs and enabled employers to break union representation without necessarily doing the work themselves (thus avoiding the bad publicity), the custodians themselves explained how the decision had important racial dynamics going beyond the fact that they were the only unit on campus comprised predominately of people of color In fact, under the leadership of Martin Ellison, the custodians had been pressuring the administration to create what they called a "promotional pipeline." For 30 years, only three custodians had ever been promoted to the next highest level--mechanic--within the Physical Plant Department and none of them had been people of color. Only one person of color had ever become a mechanic and he was hired during the first years of the College's founding in the mid 1960s. Custodians were sure that the increase pressure from Ellison and their union representatives had inspired the administration to find a private management company.
While the petition drive had already been dropped by the custodians, the group decided to meet again on Monday and, in the meantime, embark on a letter writing campaign in the local press. Everyone agreed that the more pressure the College received from local people and groups, the more likely they would be to terminate the contract. We also began collecting more information about Laro, the new management company, and about other colleges and universities that had experienced similar labor problems. In essence, part of our strategy was based on educating the community about the issue while another part was to educate ourselves by conducting research on subjects integral to better analyzing our own situation.
Over the following few weeks, the Coalition brought together students, faculty, staff and concerned members of the community to work with custodians in pressuring the college to terminate the services contract and rehire custodians. The group leafleted the campus (especially during major events where parents and alumni are present), coordinated a letter writing campaign in the local press and student newspapers, held the first political rally at the campus since the 1960s, and took the issue to the local Anti-Bias Task Force and County Human Rights Commission for political pressure. But the most powerful tactic that the Coalition employed was to intervene in the College's attempt to acquire $5 million in funding from the Town of Southampton for a swimming pool. The College proposed to make the "aquatic facility" available for public use (with a $500/year family membership) but it would be located at and operated by the College. The Coalition informed the College administration that we would publicly oppose the pool project on the grounds that the College had acted as poor local citizens by negatively affecting the employment conditions of local residents. in fact, we argued that the College's policies could influence a downward spiral for employment conditions throughout the region if the wages and benefits fell for workers in maintenance and service positions.
In response, the College offered numerous concessions to the custodians including: 1) restoring tuition remission for those already employed by the College; 2) revisiting the possibilities for a promotional pipeline for custodians; and 3) incorporating the Coalition in the College's evaluation of Laro Management's performance. The Coalition accepted these concessions and decided not to publicly oppose the pool project. This was a difficult decision, however, because some members of the group believed that the pool represented a very strategical opportunity to expose the College's duplicity in claiming to be "good citizens" and part of a "caring community" on the one hand, but (according to one of the custodians) "treating its employees like slaves at the auction block." Obviously, the threat of going public had already forced the College into a difficult and pliable position. In the end, however, it was the custodians themselves that swayed the Coalition to accept the concessions and back off of the pool project. The workers believed that students and faculty supported the project and that public opposition would damage their support and also punish the campus community in ways that they did now want to feel responsible for. While some (including myself) argued that the administration would be to blame, not the custodians, the custodians believed otherwise.
These concessions took place in May of 1997. Since then, the Coalition has continued to meet and maintain varying levels of pressure on the administration. Over the summer, we issued a survey to measure Laro's performance regarding management of the custodians. After surveying workers, we reported the results to the College and the local press. While few custodians felt they were treated with respect by Laro or College supervisors and noted that there had been no improvement in services since the privatization of their unit, mostly they commented on the fact that Laro was predominately invisible. Only one Laro manager was ever present on campus and he was the same supervisor they had before the contract--he, too, had been transferred to Laro's payroll six months earlier. The College responded that they could not endorse the survey but would "look it over." But the message to the press was clear: given the pressure, protest, and visibility of the Coalition, Laro was unable to intimidate or threaten custodians. Without those tactics, Laro had little else to offer and allowed the situation to return to normal.
In August, the Coalition moved to monthly meetings. I moved to a new position at Worcester State College and now commute to the Hamptons every four weeks for our gathering. While new students have joined the Coalition and kept up the campus information and education work, the Coalition has decided that we will continue to be a presence until the custodians new union contract gets negotiated in the Fall of 1998. As we have learned from other similar situations around the country--in particular from the custodial workers at Tufts University--college administrations take advantage of the end of union contracts to either hire new management services or rehire new custodians themselves. As a direct employer, administrators claim they no longer have responsibility to the unions. In the Tufts case, the union itself participated in selling out custodians and accepted a $3 an hour wage decrease to move the unit to a newly hired management company. At Southampton, many workers believed that the union had been in collusion with Laro all along. Only with great reluctance did the union participate with the Coalition's work. But, just as the Coalition has succeeded in keeping Laro at bay, the group has committed to remaining vigilant during the entire contract negotiation process.
Applied Sociology in Struggle
As a frequent convener and facilitator of our once weekly and now monthly meetings, I had great opportunities to employ my skills as a sociologist and activist in helping to frame local issues in a larger context and aid in a participatory and democratic process of developing strategy for continued action. But I have also learned an incredible amount from these experiences that have impacted my own understandings of social theory and practice. In essence, my own work in applied sociology has been reshaped to such a degree that the word "applied" is only useful in that it represents the fact that the Coalition as a group now applies our collective and constantly evolving knowledge to the political conditions at hand. In this final section I want to discuss a few areas in which the group's work has impacted my own sociological theories and practices. I also want to conclude with a brief methodological comment on using applied sociology as an approach that allows research questions to emanate from, and be framed by, the project itself.
For hundreds of years the Native and African American residents of Long Island's East End have resisted in many ways the expansion of European and European American power and domination over the economics, politics, culture, and environment of the region. Sometimes resistance was explicit and overt as in the Narragansett raids on encroaching colonial settlements or the recent demonstrations of African American community members over police brutality. Mostly, though, the Algonquian culture mediated the European's economic and social impact, negotiating labor and trade agreement while maintaining powpows and other customs despite settlers' attempts to restrict them. Similarly, African Americans have maintained a long history of nuanced and covert resistance from their first days in the region as slaves through the twentieth century.
The tradition of multidimensional resistance is an important one to grasp, and an aspect of historical experience and inheritance that I only began to understand in the first few months of work with the Southampton custodial workers. Previous to the outsourcing of their unit, custodians had experienced a long history of discrimination and degradation at the hands of the College and the community as a whole. It would be too simple to understand the workers' lack of organized protests and overt, collective resistance to racial discrimination as simple accommodation and complacency. On the one hand, accommodation is never itself simple, and as Eugene Genovese (1972) has said of slaves' accommodation:
Accommodation itself breathed a critical spirit and disguised subversive actions and often embraced its apparent opposite--resistance. In fact, accommodation might best be understood as a way of accepting what could not be helped without falling prey to the pressures for dehumanization, emasculation, and self-hatred.
On the other hand, there were, periodically, open confrontations over a variety of race-based issues that involved both the Shinnecock Reservation and the African American community which resided in a section of Southampton known as the "Hill District."
Still, for the custodians, even with union protection and representation, open and organized resistance to job discrimination or racial indignities was rare. As one custodian put it, "we were used to being ignored by white employers or even talked down to and mostly just let things roll off our backs. We had some of the best jobs around and there wasn't any need to make a big deal about it." Still, not all custodians of color reacted in the same way. Betty Walton, an African American woman who has worked at the College since it beginnings has a reputation for "speaking her mind," and admits to more than once telling a student, colleague, and even supervisor how she felt about being treated with disrespect. Mostly, though, workers would individually or collectively weigh the merits of open protest versus silent deference and find some manner of action between the two poles that maintained both their dignity and the "relative peace" of their day-to-day workplace.
Senior custodians possessed a great deal of control over their work schedules and, while solidarity among the unit varied, this level of control allowed for certain informal and covert methods of resistance. This power also resulted in a certain level of reluctance to "make waves" about larger issues such as discrimination against people of color, the lack of promotional prospects, and the overall hierarchy of status and power that existed at the College and in the community. Most custodians felt lucky and privileged to have good paying jobs where they had some control over their own work days and weren't under the kinds of surveillance and insecurity that most low-paid, working-class people of color in the region experienced. Many were willing to put up with both institutional discrimination and periodic personal indignations because they were afraid to lose the power they had achieved.
But, according to one custodian, this control had severe limitations and when they did try to stretch their powers over management policies they believed inefficient and discriminatory, they received threats and intimidation from University personnel. As former shop steward Martin Ellison explains, "I tried to talk with [Provost] Tim Bishop numerous times and finally wrote a letter concerning the management of the custodial unit. In return I received a threatening letter from the Long Island University attorney that I should apologize for negative comments made about the College or I would be sued." The College's refusal to address concerns and attempts to quiet "troublemakers" eventually exposed certain divisions and produced new schisms within the custodial unit. Some workers were willing to settle for the previous "peace" and "imbalance" of power and would not support Ellison's efforts. Others, especially those who had convinced Ellison to become shop steward, wanted to continue pressing for better treatment and more power.
The complexity of issues such as worker resistance, accommodation and power, race and class consciousness, and workers' self activity became crucial elements of trying to piece together a coalition of community supporters who looked to the custodians themselves for leadership. I also had to learn, however, to respect the varying levels of resistance that workers had always participated in at the same time that we as a coalition openly and purposefully heightened levels of conflict. The custodians' response to this militancy differed from worker to worker and, on more than one occasion, I reminded the group that, like Dr. Martin Luther King had said years earlier about he Civil Rights Movement, we were not creating conflict and tension, we were merely exposing those conflicts and tensions that already existed. The College's decision to outsource workers was actually the first move in the process of confrontation. On the other hand, many of the workers who had grievances and had become angry and disillusioned over the year, wanted to act but also felt disempowered and cynical. Thus, the variety and ranges of custodial responses could not be easily reduced to categories of complacency, fear, complicity or bitter betrayal, they had to be understood within the entire historical, political and cultural complexity of their daily experiences at the College.
The area that demonstrated the most conflict within the custodial unit related to racial tensions. The unit had historically been almost all African and Native American, but over the past three years had become almost half white and half people of color. African and Native Americans had a history of both conflict and solidarity in the region and, while many families could trace back some lineage to both groups, cultural and status tensions periodically caused friction and segmentation among the Shinnecock residing on the Reservation and African Americans living in the "Hill" section of Southampton. Some of these animosities could be seen at the College where custodians would sometimes line-up along racial lines on a variety of issues. Still, the most significant racial division was between white workers and custodians of color. Even before the custodians were contracted to the Laro Management Company, "people tended to stick to their own camps." These divisions resulted in a lack of unity that handicapped unit members from any serious collective action. And, although white workers did not receive significant privileges, they were often referred to informally as "the good workers," those who didn't "make trouble" and, in return, often received unofficial perks like sought after overtime and use of College vehicles and other supplies.
The most interesting ways in which these divisions can be observed though, is in connection to one of the two Yugoslavian immigrant workers--Johnny Kukoc (his mother was also a custodian). Benny, who spoke English well but with a very heavy European accent, was one of the newer and younger custodians. Although he was very angry about being outsourced and wanted to protest openly and militantly, he was also reluctant to go along with other custodians who felt that race had played a part in the College's decision. In fact, Benny had been by told supervisors on numerous occasions that he was not like the "lazy ones" who did not pull their weight. He believed that he might have a future at the College, especially since he was taking Business courses there. While not exactly the beneficiary of a historically earned white identity, Benny made it clear that he did not think of himself as non-white, and that others had encouraged him to identify with the management's conception of a good (read "white") worker. In essence, Benny was in the process of becoming white and receiving the privileges that accompany such an identity.
From the beginning of the Coalition's meetings, the racial divisions were obvious and, while custodians of color argued vigorously that race played a crucial role in their treatment, white workers felt that they had been betrayed by the College in order to save money and, possibly, break the union. In fact, some workers (both white and minority) thought that workers of color who were becoming more militant--such as Martin Ellison--were actually to blame for the decision. Thus, although they acknowledged race as an important issue, they did not blame the administration for a history of discrimination. Instead, they had wanted increasingly vocal workers to stop "making waves." When the unit was contracted out, many workers had mixed emotions: the most militant immediately protested and accused the administration of betrayal; those less militant and some of those who had been weary of the activists supported protest, but still blamed the activists for the situation; and some of those who were most anti-militant refused to get involved in any action and hoped that they could still do well if they supported management and the administration. For the most part, custodians of color fell into the first two categories while white workers belonged to the second and third groups.
Because race was so important not only in our analysis of the issue but also in the process of creating solidarity where little had existed before, the Coalition decided that we had to include open and honest discussions of race. Much of what I have said about the racial and political divisions among custodians comes from our weekly meetings and the sometimes volatile discourse that arose. Two discussions, in particular, are informative on how the custodians themselves possessed a sophisticated understanding of class and racial identities. While they hadn't been able to employ this analysis in a unified action or infuse it with the fluidity of identity that collective struggle creates, it existed and it informed much of their daily experiences and actions.
In our second meeting as a Coalition, we discussed strategies about how to present the issue to the public. We had decided to embark on a letter writing campaign and talked about the possibility of going to the Town's Anti-Bias Task Force. Some of the white workers were apprehensive about making race a significant issue. In part, some didn't think race was that important in the decision while others seemed to say that they didn't want to 'press any buttons" since American society is overly sensitive to race issues. In part, it seemed that the prevailing white sentiment to avoid discussing race openly had influenced their perceptions about how the predominately white community would respond to the claim of racism. Benny explained that he agreed with both premises. While he knew that some workers were racially discriminated against, he was concerned about jeopardizing his own status as a "good worker," by protesting an issue that his supervisors would balk at.
Tony (part Native American and part African American) had been described to Benny as one of the "bad workers" and the two were not on speaking terms. Management had successfully "played" them against one another by convincing Benny that his best interests lay in identifying with their interests at the same time that they convinced Tony that Benny could be identified as simply accepting management's line. At the meeting, Tony argued that race had separated the workers for too long and, while custodians of color "always got the short end of the stick," white workers had not benefited all that much either, In fact, only two white custodians had ever been promoted. As the group discussed who was known as "good workers" and "bad workers," Benny came to realize that the identity of "good worker" was a racialized one that had more to do with his skin color than with his performance, and more to do with management prejudices and strategies than with how people worked and what they might achieve.
When Benny said that he is still discriminated against because his accent is noticeable, George, an African American custodian, explained that Benny, as an immigrant, was still only part white and that until he could blend in better and move out of a custodial job, he would not be completely white. Another custodian, Percy, compared the situation to an outburst by our Provost directed at me, a faculty member. The Provost scolded me for writing a letter critical of his decision without talking to him first, and said, "I thought we were colleagues." Percy said, "what he really meant was that he thought you were one of them, not us."
Weeks later, Bennie and Mae got into a verbal sparring over an incident that had occurred on the job. While the actual event was never fully described, it was clear that both had used harsh and "racialized" words in fighting with one another, words that they initially repeated at the meeting. Many of the custodians intervened and tried to extrapolate what had actually happened. Percy, looked across the circle at Ben and said, "Benny, you know I've never said anything bad about you and I've always been with you, but you can't say things like that. We have to be able to disagree and argue without using that kind of language. Mae was hurt and responded in kind." Mae was still hurt and told Percy to just "forget about it." But Percy continued, "We have to fight like we're a family, you know? We can't let arguments break us up; we can argue but we have to stay together like a family."
The group continues to struggle with the ways in which race and class affect our social identities and class positions. Our greatest success is that we continue to embrace these discussions, not as asides, but as part of the organizing itself. As I facilitate our meetings, I realize that the struggle itself has become a site where strict and limiting racial and class identities are being challenged. I believe it may be exactly the kind of "opening up" for radical democratic politics that Howard Winant (1996) writes about in his recent work, "Racial Dualism at Century's End." Here he declares that, "To acknowledge racial dualism is to understand the malleability and flexibility of all identities, especially racial ones." He continues:
One of the recognitions hard-won by the movements of the 1960s...was that identity is a political construct. Not carved in stone, not 'sutured' (Mouffe and Laclau, 1985), our concepts of ourselves can be dramatically altered by new movements, new articulations of the possible.
While our country struggles to produce such mass movements in the 1990s, the Coalition's work and its meetings are creating a new place that nurtures the convergence of personal honesty and collective commitment which allows for at least the testing and challenging of racial boundaries. As Stuart Hall asserts, it is within political struggles that new sites are established which "constitute the terrain for producing identity, for producing social subjects."
Our hope is that we can use the fluidity of these identities to recognize the larger implications of our struggles. For me, when Percy pointed out that I had transgressed class boundaries by incurring the Provost's wrath when I spoke in support of the custodians, he also issued a challenge for me to recognize the significance of class differences within our group. I am able to inform discussions of organizing strategy and racial discrimination with historical and sociological perspectives on the labor movement and racial identities. Perhaps even more importantly, though, I am able to link our struggle with other similar fights occurring in places like Tufts, University of Rhode Island, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. The administrations of these universities have all caught the downsizing bug and either contracted out their maintenance units or, in the case of Penn, their entire plant facility. While the Coalition has begun reaching out to support other groups and share our strategies and experiences, we have also tapped into a budding labor movement on college and university campuses and appeared at conferences on the "University as Workplace" sponsored by Massachusetts Jobs With Justice in Boston and at a Labor Teach-in at Brown University sponsored by a new group called Scholars, Artists, Writers for Social Justice.
The other "sociological" arena for the Coalition is to further explore the implications of such a struggle for the local and regional political economy. Corporate ability to downsize workers, break unions, and further the downward spiral of wages and benefits is pretty much taken for granted these days. But the political solidarities and communities of struggle that are being nurtured by the Coalition could challenge the freedom of capital mobility. As we reach out to others in the community, especially the area's few unionized workers in the public schools and sympathetic professionals and politicians, we plan to raise other, more broad scale issues such as "livable wage" legislation, the need for safe and affordable housing, etc. In other words, part of our social knowledge will be created in the expansion of our struggle from the particular to the collective, from the campus to the community. As applied sociology, we take on the most crucial challenge to all scholars, one first claimed when Marx distinguished historical materialism from speculative intellectualism: "Philosophers have only interpreted he world in various ways. The point is to change it."
1The names of individuals have been changed.
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