The MLA’s Vanishing Commission on Faculty Unions

Sitting in my office this afternoon, only the second (or maybe third) rainy day since I moved to Dubai in August 2014, I’m surprised to read this remarkable passage from Margaret Ferguson’s 2015 MLA Presidential Address:

“Looking back once more to the MLA’s past, I move toward my conclusion by noticing that among the seldom remembered documents of the 1970 convention was a resolution urging the MLA’s officers to set up a Commission on Faculty Unions. The commission was to present a report to the membership on such topics as ‘the role of the university teacher as worker–i.e., one who sells his or her skills on the open market’ and ‘arguments for and against teacher unions or collective bargaining units as distinct from professional organizations.’ The resolution’s proposers begin by stating, ‘In the light of the increasing economic insecurity of college teachers, reflecting the overall economic crisis, . . . we recognize the need to explore the possibilities of organizing collective action by college teachers’ (‘1970 Business Meeting Actions’ 597). I’m not sure what happened to this resolution; although it was approved by a majority of the members who voted on it, I haven’t been able to find the commission’s report, which was supposed to build on data gathered with the help of newly hired staff members. The commission was to include members from several organizations that served as bargaining agents for college teachers and teaching assistants. Whatever the commission’s fate, perhaps it’s now time to return to the negotiating table of institutional memory and ask that the ideas motivating that old resolution be dusted off and reexamined” (563).

What happened to the commission’s report? Was it never compiled? If not, this seems to me to be a serious failure on behalf of an organization committed to advancing the interests of literature and language faculty within the academy. Had such a report on faculty unions been generated, members may have had a clearer sense of how to mitigate some of the damage done during this ongoing half-century of crisis in the humanities.

It’s not too late to act on this prescient 1970 resolution. Indeed, the MLA has the responsibility to do so. Because the “economic insecurity” the resolution mentions is much exacerbated now, and because too many members—especially tenured members—are hesitant to see themselves as part of a labor force (and this to the detriment of untenured and contingent faculty), the MLA should finally convene the Commission on Faculty Unions and begin the hard work of imagining forms of collective bargaining that can transcend the limited ability of professional organizations to represent their members’ interests within individual schools and departments.

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Ferguson, Margaret. “Negotiating Sites of Memory.” PMLA 130.3 (2015): 546-565.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2016 Micah Robbins