Educated liberals may not have cast votes for Donald Trump, but what did we do to oppose him? The halls of academia should be a bulwark against the kind of misogynistic, anti-environmental, bigoted policies Trump espouses; yet when academics can’t even rally for their immediate and obvious self-interests, how can they be expected to act globally for the greater good?
As an adjunct in Syracuse, N.Y., I made so little money that I was forced to work the graveyard shift of a local hotel where I made even less. Like so many service jobs, we were often asked to come in early, stay late, and though we worked more than 40 hours a week, benefits were never an option. I thought back to my time as an undergraduate working at a Frito-Lay factory to put myself through college. It was the same kind of work environment. We came in early; we stayed late. The only difference was we got paid for every single minute we were on the clock, and benefits were some of the best in my little Ohio hometown. The reason? We were proud members of Teamsters Local 52.
At the hotel, I reached out to a union representative who told me that unions were not an easy sell but the way to motivate action was to find the thread of injustice that ran through everyone’s experience. There was no true complacency, she said. Apathy could be overcome if you just hit the right nerve.
I left the area not long after that conversation and didn’t get to put her words into practice. Nonetheless, I carried them with me, particularly after I started working at Schenectady County Community College in Albany, N.Y., where adjuncts made the lowest wages in the entire capital region. Starting salaries were almost $1,000 less than what I made at a similar community college in Syracuse.
I was thankful that when I started adjuncts had already voted to unionize. I learned quickly, however, there is a wide gulf between voting to act and actually acting. Enthusiastic emails would go flying around at the start of every semester. People would rally us to battle; they would encourage us; but did they ever show up? In all the strategy sessions, in all the meetings, it was essentially me and the same three guys. There are dozens and dozens of adjuncts at SCCC, and if even a tenth of them had ever shown up to meet with the college’s executive staff, we never would’ve been ignored.
I once thought it was fear that kept people away, which would have been understandable if not entirely objectionable. Sadly, even when you prompted people with the National Labor Relations Act, which protects employees engaged in lawful union activity, they still refused to act. “I’m too busy,” was the most common refrain, which would again have been understandable given that adjuncts teach four, five, six classes sometimes at four, five, six different schools. We would bend over backward creating a schedule that could accommodate as many people as possible. We’d hold meetings in the early morning, late at night, during lunch breaks—nothing. I couldn’t understand what was happening. People claimed they wanted higher wages; they just didn’t want to do anything about it.
A few miles away at the College of Saint Rose, adjuncts had unionized and won their first contract. Wages rose significantly, and they were given partial benefits as well as professional development money. Encouraged by this success, the adjunct union tried to expand to include the full-time Saint Rose faculty and staff. It was put to a vote—and failed miserably. Some weeks later, 23 faculty and 40 or more staff were fired.
The union tried again after that, and one would think that the loss of their colleagues, friends, and officemates would have galvanized the remaining employees into action. They took another vote—it failed again. They were all so grateful not to have been fired in the first round they didn’t want to rock the boat.
I live in western Massachusetts where I also work as a community organizer with Jobs with Justice, and just recently we defeated ballot Question No. 2, which would have allowed private, corporate charter schools to overtake public education. It was a significant victory given the other side was funded by the Koch brothers, the Walton family and Rupert Murdoch. Old school organizing—knocking on doors, making phone calls, holding town hall style meetings—beat back big money to keep education public. The victory tasted wonderful … until an hour later when we realized Trump would be our next president.
As shell-shocked as I’ve been the last few days, I am still not altogether surprised. Recruiting volunteers for the Save Our Public Schools campaign was one of the hardest things we had to do. The campaign began in June, and all of us figured that when the school year started, public school teachers would be flocking to our canvasses and phonebanks. Nevertheless, with my time at SCCC, it simply was not the case. I probably knocked on 50 teachers’ doors. I must’ve called 200 more. I asked every single one of them to volunteer—three said “yes.” It was for all the same well-worn reasons: too busy, not enough time, can’t fit it in.
The same attitudes got Trump elected president, and unless things change, the same attitudes will keep him in office for eight years. I still have family in Ohio and not one of them lifted a finger for Hillary Clinton. In one of the most important states each election cycle, they couldn’t be bothered to make a single phone call.
Teachers, adjuncts, academics, liberal suburbanites—these are the groups that supposedly scorn Trump, and yet inaction by all of us has allowed a despot into the White House. We as educated liberals have an obligation to fight back. We cannot be complacent any longer. We must put down The New Yorker and turn off John Oliver. We must find time and be committed to rocking the boat.
Eric Bauer is an educator, organizer, and advocate. In addition to teaching at Schenectady County Community College and Sage College of Albany he works as a community organizer with Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.
Photo by DonkeyHotey “Donald Trump - Caricature” (CC BY 2.0). No changes made.