Creating Out of Crisis

My older sister, a friend of the family and I were driving on a bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard in Dallas, Texas, when the car tire popped.

Despite the jolt, my sister managed to get over to the shoulder of the road. However, the narrow shoulder was only wide enough for the car – not enough space for someone to change a tire.

We drove almost one mile on the shoulder of the bridge going about five miles per hour, shredding the remnants of the tire along the way as the vehicle bumped up and down. We made it to the next exit and over to a parking lot, where our friend – a mechanic – made do with a rusted jack, borrowed a lug wrench and got air for the flat spare in the trunk so he could put it on.

The three of us were making our way from Love Field Airport to Hunt Regional Medical Center in Greenville, Texas, to visit my dad. He had been hospitalized and put on a ventilator because his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease had taken a turn for the worse. The same day I arrived my mother was admitted into the emergency room back in Illinois because of severe hypotension. Just a few weeks before, I visited my grandmother at a hospital in St. Louis after she suffered a heart attack.

These synchronous crises contributed to a lot of stress, frustration, anger, grief and a whole cocktail of other emotions. Yet, I’ve discovered crises can be reason for reflection, which can lead to new understanding.

Sociologist John Holloway recently offered, “Think Hope, Think Crisis.” Holloway’s conception refers mainly to the incompatibility of humanity with logics of ceaseless capital accumulation.

Yet from many sorts of crises, admittedly often related, new openings can also emerge.

Crises are not always acute, however. Many are protracted and painful.

Impacts of Protracted Crisis

Nicole Troxell critiqued the prolonged pain of “Academic Sweatshop” labor, which too many workers at university find themselves in.

She explained that she first accepted the low pay, precarious arrangements and overwork of an adjunct because she wanted so much to teach college.

“But after seven years of struggle, I have had to admit that academia is a sinking ship,” she wrote. “It is no longer a middle income job with a promising future, but a field that pays poverty wages and increasingly runs schools like corporations, where the dollar comes before both students and employees.”

She added, though, that union organizing gives adjuncts reason for hope.

Graduate students too are in perpetual crisis. We face low wages and fees that wipe out about two months’ worth of pay for Graduate Assistants at SIUC. Prerogatives of “productivity” and “efficiency” – normalized under the rhetoric of “grade faster,” “grade smarter” and “I just need it done” – get pushed at the expense of the health of both GAs and education generally.

Much of this has to do with the broader, systematic attack on labor over the last few decades. It continues today in the form of ideological assumptions constituting an affront on any kind of critical thinking and an assault on economic justice.

Growing economic inequality of course correlates with deepening economic injustice. Statistics show just how much and why that inequality has grown in the US: The gap between bloated CEO pay and average worker compensation has exploded in the past few decades, from 20-to-1 in 1965 to 259.1-to-1 in 2013, an Economic Policy Institute report explained.

Similarly, an Institute for Policy Studies report found that major state universities with the highest executive pay or administrator salaries are also schools with the worst student debt crisis – a predictable but appalling correlation.

All this rising iniquity corresponds with declines in union mobilization and membership over the last couple of decades. The drop in union activity, in turn, corresponds with the greater initiatives to discipline labor – from the Reagan administration breaking the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization during their strike back in 1981, to recent attacks on public school teacher tenure in California championed by Students Matter, an Orwellian-named organization backed by a Silicon Valley mogul whose home is worth more than $10 million.

Higher education has also been in crisis. Before breaking PATCO, Reagan started the push toward privatization of university education as governor of California by relaxing restrictions on the amount of fees students could be assessed. While students in the early 1960s could attend the University of California for basically free, now students’ ever-increasing tuition is being pledged to boost bond ratings. Exorbitant fees accompany these less visible privatization schemes.

Crises Birth New Beginnings

From many of these crises, however, have sprung new modes of organizing, new methods of resisting and new ways of relating to one another.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, Greece’s economy contracted: Activist-scholars Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini explain in their new book that the country’s GDP declined by about 25 percent from 2008 to 2013; 68,000 businesses have been shut down since 2011; unemployment jumped from 7.7 percent in 2009 to 27 percent in 2013; and the once common collective bargaining agreements “have practically ceased to exist” throughout much of Greece.

One of the subjects Sitrin and Azzellini interviewed for their book, Anna, 42, has done union organizing since the 1990s and participated in student collectives while at university. She is now with the Union of Bookstore Workers and Publishing Houses in Athens.

“We want to feel as workers that we are active subjects and protagonists,” Anna said as she explained the importance of horizontal organization and how her union holds an open assembly, called the Open Council, every Thursday, where anyone discuss what is going on at the bookstore and coordinate actions.

In the US, workers in the education sector have initiated both resistance and made new creations out of crises.

The Chicago Teachers Union conducted an historic grassroots organizing campaign when they went on strike in 2012. In the wake of the court ruling that effectively eliminated tenure for public school teachers in California, the United Teachers Los Angeles union started work on a project, modeled after a Chicago Teachers Union study, designed “to make a case for the structural changes that would help students and place the union in a central role in fighting for those demands,” reported Yana Kunichoff, a Chicago-based journalist who covers labor, education and social movements.

The UC Student-Workers Union, also known as UAW Local 2865, represents teaching assistants and some undergraduate academic employees throughout the University of California system. The union went on a two-day strike back in April, which generated enormous solidarity despite faculty cowardice and administrative repression. They have since settled a contract with the Board of Regents.

In the same vein, Graduate Assistants United is continuing to bargain for a better contract to address injustices at our own university.

Certainly, crises continue to occur and are manifest as individual hardship, family strife, economic woes and other forms of duress. But reacting to, reflecting upon and going beyond crisis situations can be truly transformative. When this is done, those crisis events, acute or recurring, engender new subjectivities, different ways of doing and sometimes better ways of relating to and educating each other. As we experience the insecurity, hurt, frustration and surprise crises inevitably induce, it is important to remember that and reassert our agency in ways that make for a more meaningful journey.