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Thursday, May 01, 2014

San Francisco Art Institute Touts Diego Rivera Fresco Celebrating Labor Politics While Engaging in Union Busting

The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of A City (1931) is a fresco painted by Diego Rivera which is a source of great pride, and an attraction for no small amount of tourist attention, for the San Francisco Art Institute where I have been teaching as an adjunct for over a decade. The image of this beautiful work posted below originated (pointedly) at the SFAI website itself, and you can learn more about the fresco at this promotional page also at the SFAI website.

A life-long champion of labor organizing and of the democratization of the economy, Rivera founded the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors in 1922. For the fresco he made for SFAI, which was already an historically significant art school, over half a century old, in an historically significant building designed by James Bakewell and Arthur Brown, Jr., students of Bay Area visionary Bernard Maybeck, Rivera chose to produce a fresco about the connections between artists as laborers and the creative power of labor in the world, making a fresco about the making of a fresco, showing artists with many different skills collaborating to create a work of art, in this case a fresco about laborers collaborating to build a city.

As I have already mentioned, I am one of the adjuncts who have been enjoined to vote to become part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Adjuncts like me represent three quarters of the faculty at SFAI, we work for comparatively low wages given our contribution to the mission of the school, we have no job security, we have little sense of our prospects, we have repeatedly observed that no amount of volunteerism, committee work, conspicuous dedication, excellent student evaluations provides sustained recognition or a sense of responsibility to us from administration. This state of affairs is hardly unique to SFAI, but is of a piece with a larger pattern of corporatized education in which teachers are rendered ever more precarious, robotic standardization replaces actual standards, administrative and marketing activities swallow ever vaster resources, and schools enter into ever tighter relationships to corporations seeking a trained docile indebted workforce and to gain proprietary intellectual property portfolios via supported research.

Although I have not been focused on labor politics in my own political life -- my focus has been on gender politics (queer rights, reproductive freedom), democratic technoscience, and environmental justice -- this is nevertheless the third time I've been involved in labor organizing. In the 90s, first when I was working in a university library in Georgia, paying my way through my first graduate degree in philosophy, a public worker union organized my colleagues, and then later the UAW organized graduate student instructors like me when I was at the University of California at Berkeley. I was a steward for my Rhetoric Department for a while. For me, organizing to gain the collective standing to bargain for better conditions and to solve shared problems is simply a straightforward commonsense sort of thing that people do. Of course I recognize that there are problems with unions themselves, as there are with any collective formations, especially formations that are large and complex, but I also recognize that unions are indispensable both to larger aspirations for social justice and to ground level practical problem solving. SFAI's administration is a stakeholder with a different perspective on our shared problems and aspirations than that of adjuncts, in the nature of things, and I would expect them to take up a firm position in the present struggle in advance of the eventual negotiations unionization would bring. As I said, I consider all that only natural. I guess, however, I did not expect the kinds of misinformation, aggression, and scarcely stealthed threats that are coming from administrators at this time.

Many of the administrators resisting the formation of the union have done research that takes the value of labor organizing as its explicit point of departure. The online SFAI profile for Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs Rachel Schreiber tells us that "[h]er research addresses the intersections of race and gender in labor activism." I would expect her to be an enthusiastic ally of adjunct organizing, even if she bargains with organized teachers in a tough, incisive, no-nonsense way that reflects her different position as an administrator.

Other administrators engage in disappointing boilerplate anti-union rhetoric while at once touting their respect for unions or of their own proud family histories with unions: President Charles Desmarais' letter urging us to vote against SEIU, made available to the public on SFAI's informational website about the union election, contains this flabbergasting paragraph:
As the proud son of a Teamster shop steward, I’m acutely aware of the benefits organized labor brought to sheet metal workers like my dad and their families in facing up to Big Business. But SFAI is a community working together toward a common purpose, and I believe that SEIU is a huge outside force that has little understanding of our unique culture and values
Outside agitators? Really? Do the concerns raised in this conflict by adjuncts not complicate the least bit any bald assertion that "SFAI is a community working together toward a common purpose"? More to the point, why on earth would a more organized labor force not be compatible with the vision of "a community working together toward a common purpose"? I would think it goes without saying that a democratized workforce bargaining from a position of comparative security would strengthen such a community and facilitate working together toward common purposes. The point is not a polemical one, but the most basic common sense as far as I can see.

In countless conversations and in sponsored talks and conferences on campus, and in much of the work of our own graduate students, problems of corporate models of education and the catastrophe of precarious labor are endlessly and earnestly debated. What on earth do these people think they are doing? Do they mean nothing that they say?

Again, although I expect actually different stakeholders (administration, faculty, staff, etc.) to bargain and struggle in ways that reflect the reality of their differences, I have a very hard time believing that intelligent, informed people of good will can really reject the very idea that it might be good for conspicuously precarious and silenced adjuncts doing the overwhelming majority of the actual teaching that is the actual reason the school actually exists to organize to ensure the conditions under which we do this work are conducive to it and that we gain a feeling of security from which we can voice concerns about the promises and problems of the institution from our vantage on the ground without fear of reprisal.

SFAI is a school nearly a century and a half old. It is a landmark physically, culturally, and also politically. The world has been enriched by the radicalism of both its artistic and political visions and activism. SFAI should be in the vanguard of teacher organizing in this historical moment, it should champion the turning of the tide from the anti-intellectual corporate looting of the academy in a world crying for an outpouring of critical, sustainable, creative, democratizing, problem-solving intelligence and imagination. Organizing adjuncts will give us the security of a voice from which SFAI will benefit, will give us a sustainable stake in the institution to which we are devoting our lives. Adjuncts are organizing in schools across the Bay Area, right here, right now. This is an exciting and also a promising time, in the midst of distress. There is nothing to fear from democracy and a world to gain. If SFAI administrators cannot see the vital truth of this, they should sandblast Diego Rivera's fresco from the gallery wall for they are already blind to its beauty and its wisdom.

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