Labor leaders and intellectuals mending fences Common worries, interests overcome 3-decade rift


After a 30-year estrangement, in which union leaders shunned academics as too far to the left and the liberal intelligentsia scorned big labor as part of the establishment, many academics are forging a new alliance with the revived labor movement.

Academics are counseling students to become union organizers and are donating time to teach courses to union officials.

Cornell University professors held a conference with the AFL-CIO on how to do more organizing, while many sociology professors are revamping their courses to focus more on labor's role in society.

And in early October, several dozen academic luminaries will join union leaders at Columbia University for a 1960s-style teach-in, intended to give the academic world's imprimatur to labor's new leadership and to explore how intellectuals can do more to advance the goals of organized labor.

Similar teach-ins will be held at a dozen other schools, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Florida, Eastern Illinois University, Wayne State University in Detroit and the University of Texas at El Paso.

"We want to lend the support of a large number of academics and intellectuals to the revitalization of labor," said Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University who is helping to organize the teach-ins.

"From our point of view, there is no real hope for progressive social change in this country without a strong labor movement, and without a strong labor movement, the conservative tendency of things is never going to be reversed."

The teach-ins are intended to draw the attention of students, academics, the media and the public.

This labor-intellectual alliance puts an end to three decades in which liberal academics and unions were at loggerheads over Vietnam, Cold War politics and labor's foot-dragging on allowing more women and minorities into unionized jobs.

In the view of labor leaders, this new alliance is important not just because historians, economists and sociologists might lend their brain power to organizing drives, but also because through their writings, intellectuals can change the public's perception of labor.

And the alliance, which flourished in the 1930s, is being renewed as John J. Sweeney, the president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, has broadened

labor's reach by building coalitions with other segments of society, including the clergy, women's groups, students, environmentalists and Hispanic people.

"As part of our effort to rebuild the progressive coalition in this country, it's important that progressive academics play a major role," said Robert Welsh, the AFL-CIO's chief of staff.

This new alliance pales compared with the assistance that intellectuals gave labor in the 1930s, when they ran labor colleges and union newspapers and penned pro-labor polemics.

But today's intellectuals promise that their support for labor will prove far more substantial than mere talk at teach-ins.

"What we're talking about is not just a few intellectuals providing some ad hoc advice, but about some significant potential shifts in research time and thinking," said Tom Juravich, research director for the labor relations school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

At a news conference last week in Washington, James A. Perley, the president of the American Association of University Professors, joined Sweeney to announce the group's support for the teach-ins.

Acknowledging that their new-found friendship with labor is not altogether altruistic, officials with the association say they hope the AFL-CIO will back their fights to preserve tenure, win raises and reverse cuts in education spending.

Academics are allying with labor at a time when professors at some elite private colleges, such as Bennington, and some public universities, such as the City University of New York, are facing some of the same pressures that other workers face from downsizing and pay freezes.

Perley said, "We've come to realize that we need to reach out to make connections to others who are experiencing the same kind of difficulties."

Professors, writers and intellectuals say they have embraced the AFL-CIO's leadership because it is seeking to transform labor into a broad social movement, and, they say, because it is dropping its focus on helping the relatively well-paid union elite.

Many academics say they are pleased that Sweeney has focused on organizing more workers and raising the wages of low-paid workers.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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