I crossed a picket line and became an ex-professor


WAS, OF COURSE, aware of the nasty things that can happen when individuals cross picket lines, but I had imagined—naively—that strikes by broad-minded academic intellectuals would be different. When I crossed a faculty picket line last fall at Eastern Michigan University, I suffered the depressing revelation of seeing some of my colleagues, once my close friends, transformed into characters I no longer recognized. And had the brief strike continued much longer, I’m not sure that violence wouldn’t have occurred.

The faculty strike, the first in EMU’s history, began on a Monday. Though it was illegal under Michigan law, all but three of the 68 members of my department (English) honored it. The pressure from friends was relentless; it felt odd, nearly embarrassing, not to join the strike. I suspect a good many of my colleagues didn’t approve of it, but it was hard to be at odds with the group, and so easy to stay home—especially after the administration announced that it would bring no charges against those who broke the law.

I did feel that a good many of my colleagues admired me for crossing the picket line. It was not easy to defy my friends, but it was simply impossible for me, viscerally and philosophically, to strike. I hoped that they would at least respect my convictions.

My position on strikes came as a surprise to no one. I had not hesitated to express my views on the subject whenever it was discussed on campus.

I had said that under no imaginable circumstances would I join a strike. I regarded my teaching position, frankly, as a kind of semi-retirement.  Most of us worked about 25 hours a week for reasonably good pay. I myself also managed to work 15 hours a week as editor-in-chief of an academic journal, to put in another 15 hours as an Ann Arbor city councilman, and to do a fair amount of publication. Why pretend that nine to three, three days a week, was intolerable working conditions?

My colleagues and I had already given each other a foretaste of what was to come. A few years earlier, the union—the American Association of University Professors—had organized a picket line to protest the method of selecting the university’s new president.

Though not an AAUP member, I was asked to join the picketing to show my “solidarity” with the faculty. I politely declined. Several colleagues tried, one at a time, to pressure me into joining. I vividly recall the pleas that one of them, Frank (I’ll use only first names in this piece), made to me in a hallway between classes, with some two or three hundred students milling around. Having been told no, Frank walked away, stopped at a distance of about 75 feet, turned, and screamed, “You ass—!”

I LAUGHED TO myself, albeit sadly. Had I said to him, “Frank, I want you in the next election to vote Republican for the good of the country, just as you requested that I join in the picket line for the good of the faculty,” he would of course have responded in disbelief, “I don’t want to vote Republican; I’m a Democrat.” Of course. But he could see no analogy between his right to vote as he chooses and my right to decide whether to join a picket line, or a union. So it would be.

When the strike was imminent, the atmosphere around the faculty offices and lounges was like that of an impending football game, with an added whiff of zestful vindictiveness. It would be Us v. Them, the virtuous against the callous.

As I approached the door of our building on the first day of the strike, it was manned by about thirty players from the English Department—friends all. I felt awkward and embarrassed: I didn’t like the coming trauma and I truly wished the whole thing would go away. Most of them looked at me and laughed disapprovingly; though the atmosphere was strained, they were fairly amiable. This was, after all, only the kickoff.

Monday and Tuesday passed. No resolution. Most of the classrooms were empty; about 85 per cent of the faculty stayed home, though only 40 per cent were union members. But most students attended the classes that were still taught, and this lack of student support angered the strikers. Position papers were quickly printed and distributed to the students, explaining that the administration was stubbornly refusing such reasonable demands as an immediate 20 per cent raise and an agency shop.

WHEN I arrived Wednesday I could see the increased intensity. The faces that had smiled Monday were now glaring, and the comments began. I was running, at the time, for the State Senate; and one of my colleagues, Sheila, wanting to hurt me, said that my opponent had just joined the picket line and that “he has won all our support.”

Sheila scowled at me and added: “Scab.” We had been good friends. It was incongruous. Devotees of Mozart and Jane Austen were acting like mobsters. And “scab,” from participants in an illegal strike who never lost pay, to one who continued working for his salary! A “scab” is a kind of parasite: whom did the term fit here?

One reassuring thing happened. I had a lecture class of three hundred; expecting to find it deserted, I walked in and found that about 250 of my students had come. Themselves badgered by the picketers, they applauded me thunderously. Many of them came up after class to thank me for caring about them.

Since I was a political candidate, I Mr. Trowbridge is editor of Imprimis and Executive Director of the Center for Constructive Alternatives. He is not a state senator. (This article was adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College.) was the object of much media attention.

Reporters gathered around my office on the first day of the strike to ask obvious questions about my refusal to join it. I answered frankly that I was a city lawmaker aspiring to be a state lawmaker, and that it would be hypocritical for me to break the law here. The next day my response was featured on local radio stations and on the front page of the county’s largest newspaper, the Ann Arbor News. (By the way, some state Republican officials had advised me not to cross the picket line: “Be ill,” they said.)

The day after the story hit the newsstands and airwaves, I arrived at school to find a very angry bunch. Many of the strikers rushed a good half-block to meet me and formed a circle around me. Jay, a full professor with whom I shared an office phone and a 14-year friendship, was so angry I thought he was going to punch me. The blue blood vessels in his face stood out and he was near hyperventilation. My being a scab was bad enough; but my remarks to the media were the last straw.

“You made us look bad,” he said, breathing even harder. I started to explain that the press had come to me, not I to them. “Bullshit,” he snapped.

“I thought you were a man of principle but I see that you are only a political opportunist.” Then, his eyes red, he delivered the sundering stroke: “That’s it, Trowbridge-1 am never again going to answer your telephone!”

Jay is 43 years old. The story of his threat proved convulsively funny to my freshmen and sophomores. Students were often stopped by the strikers and asked whose class they were attending. The size of my lecture class helped increase the notoriety of my name. The strikers often directed my students to convey messages to me: “Up yours,” “Scab,” and some of Xrated character. One striker said, “Give him the finger.” All this from teachers of Shakespeare: dapper, greying, pipesmoking incarnations of the life of the mind. Liberals, too—deplorers of Nixonite dirty tricks and of CIA and FBI surveillance: like Walter, who took photographs of faculty members who crossed the picket line (he threatened to send my picture to my political opponent). AA UP officials, I learned later, had approved this tactic. Alas, Walter one day climbed up onto a ledge to get a better shot, and fell— damaging his expensive camera.

After the first week the administration canceled classes indefinitely. A week later the strike was settled. During the two weeks, the strikers had forfeited nothing, but few outsiders realized this at the time. The news, when it leaked out, perturbed even members of other unions, like the secretaries and janitors, whose lower wages had been suspended during their strikes in earlier years.

The settlement was hardly worth the fuss in terms of salary (a 6.1 per cent increase, reduced to 5.3 per cent by union dues), but a modified agency shop was established. Those who refused to join the union were henceforth required to pay dues anyway, or to pay an equivalent amount to a scholarship fund.

At noon on the first day after the strike, I went hesitantly to the faculty lunchroom. I knew what. to expect. Donald, a huge smile on his face, said loudly, “There’s Trowbridge. N0000, he’s no scab. He’s an oozing, running sore.” Peals of harsh laughter. Donald holds a PhD from Kent State and is fifty years old.

As FOR the scholarship fund donation, its rationale quickly emerged in our lunchroom discussion. The chief purpose, everyone agreed, was to punish those who refused to join the union. Gene, a white-haired Southern gentleman of exquisite manners, looked at me, stuck out his chin, and shook his head rapidly, saying, “Goody-goodygoody- goody-goody!” Gene is 58 years old.

Another colleague, Martin, a very good friend, confided to me later with deep seriousness: “Ron, your name is mud around here.” I knew he meant it, and it hurt. One cannot cavalierly dismiss friendships after 14 years. But they were gone, and the advent of union power made the prospect of teaching at Eastern for 25 more years very dismal for anyone of my views. I decided to leave. There were no formal farewells, no good-bye parties, none of the customary gestures; nothing. Is it any wonder I am pleased, now, to be at Hillsdale College, which champions the freedom and sovereignty of the individual?

Mr. Trowbridge is editor of Imprimis and Executive Director of the Center for Constructive Alternatives. He is not a state senator. (This article was adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College.)