15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut
#4 "Where is My Lunch Pail?"

Friday, February 5, 2010

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by Dianne Harris (Director, Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities and Professor of Landscape Architecture, Architecture, Art History, and History)

As an architectural historian, I am a humanist who studies the history of human interactions with the built environment. As such, I’ve spent a fair amount of time asking questions—as so many humanists do—about the ways in which race, class, and gender serve as interlinked modalities through which spatial and material relations operate to constitute cultures, and the ways in which cultures create spaces that have much to tell us about the human condition. I’ve also sometimes studied the labor practices that result in specific built environments. But all that leaves me rather ill-equipped to grapple with the labor dilemmas in which we now find ourselves as faculty at the University of Illinois.

When it comes to understanding the furloughs we’ve been “asked” to take, my default mode is to ask questions based on tried-and-true modes of humanist inquiry. Why, for example, does the word “furlough” sound (at least to my ears) so very “classed” as a term? In the past “furlough” conjured a specific image in my mind: A man (the gendered traditions of the workplace rears its ugly head) in coveralls and a cap walks away from a factory after being furloughed, his grim expression a reminder of the hard times he’ll face with his family as they struggle to make ends meet. Clouds of steam rise in the background, and a factory whistle blows to signal the end of a workday as the factory worker slowly walks away from his daily endeavor, lunch pail swinging from his hand.

This image, manufactured somewhere in my overcrowded brain out of god-only-knows what fragments of a novel or a film, may or may not have any basis in reality. As we all know, and as we have been all-too-regularly reminded this year, work furloughs know no limits on class, race, or gender. Or do they? It’s certainly true that the furloughed worker on our campus will be everyone who holds a university position and is not paid on “soft” money, so the furlough, in that sense, is an equal opportunity offender.

But of course, women and people of color are often disproportionately placed in low- wage positions, and furloughs will hit harder on their pocketbooks. It can be no consolation to campus workers who makes $30,000 per year to know that their four mandatory furlough days this semester will be matched by a mathematically unparallel ten furlough days taken by a few administrators who make ten times their salary.

But my mental image of the furloughed factory worker also rankles because I can’t fit myself into that picture, and it’s not because I never imagined that professors—we of the largely privileged, white-collar, highly-educated, professional, and mostly comfortable middle classes—could never be laid off, or have our pay cut. In the years leading up to my employment on this campus, I spent plenty of time employed in jobs that paid low hourly wages, that had no job security whatsoever, that included no benefits, and that had generally lousy work conditions. Even after beginning my job here at the university, I many times imagined myself jobless, even potentially homeless, in my pre-tenure years (and my spouse can attest to my nearly neurotic tendency to imagine our family on the streets in the event that the sky should actually fall, which my mother has repeatedly assured me will one day happen).

Instead, I can’t fit myself into that picture because the work I do every day, that indeed all of us do everyday as university employees, makes it impossible to simply take our lunch pails and walk away. And even if we find ourselves grimly walking away from campus at the end of a workday, we’ll never hear that factory whistle blow, because our workday never ends, stretched as we are to meet the requirements of teaching, research, service and (in my case) administrative duties. I’m not complaining, and yes, I feel very fortunate most days to hold my job. But the damn whistle just never seems to blow, and where’s my lunch pail anyway?!

Several of my colleagues have already pointed out, on this blog and elsewhere, the lies that give logic to the furlough, so I won’t rehearse the flaws in the administration’s arguments about budgets. But as an architectural historian, I want to know how and when the space of the university—commissioned, designed, and built for the exercise of education and creative thought—became instead a space for the exercise of corporate capitalism, one in which my office became at least metaphorically analogous to the space of the factory floor, where the expectation increasingly is that I will generate money for the campus through my work in addition to educating students, and (perhaps) finding the time to do research and produce estimable scholarship. In the absence of a time clock, how can I simply walk away with that grim expression on my face, swinging my lunch pail as I leave on my furlough day? The administration, I suspect, not least in offering the option of “voluntary” pay reductions, knows that we all carry carefully cultivated mental images of ourselves as hard-working, white-collar professionals who cannot simply be furloughed (or furloughed simply). Or can we?

If furloughs are to mean anything at all—and it seems to me that they mean relatively little when it comes to truly making a difference in the university’s current cash flow problems—they have to be visible, they have to make an impact, and they have to hurt, not just the faculty, but students and administrators alike.

On February 15th and on March 4th, two days that have recently been designated for collective action, we must all pick up our imaginary lunch pails, punch out on our imaginary time clocks, and walk out, finding common cause with our colleagues in the Campus Faculty Association. We have to ignore the alarm bells in our heads that remind us of the mountain of work that lies in wait on our desks, of the students who need our attention, of the lecture that awaits preparation, of the article deadline that approaches, of the service projects that call for our time.

Instead, we’ll walk together swinging imaginary lunch pails, with hopes that in doing so, we’ll one day walk back to jobs that resemble those we hoped to fulfill when we became members of a university community that valued outstanding instruction, research excellence, and a devotion to community-enhancing service at a range of scales.


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KBHC said...

I sometimes wonder if the *appearance* of a meritocracy, combined with the huge risks to attain a job in academia (the many many years of apprenticeship with no promise of a secure job), compete with the sense of privilege the few of us get when we attain that magical tenure-track position. I wonder if these things combine to make us more scared, less able to speak up, more worried about what opaque criteria lead to tenure. And so I am very pleased to see these fears written about so eloquently along with a call to arms for the Campus Faculty Association. Thank you for your contribution!