November 13, 2017

Letter to the Editor: The importance of keeping the labor in Industrial and Labor Relations

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To the Editor:

We are writing this letter to express our collective concern in anticipation of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations’ upcoming curriculum changes, guided by the particular calls for de-emphasizing labor at the ILR town hall and by careful reflection on our own experiences in ILR. This concern is situated within the broader of context of the pre-professionalization and corporatization of the university, which equips students with the tools to go far within existing structures, but not to question the legitimacy and efficacy of the very structures they benefit from. What is necessary to challenge these structures is the space to hone critical thinking, reading and writing skills, often overlooked in favor of more explicitly “marketable” focuses. Sacrificing labor studies and programs not only destroys Irving Ives’ essential vision that the ILR School was founded upon, but also does an extreme disservice to every single student in the School.

The need to focus on labor is more important now than ever. In the face of globalization, rapidly increasing inequality and exploitation, it is imperative to counter the myth that the labor movement is a relic of the past and irrelevant to the future. The ongoing history of the labor struggle — which has given us healthcare, broad free speech protections, the weekend, the eight hour work day and child labor laws — has not ended and we must place ourselves within it. We remember that real social change has never come from the top; it has always been won through grassroots struggle, often in the face of tremendous violence. Ignorance of this struggle will only serve to disempower today’s students who will soon become, and often already are, workers, facing new challenges that need to be fought. ILR classes should reflect and analyze the political dynamics that shape the experience of work and labor in today’s world, including globalization, technological advancements, precarity and the evolving ways of organizing.

Oftentimes, however, this is not the case, and classes such as labor economics are taught as a steadfast doctrine — as if economics is an objective science free from sociopolitical influences, such as in its framing of people as either “unskilled” or “skilled” as a means of justifying inequalities in the labor market and class hierarchies in society. We lack the space to challenge the often-assumed correctness of these epistemologies, and we do not learn alternative perspectives. It is crucial that ILR can not only address these issues, but also give students a way to place and contextualize the movements and struggles happening around the world and in the communities in which they live, such as the fight for a living wage in Tompkins County, the unionization efforts of Cornell’s graduate students and Ithaca College’s adjunct faculty, and Cornell’s use of sub-contracted temporary workers to replace unionized staff. It is true that labor is under attack — but this means we must fight harder than ever.

To understand the increasing socioeconomic inequality in the world, we must rigorously examine the intersections between labor and gender, race, class, disability, immigration status and sexual orientation, because these categories shape worker’s lives. ILR’s existing labor classes offer a needed perspective, but they are not enough to allow students to engage with the rich political history of labor. That students are able to go through their four years in ILR without ever having to engage with the ways in which race, class, gender and other intersectionalities affect and shape experiences in the workplace is indicative of an egregious hole in the curriculum.

The labor movement and the Left have an extremely rich history of theory that was both formed in and is practiced from the shop floor to the halls of academia, and which encompasses a variety of disciplines not limited to Marxist, anarchist, feminist and postcolonial studies. This theory, however, is rarely, if ever, taught in ILR classes, and students are forced to turn to other departments, individual studies and reading groups in order to truly understand the struggle of labor and the working class. It is disheartening that classes in other departments discuss the foundations of labor and working class struggles more than those in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

There are many avenues for students wishing to study business and finance to pursue those interests in the economics department and Cornell’s College of Business, as well as in business schools around the country. However, schools that focus on labor are few and far between. ILR prides itself on being one of a kind: a unique, comprehensive program meant to advance the world of work and improve working lives. We are adamant that labor must be re-centered within the curriculum, and to that end, ask the essential question: what would the School of Industrial and Labor Relations be without Labor?

As such, our demands are as follows:

  1. Add a required ILR course that discusses critical race, gender and class theory in relation to labor. This class must examine the intersectionality of these multiple identities, including how they affect working and building working class consciousness not only in the context of the U.S., but also in relation to other countries around the world. Given recent events and the creation of the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate, which is being put together with the help of ILR’s Scheinman Institute, it is imperative that ILR lead the way in educating the next generation of workers on factors that impact the ways in which people navigate the workplace. By addressing these issues, ILR can work to ensure that students from marginalized backgrounds feel safe and respected as students are forced to seriously grapple with the very real issues that face them and their peers in the university and in the workplace. Consider Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner’s IRLR 3035: Labor, Race and Gender in the 21st Century and Professor Allison Weiner Heinemann’s ILRLR 4035: Intersectionality in Disability Studies courses when designing such a course. In addition, students should be directly involved in the crafting of this course.
  2. Hire at least three tenure track professors to make up for shortages and upcoming retirements of faculty in the Labor Relations, Law and History Department within the next two years. Permanent faculty hirings ensure that Labor Relations, Labor Law and Labor History classes are not phased out and continue to be permanently provided and required for all ILR students. Faculty in this department must have knowledge of collective bargaining with a union perspective of labor relations. Additionally, ILR must ensure that retiring faculty in the Labor Relations, Law and History department are directly replaced by faculty hired into this same department. Of these professors, faculty of color and/or women should comprise at least half of the new hires. The search for new faculty must be full and open, as opposed to targeted searches, to ensure diversity of candidates. One student should be selected through application by each academic department in ILR to represent the student interest for each department on this search committee.
  3. Faculty should be required to undergo diversity and inclusion training upon hiring and again every two years, as trainings are updated to ensure proper action in response to campus incidents and an ever-changing national and international political climate. Faculty must ensure that students feel safe and supported in their classroom environments. To ensure such a space, faculty should be thoroughly educated and trained to properly address incidents on campus and around the country that immensely affect the learning environment of students in their classes. This should include providing a space for students to speak and reflect about these incidents while explicitly making available mental-health and community support services that students may need.
  4. Add a number of electives that explore, in depth, issues of labor and the working class. These electives may include subjects such as: critical theory as it relates to labor; alternatives to neoclassical economics; anarchist/socialist labor movements around the world; labor in the postcolonial Global South; a class focusing on labor and community issues in Tompkins county that involves volunteering/ interacting with organizations and people in the community.
  5. Career Services should dedicate greater resources to outreach efforts concerning labor and nonprofit organizations. While we recognize that labor often has a different hiring cycle and fewer resources to dedicate to travel and recruitment, career services should use its resources to bring to campus speakers involved in the labor movement. In addition, contact information for speakers, recruiters and alumni in the labor movement should be shared with students frequently. Career Services should also make the social impact career forum a yearly event and ensure that more off campus employers are represented in the Social Justice Career Fair. Lastly, FEX and WISP opportunities must include more labor and social justice opportunities.
  6. Administration should meet bimonthly with students to discuss progress on these steps. To ensure full commitment to our demands, administration should meet directly with students to report with full transparency the actions they are taking to move this initiative forward.

We also request a meeting with the committee in charge of curriculum changes, including Dean Kevin Hallock, within two weeks of the receipt of this letter. We await your response.

Katy Habr, ILR ’18
Julissa Andrade, ILR ’18
Kataryna Restrepo, ILR ’21
Xavier Eddy, ILR ’19
Carunya (Caro) Achar, ILR ’18
Adam Davis, ILR ’18
Daniel Kirchner, ILR ’21
Erik Rivas, ILR ’20
Lydia Zheng, ILR ’20
Andrew Crook, MILR ’16
Michelle Zhao, ILR ’19
Vanessa Roga, ILR ’20
Juliet Remi, ILR ’20
Joe Anderson, ILR ’20
Hunter Moskowitz, ILR ’18
Mayra Valadez, ILR ’18
Alexandra Phelps, ILR ’20
Kyle Friend, ILR ’18
Laura Martinez, ILR ’19
Kelly Bouzi, ILR ’18
Hannah Sosenko, ILR ’19
Johannah Mitchell, ILR ’18
Grace Bogdanove, ILR ’18
Michael Mintz, ILR ’17
Keanu Stryker, ILR ’18
Ashley Jones, MILR ’15
Helen Shanahan, ILR ’18
Travis Cabbell, ILR ’18
Nicole Lehman, ILR ’20
Nathanael Cheng, ILR ’20
Katherine Ryan, ILR ’20
Leanna Zilles, ILR ’21
Allison Considine, ILR ’17
Lindsey Fuchs, ILR ’20
Tiffany Fotopoulos, ILR
Alexandra Klein, ILR ’18
Edem Dzodzomenyo, ILR ’20
Omar Cancio, MILR ’14
Jack Nobel, ILR ’17
Cecilia Faringer P., ILR ’18
Hannah Hyams, ILR ’20
Jodaliza Gloder, ILR ’19
Michael Ferrer, ILR ’16
Zach Aleksandur de Stefan, ILR ’18
Karen Li, ILR ’15
Mario Cespedes, ILR ’13
Fiona Boomer, ILR ’18
Sophia May, ILR ’20
Alejandro Flores, ILR ’21
Irving Torres-Lopez, ILR ’18
Hannah Lorenc, ILR ’20
Cuong Pham, ILR ’20
Paul Ahrens, MILR ’17
Daniel Park, ILR ’21
Alexa Irias, ILR ’21
Juan Guevara, MILR ’17
Bryan Gangemi, MILR ’17
Johnnie Kallas, MILR ’19
Zachary Cunningham, MILR ’15
Shane Lancer, MILR ’16
Christopher Banks, MILR ’14
Adrienne Lee, ILR ’18
Hannah Cho, ILR ’19
Ethan Anderson, ILR ’18
Jehyun Suh, ILR ’20
Cecilia Faringer-Perez, ILR ’18
Clara Goldrich, ILR ’20
Jaëlle Sanon, ILR ’19
Rachel Hidek- ILR ’21
Hannah Simmerman, ILR ’19
Deepa Saharia, ILR ’18
Stephen Santangelo, ILR ’10
Robert Boehlert, ILR ’18
Janelle Odionu, ILR ’18
Matthew Fischer-Daly, PhD ’22
Christopher Raymond, PhD ’23
John Lipkin, MILR ’15
Samantha Romero Zavala, ILR ’19
Andi Kao, PhD ’21
Jinyoung Park, PhD ’18