Recent developments suggest Chico State’s faculty won’t walk off the job, but their willingness to do so has a little-known precedent
When the California Faculty Association professors’ union at Chico State University recently announced its strike vote was a historic first, my memory did a quick backtrack and said, “Whoa!” The old American Federation of Teachers local voted to strike in the spring term of 1969.
This memorable event took place well into the Vietnam War era, and there’s no need to say much about that troubled time, with its well-known circumstances and angry young people who often violently opposed the war and its extremely unpopular draft. They hated what they saw as a corrupt and exploitative “Establishment,” and their charged activism—they sought to repair what they saw as the ripped social fabric of the nation—made campuses nationwide the staging ground for revolutionary change.
Traditionally, profs enjoyed great public respect, but all that changed when many of them openly and actively supported the disenchanted students. Profs lost their exalted image for the duration of the war, and have never fully recovered their pre-war stature.
Anyway, a strident male prof I’ll call SP and a female aide representing the American Federation of Teachers at San Jose State had come to Chico State to win a sympathy strike vote from the local chapter. SP said the San Jose AFT profs had already voted to strike and were starting to picket. Since San Jose State and San Francisco State were the firebrand campuses in Northern California, we didn’t question the truth of their report.
Profs who wanted to unionize in those days joined the old AFT, which embraced striking as its ultimate weapon. Since the law allowing union representation for public employees hadn’t been passed at that time, the state university system didn’t recognize the AFT as an official bargaining agent. Indeed, untenured “radical” faculty joiners risked losing their jobs.
The small local AFT membership numbered maybe 40, and only 12 or 14 brave souls—nearly all tenured—dared attend the meeting. Most of those who didn’t make a physical appearance made a pro-strike statement in absentia by giving their proxy votes to an activist physics prof I’ll call Ph.P.
Ph.P was secretly admired by many for enraging the paternalistic, straight-laced administration by including in a physics exam an acceleration problem that asked, roughly, the following:
A plane flying over San Francisco Bay at X speed and Y altitude flushes a large turd. At what speed in feet per second is the piece of shit traveling when it hits the water?
Most students found humor and environmental overtones—pollution of coastal waters—in the problem, but a few were offended and reported Ph.P.
At the meeting, a heated pro and con discussion took place with the moderate local chapter president staving off Ph.P’s periodic motions to vote by not calling for a second because like most of those present he didn’t want to strike.
After more than an hour of talk, an exasperated SP got up and shuffled forward a few steps with his head down to illustrate how he would have to go back to San Jose if he didn’t get a strike vote.
More heated discussion followed after the president told SP he didn’t give a damn how he looked going back to San Jose. Then SP said he was starting to get “pissed off” with the delay.
Finally Ph.P’s motion and a second came almost as one, and the president decided to call for a vote. During this moment of truth, Ph.P. voted his pocket full of proxies to strike—just enough to win.
The president immediately resigned from both his post and the union and stormed out of the room. I had voted “no” and wondered what next. Who would organize the strike?
Well, right away a few profs and a couple of grad students started to picket, but a few cool heads not in attendance quickly put out the word that nobody should be bound by a proxy-controlled vote. We selected a new president, who insisted the entire membership vote on such a momentous question. A subsequent mail ballot reversed the strike decision.
I recall returning to my office after the mail strike vote count was announced to find a young male student who had come in to hear the latest. I informed him, whereupon he earnestly said, “Doc, we want you to know that when we start putting people up against the wall, you won’t be one of them!”
I put my hand on his arm and replied, “Bob, I thank you so very, very much for that.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he and the other activists who so wanted to change the country were underestimating the power of the Establishment.