Brakemen, Professors, and a “Job for Life”

Among other things, I am (or have been) an historian of railroad labor, so I was especially thrilled to learn that University of Wisconsin-Madison labor historian William P. Jones had joined the conversation around the assault on tenure in the Wisconsin system.  Professor Jones, by the way, will be the plenary banquet speaker at AAUP’s annual conference in Washington next month.  In a March 7 email from UW System President Ray Cross to regent John Behling, recently made public, Cross compared faculty to railroad brakemen, kept on the job for years after they were no longer needed, he said. “It was for the same reason — a job for life even when that job was no longer necessary.”  Writing in yesterday’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Professor Jones the diligent labor historian takes on Cross’s “misunderstanding of history“:

Cross’ analogy of professors to railway workers may seem straightforward, but an accurate understanding of history actually undermines his position. Railway staffing disputes erupted in the 1960s, as automated braking systems reduced the number of employees needed to operate the nation’s railroads. But when rail companies rushed to layoff brakemen and other positions they deemed “obsolete,” unions warned that this would leave trains understaffed in cases of mechanical malfunction or the injury or negligence of remaining workers. At issue was not simply the elimination of a “job for life” but a genuine debate over public safety. That debate continues to this day, as railroad and unions still clash over staff reductions. As recently as 2013, staff reductions were blamed for the fatal derailment and explosion of a freight train in Canada.

Weakening tenure and shared governance at the University of Wisconsin will not result in a literal train-wreck, but the analogy is more instructive than Cross intended. Professors opposed the changes not because they eliminated “a job for life,” but because they shut faculty out of decisions that may affect the quality of education. “Jobs for life” is a political talking point that has no place in a serious discussion of tenure. . . .

The question is not whether a particular position or program will be eliminated, but who will make that decision and what factors they will consider. Administrators may be more familiar with the financial stakes involved but faculty, like workers on the railway, are more familiar with conditions on the ground. Cutting us out of the decision making process will make it harder for students to get the skills and education they need, and for the university to remain at the forefront of research and innovation. This will not increase efficiency or serve the interest of businesses, communities or the people of our state, but it will almost certainly lead to costly accidents.

Professor Jones is the author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights and The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South.  He will address the plenary banquet on Saturday evening, June 18.  Professor Jones will be leaving his position in Wisconsin to accept a position at the University of Minnesota.  I will leave it to readers to draw appropriate conclusions.

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