Thursday, October 3, 2013

30th Year Reflections/56: Shutdowns and Strikes

“A wide range of academic research across the country, from sophisticated biomedical experiments at the National Institutes of Health to undergraduate political science essays, was being interrupted Wednesday as the federal government shutdown continued for a second day -- with no clear path to a resolution.” — Michael Stratford, Inside Higher Ed, October 3, 2013.

I have lived through few strikes, lockouts, furloughs, or shutdowns during my career; I can count the number on one hand. The only time I have been a member of a union was one summer during college, when I worked for a large rubber company known for its tires, belts, and hoses. During that summer, one of the company’s factories experienced a strike. As a member of the union, I was expected to contribute to a strike fund in support of workers at that factory. I reluctantly paid some of my future tuition money into the fund. I considered the payment, and my experiences over the summer, part of my education. The one time I experienced a furlough (of just a few days) was a year or two ago, the result of a tough economy. I’ve lived through a couple of strikes, and may live through one or two more. But I’ve always been on the “management” side of the equation. My job under those circumstances has been to prepare in advance of the strike and keep the lights on once the strike is underway.

All of which is to say that I cannot fully imagine what my colleagues working in federal government libraries are experiencing right now. What does one do when shut out from their place of work? Are personal finances robust enough to make it through the stoppage? I know I don’t have enough in the bank to make it for very long, if I was locked out and not receiving a paycheck. I’m sure some of my federal colleagues are in a similar position. All of a sudden a host of uncomfortable questions arise: How will I pay my rent or mortgage, my student loans, and other obligations? Will we have enough money for groceries? What do we do without? How long will this last?

My colleagues should not have to ask these questions. If those who govern truly understood our shared social contract, they would never jeopardize the health and security of fellow citizens, especially those in public service. To use an old-fashioned term, our elected officials should be ashamed of themselves. But shame, alas, is out of fashion. It is no longer a prime factor in our common enterprise. And so we turn to other means to declare dissatisfaction. If social media is any indicator, there is an immense amount of frustration among the populace with the government shutdown. The last one of these we lived through was eighteen years ago. I—along with others—voiced my concerns on Facebook. I also wrote and called my Congressman. I will also let my Senators know my perturbations. Informed advocacy is my hammer in the toolbox.

There is another aspect that comes to mind as I think about this disruption in our social fabric: how we relate to those in opposition, on the other side of the table or strike line. If I’ve learned nothing else during my professional career, I have come to value the importance of respect. It is a small but freighted word, one deserving serious consideration and vigilant attention. For some, respect needs to be earned. And in a way this is true. But for me the word has deeper roots. Even before it is earned, respect is there. It has a transcendent quality, connected to our very being. If one takes seriously, as I do, that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, then the very fact that another exists—outside of myself—commands an attentiveness to who and what they are, their needs, desires, dreams, and toils. Respect is born with the beginning of time. But as with shame, I understand that such a view of the cosmos is out of fashion, not useful in our technologically driven, gadget-filled world. We have little or no place for any being higher than ourselves. We are left to squabbling, finger-pointing, name-calling; the worst of who we are. I will seek a more excellent way and continue to live and work within a cosmology and metaphysics that makes sense to me and which never, of its own accord, shuts someone down or out.

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