The Metropolitan State University faculty union recently passed a motion objecting to commencement being held on the same night that grades are due and that some classes are still meeting. A seemingly trivial matter, but as poet William Blake observed, sometimes you can “see a World in a Grain of Sand.”

This is a legitimate faculty concern, and the administration bears some blame for failing to resolve the problem. However, given the limited number of venues that can accommodate us, the university has few options. The Inter Faculty Organization’s (IFO) local association holds the wild card.

Until perhaps 10 or 12 years ago, faculty members never worried about whether commencement fell on an official “duty day” (for nonunionists, a workday). Since then, it has become a nonnegotiable stance that we would attend graduation only if it were held on a duty day. Not so coincidentally, faculty attendance at last month’s commencement, even on a duty day, was embarrassingly low. I noticed few of our contractual literalists marching in the procession.

This issue is a poster child for the union’s narrow economism that has spread like an invasive species. Too often, we take a militant legalistic stance: It is called “working to contract,” and it means not doing additional work outside a strict adherence to the contract. If you must, make sure you get paid extra.

Now, working-to-contract is a great short-term union tactic in times of crisis. It fails as a long-term strategy — primarily because it does not nurture our better natures.

I do not want to cast too wide a net. Many, perhaps a majority, of my union colleagues regularly go the extra mile without additional compensation. For doing so, however, some feel stigmatized as chumps and have been accused by the haranguers and shamers of “union busting.”

I’ve been at Metro State for 33 years. From 1971 to the mid-’90s, an exemplary faculty built an extraordinary university — often with uncompensated sweat equity. During that era, objecting to attending a three-hour commencement ceremony on a nonduty day would have been seen as small-minded selfishness, disrespectful of our students.

Granted, during that earlier era, we also had different administrative leadership: They were colleagues. Two presidents who had Metro State in their blood led us for 17 of those years.

Since 1993, our administrators increasingly have been outsiders and short-termers. I concede that there have been notable exceptions to what I am about to say, but they often have had a bureaucratic mind-set, seeking always to centralize power within the New Main building, the administrative “Tower of Power.” They seldom have embraced Metro State’s heart and soul. We’re just another Podunk State along their career paths. Put simply, they have been hired guns.

Management’s tightfisted business strategy of doing more with less has gradually squeezed the altruism out of our faculty. In this zero-sum game, our union’s defensive and reactive posture toward the administration is justifiable. The union needs to defend its hard-won economic rights.

Yes, but at what cost?

Perpetual conflict has diminished our better angels. For many of us, teaching is not a career but a calling. When we increasingly think and behave like careerists, it shrivels our souls. Since when did magnanimous acts require extra pay? As unionists, when did our pocketbooks start taking precedence?

The story I’ve just told exemplifies a tension between business and social unionism, a fault line that runs through 20th-century U.S. labor history. In the first third of the century, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was the aristocracy of labor; business unionism was in its DNA. It concerned itself with little but wages, benefits and working conditions. But that agenda ought to be only half of the union movement’s mission.

Only when the radical Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organized the unorganized in the 1930s, did social unionism really emerge. Social unionism is a subspecies of sociologist Max Weber’s concept of ideal interests. He observed that ideal interests, as well as economic ones, motivate people.

What are ideal interests? Primarily, values that transcend economic self-interest and that inspire organizations to pursue the public good. Of course, economic interests were front and center for the CIO, as well. However, unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) successfully integrated material with ideal interests.

My local union has begun sliding down a slippery slope. Mere business unionism threatens the public good. A public university does not exist for the benefit of its faculty, staff or administrators: We are merely institutional stewards for our students’ cognitive, affective and spiritual journeys.

My stewardship at Metro State may end at any time. Yet, in poor health and nearing age 71, I continue pushing the rock uphill, battling to ensure that our posterity remains — to paraphrase the Puritan John Winthrop — a symbolic university upon a hill.

As our founding president, David Sweet, was fond of saying: “Metropolitan State is a college for those who have no college.”

 

Monte Bute is a union activist who teaches sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University.