As a featured speaker at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade last year, Merle Woo explained to 250,000 people what it was like to stand on the front lines of the fight for racial, sexual, and labor freedom.
Woo’s speech, written in stirring poetry, was printed, broadcast, attacked, and defended all over the U.S. and in Europe. It earned her widespread admiration and recognition as a defender of oppressed peoples.
It also made her a highly visible target for reactionaries.
Less than a year later, in June 1982, the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) fired Woo from her job as a lecturer in the Asian American Studies Program of the Ethnic Studies Department.
The termination was hardly a coincidence and certainly no surprise.
But it is a political outrage.
Woo had been hired at Berkeley four years previously with the promise of permanent employment. She was enormously popular and well respected by her students. Her evaluations were uniformly excellent.
This is a teacher you’d think that Cal, birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech movement, would strain to keep. But the university is accelerating a union-busting, anti-affirmative action drive against its faculty and students. Those hit hardest, of course, are people of color, women, and gays — the traditional frontline targets of reactionary headhunters.
UCB bigwigs hoped to cap and consolidate their mounting reign of terror by picking off Woo — a lesbian, socialist, Asian American, feminist thorn in their side, who had stood up and protested previous administration attacks on faculty. They underestimated the uproar that would ensue.
Woo sees her firing as an attack on Asian American Studies, students’ rights, and the right of a teacher to teach. “I am a socialist feminist, a lesbian, a member of Radical Women,” she says. “My teaching and activism flow from who I am. I have organized in the American Federation of Teachers to protect lecturers’ rights; I have organized with students and other workers to protest department policies. What kind of academic freedom do we have when we are fired if management doesn’t agree with us?”
A student-oriented program. Asian American Studies (AAS) at Berkeley emerged out of the militant ’60s, designed with an orientation to community and student needs. Woo was hired in the fall of 1978, not only because of her 9-year teaching experience at San Francisco State and the rave reviews of students there, but because of her politics. The conservative groundswell of the late ’70s had not yet thoroughly shaken the groves of Berkeley academia.
Department objectives at that time, says Woo, were “to offer an alternative political perspective on the history of Third World people, meet the needs of native and foreign-born students, encourage community involvement, and conduct relevant research.” Woo says she was also “told explicitly that AAS was working towards a Third World college.”
Woo became coordinator of a lively series of classes involving 28 student tutors who met in work groups to discuss teaching techniques, department policy, and educational goals. And she added a new element to the already radical course material — her perspective as a socialist feminist and a lesbian, which enabled her to reveal the interconnections between race, sex, sexuality, and class oppression.
Department in retreat. But mounting conservatism in the university administration was already making its mark on AAS.
The department was discouraging student participation as early as 1977, before Woo was hired. By Spring 1980, AAS had stopped teaching the Cantonese and Tagalog languages and the goal of a Third World college was replaced with the opposite objective of moving Ethnic Studies into the Division of Letters and Sciences and stripping it of autonomy.
Then the department began to fire its activists — a librarian in Spring 1980, and three women lecturers a year later. Woo joined tutors and students in protest, and several mass meetings were held to enlist department and community support. In May 1981, students organized a 2-day teach-in and boycott of AAS.
Tenured faculty, however, lined up against the protesters. After the boycott, the faculty retaliated by giving out excessively low grades to some of the AAS student militants, and by calling for dismantling of the tutors program.
Throughout the growing controversy, Ling-chi Wang, head of the Ethnic Studies Department and a powerful spokesman for the petty bourgeois layer of Bay Area Asian Americans, tried to strangle the protests. In firing activists, broadcasting his contempt for students, tutors, teachers, and other workers, and fostering demoralization among AAS majors, Wang seemed hell-bent on presiding over the dissolution of AAS.
Unkept promises and sexism. In February 1981 ,Wang surprisingly had arranged for Unbound Feet, a collective of Asian American feminist writers that included Merle Woo, to read their work on campus. But before the performance he reneged on his promise to pay the costs of publicity and hall rental, and treated the women in a sexist and arrogant manner during negotiations.
At the performance, Unbound Feet members criticized this treatment and a tutor called for changes in the way the department was run, including reinstatement of community language classes, renewed student participation, and an end to budget reductions. This public criticism, and the alliance between Unbound Feet and the students, infuriated Wang and tenure-track faculty, and lit the fuse to the retaliations that followed.
Nothing personal. The department removed Woo as coordinator of the tutors program in Fall 1981 and proceeded to fire all but eight of the tutors. This was a tremendous blow to AAS students, for the tutors were integral to creating a community perspective.
Wang and some tenured faculty circulated rumors about Woo. She was “emotionally unstable,” couldn’t handle money, didn’t meet the needs of foreign-born students — this last despite her tremendously positive evaluations from students in all her classes, 50% of whom are foreign-born!
Another canard alleged that Woo taught “from an anti-male perspective.” Ling-chi Wang remarked in a faculty meeting that she was “just interested in doing radical politics and poetry, not teaching.”
Early this year, the department threatened to cut Woo’s Asian Women class. Suspecting that her job might be next, Woo asked Wang in April about her status for the following year. “You’re terminated as of June 30,” Wang answered, “but it’s just a technical matter, nothing personal.”
Looking through her personnel files (before she was denied access to them in Spring 1982), Woo found a copy of a pamphlet on the Unbound Feet controversy — which obviously had nothing to do with her teaching record. Yet Wang maintains with a straight face that he “didn’t fire her for her politics. I don’t even know what her politics are.”
Some of my best friends. Woo was one of the few openly lesbian or gay faculty at UCB. She talked about gay rights in her classes. Hence her firing took on even more suspicious dimensions, especially with memories still fresh of the defeated 1978 Briggs Initiative in California, which tried to sanction the termination of all lesbians and gay men as unfit to teach.
Woo’s lesbianism is a political issue; her politics are a ringing affirmation of her sexual right to choose. Thus she is doubly feared and despised by university management.
Graham Perry of UCB’s Gay and Lesbian Union stated recently that Woo’s termination is a message to students, staff, and teachers to get back into the closet — or else.
Wang was confronted about homophobia by students. He sputtered that he had gay friends and had stood for gay rights “long before all these recent converts came out of the closet. Just ask the gay community.” So the Boston Gay Community News did.
Graham Perry knew of “no lesbians or gay men who are supporting [Wang].” Andy Wong, from the Asian Students Union, said, “If Ling-chi is supportive of lesbian and gay rights, he certainly has not been very vocal about it, which isn’t much help. Woo has really been out there.”
8 to 4 and out the door. Wang decided not to try to rue Woo on the basis of her academic performance. And he wasn’t about to disclose the political basis of his enmity toward her. So he trotted out a 1980 personnel policy change which reduced the maximum term of a lecturer from eight to four years.
Although Woo had served four years as of June ’82, she had only worked 12 quarters.
However, the Non-Academic Senate Faculty Organizing Committee, formed recently to clarify the rights of lecturers threatened by the “eight to four” policy, charges that the rule has not been uniformly enforced.
And Woo points to the rule’s effect on the free speech and equal opportunity rights of staff: “Lecturers teach more classes than tenured faculty (as many as 75% of undergraduate classes) and get less pay. They have no job security. And it is the women and people of color in these positions, the majority, being victimized.”
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) immediately leapt to Woo’s defense. AFT sees the rule and its arbitrary enforcement as a green light for the university to “silence unionists with whom it disagrees.”
Representing more than 2,000 lecturers in the UC system, the AFT charged that unilateral adoption of the “eight to four” policy is an unfair labor practice and violates the standards of the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB).
In April, the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian, discovered that the administration was circulating a memo to top officials advocating hardline union-busting tactics. The “eight to four” rule was one of their tactics for undercutting the AFT and creating a “revolving door” situation to inhibit union organizing by the lecturers.
For students, it also inhibits educational continuity as well as racial and sexual diversity among faculty.
Truth will out. At the May/June PERB hearings on the rule, UC administrators danced from one lie to another, maintaining that the unfair labor charge was false because they hadn’t begun to implement it. They were embarrassed when surprise witness Merle Woo testified that Wang had explicitly stated in her letter of termination that she was fired under the 4-year rule!
PERB will issue its ruling on the “eight to four” policy soon. But even if it upholds the policy, Woo should legally be exempt from its provisions. She was hired two years before the policy was written, was repeatedly promised a permanent position, and is entitled to be “grandfathered” into her job by the department.
A long, bumpy ride. Woo faces a long hard struggle to win back her job.
She is currently appealing her firing through a university grievance procedure, as well as through the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Fair Employment Practices Commission, with an AFI lawyer representing her.
In the grievance process, she is allowed to hire an outside arbitrator, but the chancellor of the university can overrule the arbitrator’s decision.
In that event, Woo might possibly sue UCB on the grounds of political and sex discrimination — but she would need the ongoing support of sympathetic lawyers who would forego the usual high fees.
And meanwhile, Woo has to locate alternative employment as well as stay closely in touch with her defense committee and extend public awareness of the case.
She is not alone. Fortunately, Woo is not fighting by herself. A coalition of feminist, trade unionist, lesbian/gay, campus, Third World, and progressive groups quickly formed to defend her and defeat the 4-year rule.
The Merle Woo Defense Committee has organized a national publicity campaign and is doing extensive fundraising. And local and national support has mushroomed.
In June, the Bay Area Coalition for a Labor Party linked her firing to right wing attacks “by Democrats and Republicans” on teachers who “offer an alternative to traditional perspectives of teaching.”
Janet Kodish of AFSCME Local 1695, which represents UCB staff employees, says that Woo’s termination “is an attack on women, minorities, gays, and political and union activists.” The university’s idea of academic freedom, she says, applies only to tenured white male professors.
At a Defense Committee forum in May, representatives of AFT Local 1474, the California State Employees Association, and AFSCME read support statements. Students from the Asian Students Union, Berkeley Feminist Alliance, Puerto Rican Students Association, AAS tutors, Berkeley Radical Activists for Change in Education, and the Gay and Lesbian Union all testified to Woo’s excellence as a teacher and her courage as a community activist.
Other groups who spoke included El Tecolote, Revolutionary Workers League, Feminist Writers Guild, and Freedom Socialist Party.
Nationwide support for Woo has poured in from unions, and from feminist, gay, and people of color organizations. The National Women’s Studies Association, the Associated Students of UCB, and the Gay and Lesbian Union of Claremont College have passed support resolutions.
3,000 signatures have been gathered demanding Woo’s reinstatement and an end to the 4-year rule, and 100 pro-Woo letters have been sent to Wang.
The graduating class of UCB Women’s Studies endorsed Woo’s case and invited her to speak at commencement, which she did.
Woo is also endorsed by such figures as writers Tillie Olsen, Alice Walker, Pat Parker, and Cherrfe Moraga, Congressman Ron Dellums, actor Ed Asner, and Daniel Tsang, editor of Gay Insurgent.
Tip of the iceberg. Woo’s firing, the 4-year rule, and swelling AAS turmoil are merely the sharpest expressions of the rightwing reaction on campus. Like big business, the university bosses are trying to transfer the economic cutbacks onto the backs of the workers, via speedups, wage freezes, firings, and benefit reductions.
Feminist and activist faculty at UC Santa Cruz and Stanford are similarly finding their programs cut and their jobs gone.
And an anti-lesbian witchhunt is in full swing, with firings at Long Beach.
At a conference of the National Women’s Studies Association in June, a workshop on fired feminists drew large numbers of people anxious to plan for militant, multi-issue, and public defense of those unfairly fired.
No muzzle on education! In the ’50s, university teachers were harassed, dismissed, and even jailed for their refusal to knuckle under to McCarthyism.
Censorship, then as now, typified the ruling-class strategy of silencing and confounding resistance. And the bigots, bookburners, and teacherbaiters are working double-time now.
Who better to single out than an Asian American-socialist feminist lesbian teacher who believes in democratic education, freedom of thought, and radical social change?
Clara Fraser, who on August 9 won a major courtroom triumph in her political and sex discrimination suit against Seattle City Light, deplored Woo’s firing in a letter to Ling-chi Wang. Wrote Fraser, “Woo … has become a role-model of bravery and talented expression for countless other women; are you trying to tell us that you would see all of us back in the closet, the kitchen, the church, the welfare rolls, and the mental hospitals? Or only that we should carefully restrict our public utterances to the conventional ‘wisdom’ of Reaganesque and McCarthyesque platitudes and cant?”
Woo and her supporters are fighting for a time when no one will be silenced for their beliefs, when no one’s wages will be frozen, when no student will be penalized for thinking, when university policy will be controlled by staff workers, students, and faculty and not by businessmen and non-producing management, when education will be provided for all, and when free association will become a reality.