History and the People Who Make It: Norman Markel

transcript edited by pierce butler

This is the eighth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Former United Faculty of Florida leader Dr. Norman Markel was interviewed by UF emeritus history professor Robert Zieger [Z] on April 20, 2009.

I was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1929. My father drove a laundry truck, for 35 years. He was involved in organizing the Teamsters Union in Detroit. The other thing that was important in my upbringing was being raised in what was more or less a Jewish ghetto in Detroit. I remember meetings in our house with the kitchen door closed and cigar smoke coming out from under the door.

I went to public school. I had one semester in Wayne [State U] when I graduated and then I went off to be an organizer for the Zionist Youth Movement.
I organized from 1948 to 1949. I was sent to welding school in Cleveland, Ohio.

We bought a surplus army jeep with a welding machine, and we took that to Israel. All the time I was in Israel, two years, I was a welder. And when I came back [I] lucked out in that there were plenty of jobs. We are talking about 1952 now, and I started to work at Budd Wheel in Detroit, welding.

I was a member of the United Steelworkers. But the UAW had a fellowship for the children of union members, and I applied for it and I got it. I think it gave me $500 or so, which was at that time quite [a] significant number. The first paper I wrote was the struggle over the River Rouge Bridge when they brought out machine guns and shot down the people, the Battle of the Overpass.

When I graduated in 1947 a lot of my high school cohort were the first ones called up to go to Korea and they started to come back in body bags. So I asked my draft board, they immediately gave me a school deferment. I thought I would become a shop teacher. The counselor gave me a program where I would take education and chemical engineering. I was a very weak high school student and I don’t think I ever had a chemistry course. I got a zero or maybe even minus ten. I still didn’t want to go to Korea. I looked at what is the course that I can get the best liberal arts education and have the fewest courses? And that was psychology. And that is how I became a psychologist.

The first class I had, the textbook was 15 classic experiments in psychology. Wayne had a 15-week semester and every week we did an experiment. I loved it. So that is how I became an experimental psychologist.

In The New York Times I read about a conference putting together psychology and language. They were going to call it psycholinguistics. It was a combination of pre-Chomsky linguistics and experimental psychology, which was perfect for me because I knew Hebrew and knew languages. And that is how I became a psycholinguist.

[U. of Chicago] was one of the few places that actually had a psycholinguistics program. So I went to Chicago. I was the first professor in the universe to have as part of my official title, when I taught at State University of New York at Buffalo, assistant professor of psycholinguistics. Chomsky’s psycholinguistics, he took over the field. I no longer call what I do psycholinguistics.

I had a [US Public Health Service post-doctoral] stipend. I went to Philadelphia to study with [Ray] Birdwhistle, the originator of the field of kinesics, non-verbal behavior. I spent about a month there and it had two very wonderful effects: one was I learned a lot about non-verbal behavior. The other was while I was there, also taking the same course was Alan Lomax, the folk song collector, which later ended up my working with him for about eight years on folk songs.

I was studying the development of infant vocalization to see if we can identify kids who are going to have neurological problems, before they actually were sick. I was on with Lomax to handle the non-verbal aspects of the sound. A man came there to a site visit, Paul Moore, chair of the speech department at the University of Florida. I got a letter from him saying that they were developing the Communication Sciences Laboratory. There was a lot of money for social sciences because Sputnik had gone up. They were able to hire professors from engineering, speech, psychology, linguistics, and it sounded very exciting. Plus after four years in Buffalo, which has a lot of more snow than Detroit—they said Gainesville, Florida, I didn’t know about rednecks and all that. I thought I was coming to a suburb of Miami.

You might say I was totally politically naïve. I had three small kids, and after four Buffalo winters, coming to Florida sounded really good. When I got close to Florida it dawned on me I might have made a mistake. Remember that Alachua County was the only county in Florida that voted for George Wallace.

When we drove down here I had a ’58 Mercury station wagon which was rusted out from the Buffalo salt so that the first bag of oranges I bought in Georgia fell out the back of the car. In 1964 there was a riot in New York City, a race riot. When we were in Valdosta I had a New York license plate. The window was down and this guy looked in, and he said, hey guys, you sure know how to handle those niggers up there. I am thinking, wow, what I am going to say?

I was treated very well by the University of Florida, until I got active in the union. Then things started to change.

In the communication science laboratory, I had postdoctoral fellows working and I taught one or two classes. I had a lot [of] time to do research. It was very good academically, until about 1970 when I really became active in the union.

Before we had collective bargaining [Rob Sherman] did collective bargaining by bluff. We’d threaten going to The Gainesville Sun.

At some point it was discovered that there was a letter in my file not to give me any raises due to my union activity and so on.

By the time I became active in the union I was already a full professor with tenure, so it was not like the young people, like [Ken] Megill who was threatened and actually didn’t get tenure. At that point I didn’t have anything to lose except salary.

So I come to Florida. they told me I can’t get paid until I signed the loyalty oath. Okay, so now not only I said I will be loyal to the United States and the state of Florida, but I have to say if I have been communist and do I know a communist. I said, oh Jesus. What happens if I don’t sign this? They said, you don’t get paid. So, I signed.

Some professors in the law school are having a picket line to protest the signing of the loyalty oath. So I go over to the law school and outside was a group of ten or twelve bedraggled-looking professors. I mean, we all looked like that; this was 1968. Jay Zeman from the philosophy department, big and bald, comes up and says, how would you like to join the American Federation of Teachers? I was dumbstruck because I had never put together being a professor and being in a union. So I came to a meeting. There were people who were being oppressed on campus and it was totally by bluster that we were able to protect people.

I am not really good in negotiations. I am very good with our own people but not with the other side. Public employees couldn’t join the union at that time in the state of Florida. It was illegal. Nobody knew what collective bargaining was. AFT was helping us organize. We get invited to Tallahassee by George Bedell, chancellor of the board of regents. He gives us a lecture: why it is so inappropriate for professors to be in a union. I was sitting across from him and he starts to say, do you want to be in a union with people such as truck drivers? My father used to be a truck driver. And he keeps on pushing that point. I reached across the table and grabbed him. They never brought me again to a bargaining session but they used me as a threat. They said, we will bring in Markel.

AFT were very good. We had a chapter; we had one black member, and his job was to recruit black football players. This was ’70, ’71, around the time the black students sat in. He was telling the black football players what [it] was really like for black football players at the University of Florida. Steve Spurrier changed that. But at that time it was really back of the bus.

They kicked this guy out, and he is a member of the AFT. What’re we going to do? We organized a picket line in front of Tigert Hall. The Sun wrote an editorial, how inappropriate [it] was for a professor to be on a picket line. This led to the dissolution of my first marriage because the woman I had married in Detroit knew me as a professor and never saw this other [side].

The black students sat in Tigert Hall and [UF administration] came to us. They couldn’t understand why every day the black students came they had a different spokesperson. Being in anthropology and language I understood that for these people, anybody could speak for the group. You didn’t elect a leader.

My office was in the basement of Dauer Hall, and my oldest son went to P.K, the lab school. He used to ride his bike, and he comes to my office and says, Daddy, people are sitting across 13th Street [in an] anti-war demonstration. Father Gannon—he was still a priest at that time—is there and I am there and the National Guard is there. They come with this tank and stuff like that, and as we were negotiating, they started firing tear gas at the students, then water cannons. The campus had undercover agents all over the place. The students were in one of the large auditoria behind Tigert Hall. The next day most of them left but some would not leave. Here come the [campus] police in riot gear. It was me, Megill, and David Chalmers. They couldn’t care less, and then they started to drag the students out.

The key organizers of the union came from the philosophy department and the College of Education, the division of philosophy of education department.
I was the first president of the state UFF, and I had a VW bus which burned out at least one, maybe two engines going from Pensacola, where the University of West Florida is, down to Miami, driving around professors who are not light weight. And we went around the state. I would teach union songs. And I would take Polish jokes, and instead of Polish people it would be the administrators are the object of the joke.

I was president only before we had collective bargaining. I had no released time, and that is partly [why] you see my publication record going down
To this day, I never think I paid a price. I am happy I did it. The academic accolades or financial things are so minor compared to what I learned. I would’ve never met people in education or engineering or all over the campus had I not been in the union, or the people all over the state, and not raise my consciousness about my roots and the labor movement. That was well worth anything, way beyond anything I lost.

[Since] I became politically conscious, I have been trying to put together my academic skills and my political skills. My skills research-wise are on some very detailed aspects of communication, like pitch, loudness, tempo, interruptions, and things that take a lot of training. So it was hard to put together things like I am interested in: racism and sexism, how they come out.

The book that is now in production is called The Five Vital Signs of Conversation. Those are: How you address somebody, what you call them, what you self-disclose These are the two verbal things. The non-verbal things are: where you sit, eye contact, and touch. These are really the five vital signs of conversation. Now my next task, if I live long enough, I want to link this to a hierarchy. Capitalist society inculcates people with the dominant/submission type of world view, hierarchical. There is always somebody on top, always somebody on the bottom. This is expressed in these five things.

Here in Gainesville I worked on a living wage campaign with Norman Balabanian, and I think we got pretty far.

Z:    Yeah. It is not as ambitious as some people wanted it to be, but there is a living wage ordinance.

The head of the Greyhound bus drivers said, what are you doing at UF? I tried to put leaflets in the faculty mail boxes and they called the campus police. I told him the various things we were having, and he said, our bus drivers wouldn’t put up with that.

We could get a hold of the salaries of everybody. I would take them to people, they would shudder. I discovered that the equivalent professors at Florida Technical College [now U. of Central Fla] were making more money than the engineers here. That convinced people the union could be a good thing.

One of the things that helped is that I was a full professor with tenure and a good publication record. So I came with street creds. I don’t think we would have won collective bargaining if it hadn’t been for the young professors at the other universities. Yes, because we didn’t win on this campus.

We were a chapter here. The Board of Regents thought they could do us in by saying that, no, you have to bargain for the whole state. That is how the van started going from Pensacola to Miami. If it hadn’t been for the young professors, who were into the union and anti-war activism, we wouldn’t have won the state-wide election. We won because 80% of FIU voted for the union.

I was president but I decided to be a professor so—would I be the president of the local at the University of Florida? I said, okay, we have to organize the women and the minorities, and we have to have a labor history program. I said, unless we raise the consciousness of our members, once we win collective bargaining they are not going to be interested. I met a lot of resistance: they didn’t support me in that, and I resigned as president of the local in protest.

I am still a member. One of the first groups that really joined, surprisingly enough, was the English department. One of the reasons was the chair of the department who was really bad, Ward something. So we said, come to the union. Everybody’s going to have their own phone; they’re going to have a file cabinet, a chicken in every file cabinet. So they joined the union for their immediate needs, and we had to raise consciousness that there was here more than their immediate needs.

An audio podcast of this interview will be made available, along with many others, at www.history.ufl.edu/oral/feature-podcasts.htm.

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