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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ye taste of crowe

For all my criticisms of my union and its leadership, it appears that it and they were able to secure a contract with the university that included almost all of the union's demands. While I'm not sure if the union's strategy was appropriate, and while I'm not sure if the victory (as it seems to be) was the result of good strategy or luck, I was evidently wrong about the prospects for success and too dismissive of the goals.

So, fair's fair: I should at least acknowledge it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Strikes and the analogy of war

Some people say that going on strike is like going to war. (For example, I sometimes say that.)

This analogy, like all analogies, is imperfect and if carried to an extreme, can be overwrought. A "simple" work stoppage need not take on the characteristics of violence and antagonism that one associates with warfare, or with the large-scale confrontations and militancy of the Gilded Age and the New Deal era. In fact, in the US today, most strikes are strictly regulated by law, and unions officially insist on scrupulous observance of the law. (There is the proverbial, and perhaps only anecdotal, "extra-legal" strike activity of longshore persons and teamsters locals. But the union leadership usually insists on observing the law, if only to establish plausible deniability.)

But my experience with the possible strike at my university has clarified for me one way in which the analogy appears to be spot on. Strikes, like war, force people to choose sides. The issues may be complicated: are the demands reasonable? should one honor the picket line even if one agrees with the demands? how much support from the membership need a union have before one feels a moral obligation to strike with it despite disagreements? will those who honor the picket lines maintain friendships with those who do not? As I've said before, neither the union nor the university is clearly in the right. But I am forced to make a decision.

There is, strictly speaking, no, or almost no, neutrality. But moral quandaries worthy of the name are complicated and messy.

To take what is an inappropriate but (I hope) well-known example, look at the Munich crisis in 1938, where Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, and the French Premier (Daladier?) basically gave Hitler carte blanche to seize the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia.

It's one thing to look back at 1938 and pronounce that Chamberlain was wrong at Munich and that if he had been firmer and more conciliatory toward the Russians (I understand that Stalin might have worked with the western allies to check Hitler). As we all know, the western nations went to war with Germany within a year anyway, and it might have been better for most involved to intervene sooner than later against him.

People say hindsight is 20/20. But that's not necessarily the case, even with Munich. I have read (but have no citation) that Stalin would have backed up the western powers over the Sudetenland issue. But could Stalin really be trusted? His non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939 suggests that at best the Russian dictator was opportunistic. Perhaps the British and French public would be less inclined to defend Czechoslovakia than they would have been to defend Poland (on the assumption that once Germany invaded Poland, despite its promises after Munich, it was clearer to the everyday person who hadn't read Mein Kampf than before Munich that Germany was expansionist). Perhaps western intervention in Czechoslovakia would have been so ineffective and public support for the intervention so weak--Chamberlain was very popular when he brokered his peace agreement--that a peace settlement, after a brief war, might have put Nazi Germany in an even stronger position.

Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps. There's nothing we know for certain.

Obviously, the decision of whether to honor a strike by my graduate student union is nowhere near so momentous as that facing Chamberlain et al. in 1938. But no decision is really clean and clear cut. No matter how it might look in retrospect. And not making a decision--like the choice of Kazuo Ishiguro's butler in Remains of the Day--is often in itself a decision.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

To cross or not

The graduate union I belong to has voted, allegedly overwhelmingly,* to strike very soon if its negotiations with the union break down. The strike may begin as early as this coming Tuesday. I would then be faced, for the first time in my life, with the decision of whether or not to go on strike.

The union, I believe, is wrong in its demands. What the university is offering is, in my view, the best we can hope for in light of the severe constraints on public education in the state I live in. I am strongly inclined not to honor the strike and may cross the picket lines.

However, the issue is not quite so simple as my concluding that the union's demands are unjustified. I believe they are, but I also believe that most of its demands are not specious either.** The union advances a worst-case scenario on the construction the university may put on the new contract (a construction that would effectively increase significantly what graduate student employees would owe the university on a semester basis), and the union may very well be right. More to the point, something ought to be said for keeping a united front with one's union and with one's coworkers. Finally, while I disagree with the union, its demands are not immoral: i.e., this isn't a "hate strike."

Still, here are some random answers to those who would suggest I honor the strike. They are not in any particular order***.
  1. To the charge that I am "free riding" on the risks the strikers are taking: in one sense that is true. The strikers risk going without pay. However, many--certainly a majority, if not an overwhelming majority--of people in the bargaining unit are teaching assistants. These TA's do not generally have to report their hours of work, so it will be hard for the university to justify docking their pay. (The burden is on the university to prove that TA's are not working.) As a GA, however, I have to report my hours monthly, and the report needs to be signed by my supervisor, and I am not going to ask her to lie for me. Also many TA's in my department have enhanced TA-ships, so they get paid about $500 more than I do and they are better able to weather a strike.
  2. To the charge that I need to show "solidarity": Again, there is some truth to this. By crossing the lines, I am undermining the efforts of the union whose putative goal is to protect my interests and the interests of my fellow employees. This is especially true if an overwhelming majority indeed endorses the strike. Still, I resent the implication that I ought to do what others do simply because they are the majority. I know a few pro-walkout people who in other circumstances have inveighed against people they called "drones" who do what is expected of them, but when it comes to union actions, people who do what the majority expects of them are celebrated. Such people aren't bad, but there is an inconsistency here. I realize that ad hominems like the one I just indulged in isn't an argument, but I still find the disconnect rather telling.
  3. To the charge that the university and management are the enemy: In a sense, I am making a strawman argument here. I have heard no one expressly say that the university is the enemy. But the rhetoric of the union is such that the university is positioned as the "enemy." The union's position is that the university is arguing in bad faith. There may be evidence to support this, but the union's account to its own membership is so one-sided, that it's hard to believe that all the blame is on the university, that the union is the sole fighter of right in this struggle.
  4. To the charge that we need to "wake up" lawmakers in our state capital: Frankly, our university is not important enough to cause much of a disturbance at our state capital. We aren't the flagship university of the state. I also suspect that the general public is not inclined to support a group of relatively privileged people in their demands for even more, especially because in its public pronouncements, the union repeatedly stresses its wage demands front and center. Of course, I could be wrong about this. I can't predict the future. But if I were a taxpayer or a poor person struggling to get by, I would not be particularly willing to lend even moral support.
I am not one of those who says "unions were important way back when but now they have outlived their usefulness." I continue to believe in the importance of workplace organizing and workplace representation of employees (these two are not always the same: in my workplace, we are "represented" by the union but are not truly organized). But I also believe that unions are not in the right just because they are unions.

I know my points above are only incomplete answers to a a very complicated issue and that they do not take a lot of objections into account. I should also acknowledge that while I am very critical of my union leadership and what I believe its decision early on to push for a strike, the leadership has sacrificed hours per week for the past year in the thankless task of negotiating with the university. I must also say that every time I have emailed my objections to the union leadership, the leadership courteously and promptly answered most of my concerns, so that even though I disagree with their answers, they have been responsive.

Still, I am, at this moment, inclined not to honor the picket line, should one be set up.
Update 4-4-10: In reference to the ad hominem of point #2 above, I should disclose that there once was a time that I was very gung ho about graduate student unions and was very quick to judge those who wouldn't go along with the program. Like most ad hominems, this fact is either irrelevant or minimally relevant, as I have long believed that one's hypocrisy does not invalidate one's argument. I'm just stating this to 1) acknowledge my own weaknesses and 2) because I really dislike it when someone does an about-face about an important issue and then acts as if they had never felt otherwise.
*I say "allegedly overwhelmingly" because the announcement on the vote stated that 84% of people "who voted" endorsed a strike. It did not say how many people voted in respect to the number of grad student members.
**The exception is its demands for a wage increase. I have a hard time seeing why some of the most privileged members of society (grad students) deserve special consideration when most everyone else is suffering layoffs, furloughs, or wage reductions. Before my current Graduate Assistantship, I had to struggle in the private sector with adjunct jobs and highly stressful and low-paid part-time employment to earn much less than I do now as a GA, and I was certainly happy to take my current position.
***I am omitting relevant details so as not to disclose publicly what union or university I am referring to, in order to the give the union a chance to bargain with the university before the strike. Of course, anyone who has a lot of free time could, if they wanted to, deduce from my other blog posts which university I am talking about. Also, the few people who know my identity and read this blog will also know the university. Still, I don't think this post will make much of a public impact, so I am not particularly remiss about taking this quasi-public stance.