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.


lindsay said...

I've never crossed a line during grad student strikes. I want to say there were two TA strikes during my time in grad school, although I only remember the picket line for one. & of course we just shut down the whole campus on march 4, though that wasn't about a specific union. My reason for supporting strikes is that strikes, picket lines, sit ins, occupations, all of these actions, are excellent places to teach and learn. I take strike days as opportunities to learn more about budget issues & labor from people who I wouldn't get to meet had I gone to class. & I invite my students to join me on the line to talk about our class, labor, our economic climate, whatever they want to say. It's a great opportunity to debate the questions you bring up in this post. I hope that if your union does strike, you enjoy the line for its educational possibilities.

theolderepublicke said...

Hi Lindsay,

As it turns out, the union is not going to strike. Apparently, for all its bluster and what I claimed to be recklessness, it apparently knew what it was doing, or was lucky.

I think it's very healthy to look at such things as strikes, etc., as opportunities to learn from others. One of my personality traits--sometimes it's a weakness--is to assume the worst of situations and to assume any controversy is to be resolved with something approaching a zero-sum calculus. (This tendency on my part is reinforced by the sense of financial insecurity that this recession has caused for me. This is the first major recession in my adult life and the first recession that has affected me directly: I was laid off in 2008 from a job that I really needed to pay the bills. I can only imagine the insecurity our grandparents and great-grandparents probably felt during the Depression.)

Asking students to come join the picket lines could be a good opportunity to learn from them their own views of class, labor, etc. (this being Chicago, I'd wager a lot of students would be very class conscious, or at least union- and solidarity-conscious).

However, I would a bit reluctant to ask students to do so. (Right now, I'm a GA, not a TA, so I don't have any students, so it's still theoretical.) I say this because I wouldn't want to give the impression that I am evaluating them by their political decisions. I tend to see the instructor's and TA's position in the classroom as a potential bully pulpit and am reluctant to use it to advance my own political causes. In large part, I say this because I at one point believed, and acted, as though it were my prerogative and even responsibility to "challenge young minds" by introducing them to new ideas. In practice, this usually meant preaching my political views--about Bush, the war, and the rights of labor--instead of helping my students learn the subject.

I suppose one way to resolve this difficulty would be simply to say to the class, "I won't discuss the strike, but if you'd like to know more, please see me after class." Of course, I guess a TA would have to at least tell students whether they would have class during the strike. (A slightly tangential issue is whether it is right for an instructor or TA to go on strike and deny the students the classes they have already paid for, not that most undergrads wouldn't mind a day off.)

Thanks, Lindsay, for reading my blog and for your thoughtful comments.