Thursday, March 20, 2014

The two-day strike and religious enthusiasm

In my last post, I explained three ways in which I believe the two-day strike offered me an empathetic view of the union supporters and what they are asking for.  At the end, I wrote
In my opinion, each of the three above points, especially the third, have an infelicitous side that at least needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.  And I noticed at least one exception to the otherwise good cheer I describe above.
In this post, I want to explain what I mean, and I first want to clarify and insist that by "infelicitous side" do not mean "dark side" or "bad side" or "evil side" of the union.  My online dictionary tells me that "infelicitous" means "unfortunate" or "inappropriate" or "not well-timed."  Some of what I here will call "infelicitous" is not necessarily inappropriate so much as it gives me pause and it illustrates some of my reasons for ambivalence about the union.  In other words, I believe there are real concerns and they are sincerely held, and I intend none of what I am about to say as a denunciation.  Instead, I believe that some of what I witnessed during the strike raises questions about what the union stands for and the tactics it adopts that its supporters need to consider.

I may not convince people to share my view that the union might be mistaken about much of what it asks for.  But I do hope that what I write encourages others to see it from the perspective of a dissenting colleague.

Pro-unionism is in some ways like a religious creed, and that's not always a good thing.

In my last post, I noted that during the strike, "there was a tinge of that joyousness I at one time used to associate with convivial religious gatherings of the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant traditions I am most personally familiar with."  I do not mean that as an insult.  In a way that is impossible to explain without going into too much detail, I was raised in both traditions and although I no longer identify with either of them, I have a lot of sympathy for and am personally close to people who still so identify.  Likewise, I am wary suggesting that once something has been identified as "like a religion," it is therefore invalidated or discredited.  In fact, it would indeed be a dull world where nothing gets done if we were all limited to dispassionate discussions on blog posts that painstakingly explore every nuance and counter-nuance of a given issue.  If it is assumed that the change envisioned is good, then there has to be an emotional component to organizing and to bringing about that change.

But while realizing this, the union would do well to consider those who don't share in the general quasi-religious enthusiasm.  Take, for example, the rallies.  At one of the speeches, whenever the speaker mentioned something bad the UIC administration did, the crowd booed and jeered.  That's perhaps to be expected at a union rally when the doings of management are criticized.  But it is also part of identifying an enemy, of stating publicly that a line has been drawn and a showdown between the booers and the booed might be necessary.

A similar thing can be said of the slogans.  Chop from the top!  No contract, no peace!  Chicago is a union town!  We want an education, not a corporation!   I find each of these objectionable or problematic in some way.  But I know better than to insist on analyzing them according to some hypercritical standard without acknowledging their primary purpose, which is which is to charge a situation with emotion, to demonstrate, and to orient the terms of discussion toward important questions, in this case the university's spending priorities.

But when the union is not having rallies, it ought to consider the following.  After the speeches and the booing and the slogans, would someone who holds a different view be comfortable standing up to the union?  I for one do not, even though the one person I have personally spoken with after the strike about my reservations has gone out of his or her way to listen to my concerns.

Rallies are rallies, and the ones I witnessed served their function well.  But they may not be representative of all members of what the union claims as the bargaining unit.  And for those who feel at least one step removed, rallies and the fervor accompanying them can have a silencing effect.

I need to keep some perspective here.  It's probably uncontroversial to say that academics as a group are, to put it mildly, risk averse and are more likely to deconstruct an opponent to tears or at least boredom than to form baseball-bat-wielding conscience committees.  The cliché about the difficulty inherent in "herding cats" seems to apply here somehow, too.  And I believe it does little harm for the union to hold rallies if it wants to.

But not no harm.  There's a tradeoff.  I do hope the union's supporters remember that rallies are a blunt instrument for their purposes.  And after the enthusiasm of the event, listening again needs to become the order of the day.

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