Sunday, March 16, 2014

What I learned from the two-day strike: empathy

I participated in the two-day strike on February 18 and 19.  I walked the picket lines in the a.m. shifts.  On each day, there was one rally each mid-morning (if I recall aright) and one rally around noon (and probably one in the afternoon, too, although each day I left shortly after the noon rally).  Participating in that strike reminded me that those who support it are facing real problems and for the most part sincerely believe that the union and the contract would work toward solving those problems.

First of all, some of the people who I thought were firebrands--or doctrinaire pro-union fanatics who could not be spoken with--turned out to be on the contrary friendly and willing to talk with the few students on campus or with those who, mostly because they were not part of the bargaining unit, chose to cross the picket lines.  I did not make any of my reservations known to any of them while there, but I have a feeling that if I had, they would have at least listened respectfully.  One colleague who I work with on a daily basis and who knows I have reservations about the union graciously thanked me for attending.

I will also give a shout out to someone there selling a copy of some socialist newspaper.  I am personally very skeptical of the type of revolutionary socialism represented by that paper, the title of which I forget, but the person selling it was quite friendly and not the preachy type I sometimes associate with people on that side of the aisle.

Second, there was something energizing being around such a large number of people working together for a common cause.  People treated the protest as a joyous event.  Some brought their children or friends not personally affiliated with UIC.  It was almost as non-threatening as one could hope for, and 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.

Third and finally, I was reminded of some of the challenging working conditions faced by some instructors in the bargaining unit.  I'm referring to the full-time writing instructors, who, I am told make as little as $30,000 a year.  As someone who used to TA and who taught three adjunct classes in a writing-heavy discipline (history), I can appreciate that teaching writing is, in a word, hard work.  And when the instructors don't have the security of a multi-year contract, one of the points the union is bargaining for, it is more difficult to, say, plan ahead or pay more than the bare minimum on one's debt. 

Along the lines of working conditions, something that by my observation was not mentioned at any of the rallies or by the (admittedly few) people I spoke with was the advantage that union representation can have in those moments where teaching involves conflict.  The conflict to which I am referring is between the instructor and the student and between the instructor and, say, the department chairs or the administrators whose job it is to handle student grievances as fairly as possible.  Such grievances, I imagine, are much more likely in writing-heavy disciplines, in which the standards for grades are subjective and in which temptations to cheating and plagiarism are endemic.  (I could be wrong.  I am unfamiliar with how things are in, say, math, engineering, or the sciences.)  In those situations, where the instructor, who is hired only in a one-year contract and who has very little authority independent of the cooperation of his or her department and the college, I can imagine it would be helpful to have a union to back the instructor in difficult cases.

We can--and should--discuss whether there is a way to ratchet down the degree to which teaching, say, composition involves the potential for conflict.  But as long as we are in a system where introductory, writing-heavy courses are required and in which students "need" a good grade to continue their undergraduate career, the potential for conflict exists.  And regardless of the course or the discipline, there is a power differential between instructor and student, instructor and department, and instructor and college/university administration.  And having collective representation to help the instructor might be helpful to one party of that equation. 

These lessons, I believe, are ones of "empathy," an opportunity to understand where others are coming from.  To understand, or to discover or try to have empathy for others does not in and of itself imply agreement with the ends that are being argued for.  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.  I hope to discuss those points in future posts.

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