Saturday, April 19, 2014

An admonition on admonitions: my "might makes right" drive by

In a recent post, I warned

But sometimes it's a thin line between "we are right and we are strong" and "we are right because we are strong."  The possibility that the view might shade into the other can never be avoided.  But it should be kept in mind.
Let's leave aside my sloppy writing (I should have written "The possibility that the one view might..."), and look at at the message.  Someone can be forgiven for assuming that I was accusing the union of a "might makes right" mentality.

But I really didn't intend to go that far.  I intended merely to warn that such a mentality lurks behind the scenes in any power struggle.  When a power struggle happens, the sides align themselves, and each side marshals its resources for the struggle.  No matter how right or just one side is, it cannot win an out-and-out struggle without in the end being somehow more powerful or lucky, and luck can reflect a kind of "power" if one is in the position to maximize it from having a superior organization and public message.

For unions,as unions, the principal power is the members' ability to withhold their labor and the incidental power is the ability to dissuade or otherwise prevent others from filling their place.  For jobs that require fewer formally acquired skills, people can theoretically be replaced easily and the union's job is limited mostly to dissuading replacements or relying on the state to adopt and enforce a set of "unfair labor practices" that includes hiring permanent replacements.  For jobs that require more formally required skills, the employer has little else to turn to.  For higher ed, it's both.  There are binders-full of newly minted PHD's or qualified MA's to teach many of the courses on offer, especially humanities and social science courses.  But they cannot feasibly be brought in at the end of a semester to finish off someone else's class.

So in this case, the UICUF had a pressure point at which it could exercise a considerable degree of power.  And although we don't know the terms the bargainers agreed to, it's possible that the threat worked to secure a favorable agreement.  Or it's also possible that the union, recognizing the cost a strike would impose on the students, its members, and others, folded and accepted some merely cosmetic changes to the university's "best and final" offer.  Again, it depends on the terms of the contract, and those haven't been made public yet.  But I'm going to assume the union got a good share of what it wanted.

Granted that assumption, my takeaway is that the union "won" the struggle, to the extent that anyone can be said to "win" when things get so contentious.  And winning in this case calls to mind the slogan-arguments used before and during the negotiations.  These are both general and all purpose arguments, like "In Union There Is Strength" and "The People United Can Never Be Divided," and more specific ones to UIC, like "UIC Works Because We Do."  To be clear, I'm not sure I've heard the first two actually uttered during the last few months, and the last slogan-argument seems to me to have originated from the Graduate Employees Organization or the on-campus SEIU locals, or both.  But similar slogan-arguments the union actually used evoke similar ideas.  They stressed the argument that the university is headed in the direction of a for-profit-style "corporation" ("We Want an Education, Not a Corporation!") or is devoting too much resources to administration ("Chop from the Top!").  Those appeal to a mentality that the people, as the people, have an interest in going another direction and that the people, as the people, have the power to effect that change in direction.

My admonition in the original post I quoted from above can be interpreted as what is known in the blogo-sphere as a drive-by argument.  In the guise of warning the union that "we are right and we are strong" can shade into "we are right because we are strong," one might say I'm accusing it of adopting a "might makes right mentality" and that my accusation is a "drive-by" because by saying it in passing I skirt past the need to justify it with any argument.  And again, I'm not going so far.  But the union should keep in mind that what it does in the name of the right and the good might on some level be done in the name of retaining faculty prerogatives and ensconcing certain practices that might need to be changed to accommodate new demands on higher education.  In such a case--and it is still hypothetical--the faculty's power might be an argument against the union or against a future contract and not in its favor.

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