Sunday, April 13, 2014

Is the administration "forcing" the UICUF to strike?

It's more complicated than "yes" or "no," but I feel compelled to point out that if the union is being forced, it also has a choice.

In some ways, the administration--or "upper administration," a term I am hearing more and more now--is forcing the union to put up or shut up, and the union appears to be responding in kind.  It kind of "has to" make the response it's making.  Even I believe that if one grants the union is a good thing and that it is important to win a workable contract, the union can do no other than set a strike date in this situation.  And I should note that voting for a strike date is not necessarily the same as voting for a strike.  The vote last Wednesday was to continue to pursue negotiations and to ask the university one more time if it will submit to arbitration.  But if those fail, then the union will strike.

I have in recent days heard a lot of people saying the administration is "forcing" us to strike.  And the union's blog repeats that assertion in a post the day after the "we will strike if negotiations fail" vote [bold added by me]:
There is one other option–to submit to binding arbitration....but the administration has refused binding arbitration.  In that sense, the faculty union is demonstrating its concern for students and avoiding an end-of-semester strike.  The administration seems not to care about the students and is willing to force the faculty into this strike.
And again:
We undertook a short two-day strike earlier in the semester because we didn’t want to disrupt classes any more than necessary, but now our hand has been forced.  We’re having to plan for a potentially longer strike near the end of the semester, despite our earlier short-term strike.
And to be sure, if the administration really wishes to avoid a strike it would realize that the union cannot really accept the fair-share proposal and the "last best and final offer" to TT [tenure-track] faculty but not (yet) to the NTT [non-tenure-track] faculty.  My original view of the fair share offer was that it's not worth striking over, and I have partially retracted and qualified that view.  I have come to the conclusion that the main reason to offer the fair-share proposal was to instigate a strike.  Anyone who has studied labor relations or pays attention to what unions are and to local, state, and national politics knows, or ought to know, that no union in the UICUF's position can accept such a proposal and remain what it claims to be.  It's not a "right to work" or "Scott Walker Redux" proposal, but accepting it would establish a precedent and place a burden on the union.

As for the TT offer, I imagine there are a lot of reasons the union opposes it, but one deal-breaking reason appears to be that it would separate the TT's from the NTT's.  The threat of a strike by TT's and NTT's is much more likely to work than the threat of a strike by only one or the other.  For all my talk of "conflicts of interest," I have to acknowledge in this case makes the union stronger.

Why then do I insist that the administration is not "forcing" the union to strike?  Because the strike is a choice.  The union knows that if it happens, it will be disruptive.  It knows that it has staked out a claim and things are coming to a head.  It has made the decision that the temporary costs to students of a strike is worth the long term gain.  The union, in the name of improving things for the future, has stated that the bad effects on students is worth it.

Although I have a lot of reservations about the union, I speak this time not to denounce it, but to suggest it is facing one of the difficulties unions face generally when they decide to strike.  Strikes--unlike lockouts--require workers to take positive action.  Strikers have to make the decision to refuse to work.  Because the strikers have to actually make the decision, they are the most visible actors in the conflict.  Fairly or unfairly, they bear a default burden to justify their actions that the employers do not bear.  The employers can say--and the UIC administration has said in its emails to faculty--that the workers do not have to strike.  The strikers, by striking, have to make the case for the strike upfront while the employers can say they did all they could.  The decision to strike creates a rhetorical imbalance and puts the strikers on the defensive.  I believe this is generally true even if a strike is the most justifiable decision possible.

By saying this, I'm trying to acknowledge the difficult fix the union is in by striking.  I understand why it is adopting the language that its hand is being "forced," and I do not seriously expect it to go into "intersubjective discourse mode" and explore the nature of choice, free will, and institutional pathways in its public announcements.  There's a time for discussion and a time for action.  But the union is indeed making a decision.  It is calculating the odds of success and weighing the costs it will accept rather than suffer a contract it is designed to refuse.

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