Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Retaliation and Anti-union": an exploration of loaded words

In the public statements regarding the contract negotiations, those who are staking out positions use loaded words that ratchet up the tension without doing much of anything else.  Here are two examples.

Retaliation.  I might as well start with me.  In my letter of February 8, I raised the specter of retaliation, and I suggested retaliation was a real possibility from both the administration and the union.  But my concern was and remains on what union-friendly supervisors will do to those who are not on board with the union, especially to those non-tenure track or tenure-track, but not tenured faculty.

However, "retaliation" is a bit too ominous and perhaps I shouldn't have used it.  I strongly suspect that if retaliation happens at all, it will come under the radar and perhaps not represent a fully conscious decision.  I understand that those who decide to recommend the renewal of a contingent contract, or who vote on tenure, take into consideration a lot of things.  One of those is what in the private sector is often called "being a team player."  I suspect that being a vocal opponent of the union can in some cases count against team playerism.

It might turn out otherwise if one works in an less union friendly environment than I'm used to.  And I'll repeat here what I said in my letter.  The supervisors in my own department seem to fully support the union, but they also seem to be as fair-minded as possible in their treatment or evaluation of those who hold different views about the union.

Anti-union.  In the union's most recent statement, the union calls the "Scott Walker 'fair share' proposal" is "anti-union, plain and simple."  That "anti-union" phrasing is unhelpful.

Not that there's not some merit in the claim.  In most scenarios, the proposal, which I discuss here, would make things difficult for the union.  Fair share provisions or maintenance of membership clauses or union shop requirements are important tools for a union's continued solvency.  In my view, it's no surprise that so-called "right-to-work" states, which outlaw such clauses, tend to have lower rates of unionization.

However, I find the "anti-union" charge to usually be a too-sweeping statement.  I rarely encounter anyone who admits to being "anti-union."  Most people, in my experience, claim to support unions in some circumstances, or as an incident of freedom of assembly.  Or they might support unions for their work-related activism--such as winning contracts--and oppose any given union for its political positions.  In my view, people who oppose fair-share provisions in principle are mistaken and in practice are opposing an instrument that in most cases is essential to a union's survival.  But they don't necessary oppose any and all unions.  And the administration's "Scott Walker" proposal doesn't go quite that far anyway.

Why is this important?  I would be dense indeed not to recognize that supporting "unionism" while opposing one of unionism's most important tools might function as a way to forestall unionism altogether.  But people need to choose their words carefully.  Calling the administration's proposal "anti-union" draws certain lines and prepares us to accept a potential showdown later in the semester.  If this proposal is anti-union, then the administration cannot be spoken with.  If the proposal is a bad one, then there is still a possibility of resolution.  No doubt, the long months of fruitless "negotiations" during which, I'm told, the administration has almost always and until recently refused to act in good faith, raises questions about whether it can be spoken with at all.    And the administration's offer is supposedly its "last best offer," at least for tenure-track faculty.  So maybe the Rubicon has been crossed already.

Still, I can't help feeling that the union's supporters are drawing a narrative to make a strike inevitable.  Does the administration's "anti-unionism" extend to anyone who questions or dissents from the union?  That's partially a rhetorical question because my bias is to think that it does.  As discussion goes on over the next few weeks--and I stand by my original promise not to relate anything said at a union meeting or in communications directed to union members only--I urge the union and its supporters to remember that not all questioning is debate-ending anti-unionism and that even if the union decides differently from what I wish, it respects the sincerely held views of those who see it differently.

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