Sunday, April 6, 2014

Where I differ from the authors of the "nofacultyunion" blog

One of the very few other voices I've found that dissent publicly from the unionization drive in the University of Illinois system is at the blog "No Faculty Union at Illinois."  That blog is written by two professors based at Urbana, and unlike me they blog under their own names and not a pseudonym.  I share with them a skepticism of some of the claims that are made on behalf of the union and I share with them an overall ambivalence about the union.  But I do see things very differently from the way they do.

First, the authors are based in Urbana and as far as I can tell, are tenured professors there.  Their perspective is that of people who are not contingent and who are most concerned with the way things work in Urbana.  That's not a bad thing.  But the concerns of tenured professors in my view are not always the same concerns of non-tenured or non-tenure track faculty.  And what is true of Urbana is not necessarily true of Chicago. 

Still, they comment occasionally on UIC's unionization drive or on issues of concern shared throughout the U of I system, including, for example, the claim about the alleged one-billion dollar surplus.  For examples of their commentary on UIC, see here, here, here, and here.  For their commentary on the alleged surplus, see here.  The tone of the latter post concerns me.  They call discussion of the surplus a "hoax."  And they do in fact provide evidence that the surplus isn't all the union says it is.  Still, to call it a "hoax" is a bit too strong and worse, serves in my opinion to foreclose reasoned discussion.  And as I said in my last post, it's not unheard of to ask the university to reconsider its spending priorities.

Second, they appear to be skeptical about the union for different reasons from mine.  They seem to be very confident that faculty governance, what they call "shared governance," is a good thing and that unionization will weaken this good thing by making it more adversarial.  I, however, suspect that faculty governance as it exists now contributes to many of the problems we are experiencing and that unionization might strengthen its worst aspects.

Take their view on what they call call "shared governance."  See, for example, their answer to "myth 6" in their takedown of "Myths about Faculty Unions."  They state that while the faculty senate and its leadership "do not engage in collective bargaining, we have frequent discussions in committee meetings and other venues with campus and university officers, advocating for tenure track and non-tenure track faculty."  They also fear that unionization will interject an unnecessarily adversarial element to faculty governance.  See here:  
There are differing views here about which comes first: Does an adversarial state already exist between faculty and administration, thus justifying the response of unionization – or does a decision to unionize create adversarial relations? It is unlikely that this chicken-and-egg debate can ever be settled, but our stance is clearly the latter, 
The authors do not, to my knowledge, discuss governance at the departmental level.  (I have, however, not read every one of their posts.)  And I don't know the contours of the "shared governance" they talk about.  In fact, I don't even know if UIUC and UIC have the same senate or if each campus has its own senate.

Third and finally, the authors seem to discount the very real degree to which many faculty, primarily the contingent ones, are in fact "workers" who are proper candidates for unionization.  They seem to insist on an idealized version of worker when they say, for example, is precisely BECAUSE we are progressive academics from the working class that we oppose unionization for UIUC tenure-track faculty members. We know through experience what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck, to not know whether the doctor’s bills will be covered, and to come home bone-tired from a day of physical labor. We have worked in jobs where talking back to the boss meant getting fired, where the time we spent in bathroom breaks was carefully monitored, where there was serious risk of physical injury, where we were grateful for those days when there was time to chat with co-workers. We know what it is like to work in a job where workers really do need a union to fight for fair wages, to make sure overtime work is paid, and to promote safe working conditions. 
It is because we have had those experiences that we understand and appreciate the contributions made by labor unions in the history of this country. As minimum-wage workers, we benefited directly from many of those advances. And because we have had those experiences, we know that tenure-track professors are very far indeed from being exploited workers who need a collective bargaining unit to provide “voice” for them. The simple fact is that the life of a tenured faculty member, especially at an elite university like this one, is one of the most privileged jobs imaginable: extremely flexible hours, little to no supervision, an almost entirely self-directed work load, and a nine-month salary that, even at the lower ends, is well above the national average.
To be fair, in the same post they acknowledge things might be different for non-tenured-track faculty.  And in another post, they discuss the situation of such contingent faculty.  That discussion focuses much more on the Urbana campus and does not seem to address the situation at UIC.  This is all understandable, both because the authors are based in Urbana and because their primary concern seems to be unionization among tenure-track faculty and not contingent faculty.

But their view here leaves unanswered the questions of whether contingent faculty ought to be unionized and whether they might in some ways be subject to something approaching the living "from paycheck to paycheck," to not knowing "whether the doctor’s bills will be covered," and to coming "home bone-tired from a day of" if not physical labor, then mental labor.  (And let's not discount the latter.  Physical labor is probably indisputably more exhausting than mental labor.  But anyone who has worked, for example, at an inbound call-center, or at a bank, or as a "data entry specialist" might very well attest to exhaustion after hours of handling numbers and other minutiae.)

It is probably also true that there is little risk of physical injury at these job (unless, I suppose, it is a lab situation, or in a few other rare cases), and bathroom breaks and chat-time with co-workers are not monitored.  But I suspect that the contingent faculty has to show a certain kind of respect to his or her superiors in the department.  After all their contract may be up for renewal.

My main objection to their argument, then, is that they appear to insist on some idealized view of "worker."  That view neglects the situations that approximate being a worker who can benefit from a union.

Why, then, do I, like these authors, have reservations about the union?  As I tried to argue in my letter of February 8, I believe that the current unionization drive involves an inherent conflict of interest and that the contingent faculty's interests are not fully represented therein.  If this were a union of only the contingent faculty, I would still have some reservations but the "inherent conflict of interest" concern would not be one of them.

There is room for discussion here.  And although I object to the tone and substance of some of what the authors at "No Faculty Union at Illinois" write, their ideas are worth engaging, if only because they may very well represent a view of others whose support the union needs.

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