Friday, July 18, 2014

Balance out the slogans with an argument

One type of discussion I have witnessed occasionally about the union goes something like this.  Person A complains about the union, wishing to opt out of paying fair share dues, or wishing the religious exemption could be broadened to a conscience exemption.  (Keep in mind that even with the exemption, a person still has to pay, but the payment goes to a charity mutually agreed upon by the union and the person.)  Person B responds by saying something like, "Are you also going opt out of the pay increase you've gotten because of the union."

It should be no surprise that I'm going to criticize Person B's retort.  But I want to point out first that Person B has a point.  Although it is an open question whether UIC faculty would have received a wage increase similar to the one they actually received with the contract--such appears to be the argument of the authors at No Faculty Union--the current pay raise (still pending, at least in my case) is instituted via the current contract, and it's not impossible that the administration would have simply declined to grant a raise if left to its own devices.  Also and as I have argued before, there is a benefit to having union representation that goes beyond pay increases.  It's the benefit of being represented by an organized and officially recognized body, which can be useful from time to time when an employee finds oneself at the mercy of an unfair practice.  There are also disadvantages to that representation, too, and what strikes some people as unfair often strikes me as an attempt to choose the least bad of several bad options.  But let's not pretend that there's no benefit to having a union, or that the benefit of a union lies only with pay increases.

The reason I criticize Person B's retort in this case is that it's not really an argument.  If Person A feels such a strong objection to the union that he/she would prefer to opt out and pay the equivalent dues to a charity, then the union hasn't made its case for that person.

And it's not a given that Person A benefits from the union as much as Person B suggests.  If Person A is on a margin that the union contract makes it more expensive to hire him or her, then a pay raise, even a modest one, makes it more difficult to keep Person A on.  Also to be considered is the proposition that the increased job security that this union contract, like most union contracts, tries to provide can have a perverse effect on some employees.  My understanding of the contract is that when it comes to contingent faculty, the provisions that ensure the most security kick in for those who have been at UIC for a while, say, more than years, if I understand the contract correctly.  What about those newer faculty who might not enjoy the security guarantees?  How does seniority work when it's one person's position compared against another's who has been there longer?  My point is not to criticize job-security or seniority provisions per se, but to point out that such provisions narrow the number of people whom the university can let go if money gets tight.  And if someone falls along that margin, he or she has a reason to fear dismissal, and all along, has to pay dues to the union.  That point ought to be recognized.

Or what if the union dues help fund political advocacy with which Person B disagrees?  I may write in a later post on the pension issue, and I don't want to make this blog primarily about pension reform, but I can imagine some employees are concerned that reform is needed and prefer what they expect to be 90% of a "loaf" of retirement benefits rather than half a loaf, or no loaf at all.  I'm not saying, right here, that that 90% vs. 50% vs. none at all formulation is correct.  But if the belief is held sincerely, and if it is at least a position that can be argued in good faith, the person who holds that belief might legitimately resent being compelled to help subsidize an organization that lobbies for a different outcome.

What I just wrote assumes much, I admit.  First, I don't know how the funds break down nor do I know how, if at all, our union intends to use the funds for political advocacy.  Second, my paycheck has not yet included any dues deductions.  So that point is still hypothetical to begin with.

There are some other problems about the "well, why don't you give up your benefits, too" retort.  First, it's unfair.  The union has won.  That retort serves more to silence opposition, to kick opponents while they're down, so to speak.  Second, being unfair, it is also unwise.  And for the same reasons.  The union will have to begin renegotiating another contract within the year.  How many people does it want to alienate with a question-begging slogan?  How many people will come out for the next "job action"?   Perhaps the one who objects at this late date will never be reconciled to the union.  But it might be a question of having a non-supporter in the ranks, or of having an avowed opponent, or even "enemy" of the union.

Third, the retort is an ad hominem attack, and not a very good one, even for an ad hominem.  Like all ad hominems, this one invites another.  For example, when Congress and the G. W. Bush administration granted taxpayers a one-off "rebate" on their taxes in, I believe, 2001 and 2007, I--and many others--thought that this was an unwise move.  Did they give the $300 to $600 rebate back?  I didn't.  Does that make the policy any less or more merited?  No.  I imagine that most members of the union would not have a hard time identifying policies that benefit them, at least in the short run, but for which they don't renounce the benefit. 

And like all ad hominems, it runs against the problem of the "consistent objector."  I don't know if such exists in the bargaining unit, but it's not impossible that someone objects so strongly to the union that he or she abrogates his/her pay raise, or perhaps donates it to charity.  Again, I don't know if anyone goes that far, but it's a possibility.  And yet again, one can counter that, per what I said above, there's an intangible benefit to being represented by a union that cannot be abrogated or renounced.  I concede that point, but then ask how can one expect another to renounce something non-renounceable?

I suggest that the argument for unionization needs to be made continually.  As I have said before, I intend to remain a union member and pay dues and I would even if there were some sort of opt out provision.  I believe that if I benefit from having a union, I ought to pay. But in that case, it's my choice, and not everyone agrees.  The union and its supporters should avail themselves of the opportunity to consider others' objections, not necessarily in the hope of winning them over, but in the hope of ensuring the objectors that whatever their views, they are welcome as part of the bargaining unit and part of the community of scholars and service-faculty that the union claims to represent.

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