Friday, March 28, 2014

Pickets can be intimidating

My last post tried to warn against what I see as a potentially "silencing" effect some the union supporters' enthusiasm might have on those members, like me, who are undecided or ambivalent about the union.  I offered that post in the spirit of constructive criticism.  Someone, even a strong supporter of the union, could theoretically say such things without undermining what the union is trying to accomplish.  It can be an aid to the union, warning it where it might stumble in the future if it's not careful.  In short, my last post was not a substantive critique, but a critique about style or tactics.  As I said a while back, I want to be careful and respectful about when and in what way I express what I consider my more substantive reservations about the union and what it is arguing for.

I may wade into those substantive weeds soon enough, but this post continues the "style or tactics" critique.  As the union continues contract negotiations and as the possibility of a second strike, perhaps of indefinite duration, remains, I urge union supporters to consider the effect of a second strike upon the students.  Or, I should say, "continue to consider." I do believe that most faculty sincerely care already about how a strike might affect their students.  But I bring up here one thing that so far I have not seen openly considered, although I suspect that behind-the-scenes discussions might have addressed this.  I am referring to a strike and picket lines can be intimidating.

The two-day strike in February illustrates the intimidating nature of pickets.  I'm not saying what the strikers did was out of bounds.  For the most part, their demeanor and decisions were exemplary of the type of reasoned and non-threatening style of protest the union was aiming for.  But there was one exception that I witnessed.  And although there are different ways to interpret the example I'm about to relate, I think it's the type of thing that the union needs to keep in mind.

On one of the days of the strike, me, another striker, and an ally stood holding signs outside the entrance to one of the lecture centers.  I don't remember much about the ally, but my understanding was that he or she came from another U of I campus and was there to express solidarity to a cause he or she supported.  This ally was, in my opinion, very aggressive.  When a student entered the lecture center, the ally stated "did you know the UIC faculty are on strike?" and handed the student the talking-points flyer we had been given to distribute to students.

There are different ways to assess this ally's tactics.  I interpreted the "did you know....?" question as being said in a confrontational tone.  The handing out of the flyer seemed to me more aggressive than merely holding out a flyer to be taken.

Perhaps I speak only for myself, but if someone hands me a flyer I don't want, didn't ask for, or have no intention of reading, then I have the following options.  I can take it anyway.  I can claim to have already been given one.  I can say no thank you.  I can walk past the flyer-hander without engaging the flyer-hander.  I can refuse and explain my reasons for refusing.  For a sometimes shy person like myself--and like, I imagine, at least a certain number of students--any of these options is difficult.  It would put me in a position of having to prevaricate or dissemble, or to defend a stance against someone I do not know.

That might seem like weak tea for illustrating the "intimidating nature of pickets."  But I think strikers need to consider that asking the "did you know....?" in my opinion insulted the students' intelligence.  There is no way that the students who crossed into the lecture center were unaware that the UIC faculty were on strike.  The lecture center was in the middle of the campus, and picketers were everywhere.  Their instructors had likely told them of the strike even if they did not cancel classes.  And most of the signs the picketers carried were clearly marked with our union name, local number, and an explanation that we were striking.  The students could see we had flyers and could have asked for one if they really wanted it.  And frankly, it's debatable whether an undecided person, who has not made up their mind, adopts a firm position upon seeing a flyer with a few one-sided talking points.

We should also keep in mind that if a student decides not to cross, he or she is facing a secondary inconvenience beyond the inconvenience occasioned by the classes that are canceled.  Students have already paid their tuition, or if they're on the university's monthly payment plan, they have at least committed to paying the tuition.   Some classes, as the union knows, are taught by TA's or adjuncts who do not belong to the bargaining unit.  The union cannot officially encourage those instructors to cancel classes.  And regardless of whether the classes are taught by people within or without the bargaining unit, important material might be covered, or there might be penalties for not attending a class session.

All this is to say that the students know what's at stake for them, at least in the short term.  And they know a strike is going on.  And they know they can ask for a flyer.

My interpretation of course is only one of other possible interpretations.  I am inclined to be skeptical about the union and am therefore probably also inclined to interpret such tactics in the most unfavorable light.

I want to say a few things about the ally who helped us.  He or she was probably not a paid organizer and probably sincerely believed that he/she was helping us.  And although I am ambivalent about the whether the union will actually help the faculty or my interests in particular, the intention was to help, and I should be grateful for that.

Handing out flyers, even if done "aggressively," is not on-the-waterfront-style bossism.  Picketing in most cases is an expression of freedom of speech, and this case is no exception.  My original title for this post was "pickets are inherently intimidating," and I believe that's true even for peaceable pickets.  And as long as the pickets are indeed peaceable--and I saw nothing at the two-day strike to suggest otherwise--then they should be permitted.

But as the possibility of a second strike approaches, we should keep in mind what effect our actions will have on the students.  The second strike, if it happens, will likely be timed to be as inconvenient as possible for the students.  It could hold little promise of being effective if it is not so timed.  Students will know that the union is striking.  If they want to know more, they can ask.  Otherwise, let them be.

Again, this is not what I consider a substantive critique of the union.  I urge my readers (if I have any) to take what I write here as a hint of how others not on the union's side might interpret the union's actions.  Union supporters might read this and in the end decide that what I consider "aggressive" strike tactics are necessary.  And as a tactical matter they might be right.  I just want to let them know part of the cost is alienating some people.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The two-day strike and religious enthusiasm

In my last post, I explained three ways in which I believe the two-day strike offered me an empathetic view of the union supporters and what they are asking for.  At the end, I wrote
In my opinion, each of the three above points, especially the third, have an infelicitous side that at least needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.  And I noticed at least one exception to the otherwise good cheer I describe above.
In this post, I want to explain what I mean, and I first want to clarify and insist that by "infelicitous side" do not mean "dark side" or "bad side" or "evil side" of the union.  My online dictionary tells me that "infelicitous" means "unfortunate" or "inappropriate" or "not well-timed."  Some of what I here will call "infelicitous" is not necessarily inappropriate so much as it gives me pause and it illustrates some of my reasons for ambivalence about the union.  In other words, I believe there are real concerns and they are sincerely held, and I intend none of what I am about to say as a denunciation.  Instead, I believe that some of what I witnessed during the strike raises questions about what the union stands for and the tactics it adopts that its supporters need to consider.

I may not convince people to share my view that the union might be mistaken about much of what it asks for.  But I do hope that what I write encourages others to see it from the perspective of a dissenting colleague.

Pro-unionism is in some ways like a religious creed, and that's not always a good thing.

In my last post, I noted that during the strike, "there was a tinge of that joyousness I at one time used to associate with convivial religious gatherings of the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant traditions I am most personally familiar with."  I do not mean that as an insult.  In a way that is impossible to explain without going into too much detail, I was raised in both traditions and although I no longer identify with either of them, I have a lot of sympathy for and am personally close to people who still so identify.  Likewise, I am wary suggesting that once something has been identified as "like a religion," it is therefore invalidated or discredited.  In fact, it would indeed be a dull world where nothing gets done if we were all limited to dispassionate discussions on blog posts that painstakingly explore every nuance and counter-nuance of a given issue.  If it is assumed that the change envisioned is good, then there has to be an emotional component to organizing and to bringing about that change.

But while realizing this, the union would do well to consider those who don't share in the general quasi-religious enthusiasm.  Take, for example, the rallies.  At one of the speeches, whenever the speaker mentioned something bad the UIC administration did, the crowd booed and jeered.  That's perhaps to be expected at a union rally when the doings of management are criticized.  But it is also part of identifying an enemy, of stating publicly that a line has been drawn and a showdown between the booers and the booed might be necessary.

A similar thing can be said of the slogans.  Chop from the top!  No contract, no peace!  Chicago is a union town!  We want an education, not a corporation!   I find each of these objectionable or problematic in some way.  But I know better than to insist on analyzing them according to some hypercritical standard without acknowledging their primary purpose, which is which is to charge a situation with emotion, to demonstrate, and to orient the terms of discussion toward important questions, in this case the university's spending priorities.

But when the union is not having rallies, it ought to consider the following.  After the speeches and the booing and the slogans, would someone who holds a different view be comfortable standing up to the union?  I for one do not, even though the one person I have personally spoken with after the strike about my reservations has gone out of his or her way to listen to my concerns.

Rallies are rallies, and the ones I witnessed served their function well.  But they may not be representative of all members of what the union claims as the bargaining unit.  And for those who feel at least one step removed, rallies and the fervor accompanying them can have a silencing effect.

I need to keep some perspective here.  It's probably uncontroversial to say that academics as a group are, to put it mildly, risk averse and are more likely to deconstruct an opponent to tears or at least boredom than to form baseball-bat-wielding conscience committees.  The cliché about the difficulty inherent in "herding cats" seems to apply here somehow, too.  And I believe it does little harm for the union to hold rallies if it wants to.

But not no harm.  There's a tradeoff.  I do hope the union's supporters remember that rallies are a blunt instrument for their purposes.  And after the enthusiasm of the event, listening again needs to become the order of the day.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

What I learned from the two-day strike: empathy

I participated in the two-day strike on February 18 and 19.  I walked the picket lines in the a.m. shifts.  On each day, there was one rally each mid-morning (if I recall aright) and one rally around noon (and probably one in the afternoon, too, although each day I left shortly after the noon rally).  Participating in that strike reminded me that those who support it are facing real problems and for the most part sincerely believe that the union and the contract would work toward solving those problems.

First of all, some of the people who I thought were firebrands--or doctrinaire pro-union fanatics who could not be spoken with--turned out to be on the contrary friendly and willing to talk with the few students on campus or with those who, mostly because they were not part of the bargaining unit, chose to cross the picket lines.  I did not make any of my reservations known to any of them while there, but I have a feeling that if I had, they would have at least listened respectfully.  One colleague who I work with on a daily basis and who knows I have reservations about the union graciously thanked me for attending.

I will also give a shout out to someone there selling a copy of some socialist newspaper.  I am personally very skeptical of the type of revolutionary socialism represented by that paper, the title of which I forget, but the person selling it was quite friendly and not the preachy type I sometimes associate with people on that side of the aisle.

Second, there was something energizing being around such a large number of people working together for a common cause.  People treated the protest as a joyous event.  Some brought their children or friends not personally affiliated with UIC.  It was almost as non-threatening as one could hope for, and there was a tinge of that joyousness I at one time used to associate with convivial religious gatherings of the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant traditions I am most personally familiar with.

Third and finally, I was reminded of some of the challenging working conditions faced by some instructors in the bargaining unit.  I'm referring to the full-time writing instructors, who, I am told make as little as $30,000 a year.  As someone who used to TA and who taught three adjunct classes in a writing-heavy discipline (history), I can appreciate that teaching writing is, in a word, hard work.  And when the instructors don't have the security of a multi-year contract, one of the points the union is bargaining for, it is more difficult to, say, plan ahead or pay more than the bare minimum on one's debt. 

Along the lines of working conditions, something that by my observation was not mentioned at any of the rallies or by the (admittedly few) people I spoke with was the advantage that union representation can have in those moments where teaching involves conflict.  The conflict to which I am referring is between the instructor and the student and between the instructor and, say, the department chairs or the administrators whose job it is to handle student grievances as fairly as possible.  Such grievances, I imagine, are much more likely in writing-heavy disciplines, in which the standards for grades are subjective and in which temptations to cheating and plagiarism are endemic.  (I could be wrong.  I am unfamiliar with how things are in, say, math, engineering, or the sciences.)  In those situations, where the instructor, who is hired only in a one-year contract and who has very little authority independent of the cooperation of his or her department and the college, I can imagine it would be helpful to have a union to back the instructor in difficult cases.

We can--and should--discuss whether there is a way to ratchet down the degree to which teaching, say, composition involves the potential for conflict.  But as long as we are in a system where introductory, writing-heavy courses are required and in which students "need" a good grade to continue their undergraduate career, the potential for conflict exists.  And regardless of the course or the discipline, there is a power differential between instructor and student, instructor and department, and instructor and college/university administration.  And having collective representation to help the instructor might be helpful to one party of that equation. 

These lessons, I believe, are ones of "empathy," an opportunity to understand where others are coming from.  To understand, or to discover or try to have empathy for others does not in and of itself imply agreement with the ends that are being argued for.  In my opinion, each of the three above points, especially the third, have an infelicitous side that at least needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.  And I noticed at least one exception to the otherwise good cheer I describe above.  I hope to discuss those points in future posts.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why make my reservations public?

It's been about a week since I've launched this blog and I have yet to make more than an introductory post or explain exactly what my reservations are about the UICUF, its proposed contract, or the strike actions it has recently engaged in and might in the near future engage in. One reason for the delay is laziness. But another reason is that I'm having a hard time answering for myself the question of whether this is the proper forum to make my objections known.

I recognize one point of view that a union, in order to function properly, must present a united front to the management with which it negotiates. According to this view, any dissensions or differences of opinion are to be resolved in intra-union dialogues and not in public discussions. Simply by stating my reservations in a public blog, I am weakening that public front, at least to the extent that people read this blog and believe my claim to be a member of the union. The administration, as a "side" in this dispute, might use my expressed reservations as a way to drive a wedge among and divide the union's members.

For the record, I don't think anything I've written in the first post or shall write in this (second) post really undermines the union. The mere recognition that some union members have reservations is not an union shattering proposition. I also believe it's possible that the union could benefit by making some of its deliberations more public. At least I'm not prepared to dismiss that possibility out of hand. I do believe that some people's ambivalence about public unions and unions in general rests on the belief that unions sometimes operate as quasi-secret cabals that work against the interests of the public or third parties. My own view is that that charge sometimes had merit, albeit not in such an extreme way as the word "cabal" suggests. But even if it doesn't, a true public conversation, in which objections as well as statements of support are voiced, might help advance the cause.

Now, if I wanted to undermine the union's efforts entirely, I would have no hesitations about this blog, other than the prudential concern that I might be found out and therefore make enemies of people who are now my friends. But truth be told, for all my reservations, there are real problems at UIC and in higher education in general. And enough members of the faculty, presumably a strong majority, believe the union is the best, or at least a good, mechanism to address those problems that I'm wary of undermining their efforts. And for all my reservations, which I haven't disclosed on this blog yet, I also harbor a sneaking suspicion that I might be wrong and that the union and its proposed contract might work generally to improve things and that the strike actions, while not desirable, are reasonable tactics to achieve the union's ends.

Why, then, a public blog and not, say, internal discussions with union members? Well, I have discussed my concerns with a few union members. The few people I have spoken with have listened to my reservations carefully and respectfully even though they disagree.

But I feel that a larger conversation is needed. And frankly, I'm afraid to make my objections, or the extent of my objections, known generally. To speak up in person to a few people is one thing. To speak up on one of the union or faculty listservs of which I'm a member is quite another. As a very new and also contingent faculty member, I simply don't feel comfortable raising my objections in a quasi-public forum in which I must identify myself and in which people who exercise something like a supervisory role over me would see I don't support their union. That's not to say that anyone has given me any real reason to believe they'd retaliate. But their position is not disinterested, either.

Ideally, the union would have a way for people to comment anonymously or pseudonymously in some discussion forum that is limited to union members. The problem in that case would be how to do so while ensuring that only union members are participating. (That, of course, is a problem with this blog. Any reader has to take my word for it that I am who I say I am.) I'm not quite sure how the union could do this, especially at a time when most of its resources are devoted in what, we all hope, are the final stages of contract negotiations.

For the time being, then, I will limit myself to general observations about the union and about some of the things I witnessed from the two-day strike that took place in February.  I do bring a measure of skepticism to these observations.  There were some discomfiting aspects especially about the strike and the rallies that attended those strikes that need discussion.  But it was not all discomfiting.  I learned much from the union supporters and am now generally more inclined to be favorable to their cause or see things from their point of view than I had been before participating on the picket lines.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Introduction and My Promise to You


I am a contingent, full-time non-teaching faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  I am, as of now, a member of the UIC United Faculty Union.  But I have many reservations about the union, about its proposed contract, and about the recent and pending strike actions.

I write this blog both to make my views known and to engage in discussion, particularly those who see all these issues differently.  I believe I can offer something others can learn from, and that others, particularly those who disagree, have much to teach me as the union negotiates for its contract.

Therefore, I welcome comments, both supportive and critical.  I do ask that comments remain civil, with no name calling and a minimum of profanity.  This issue can be an emotionally charged one, which is one reason I believe this blog to be necessary.  I will delete comments that in my judgement are blatant spam or uncivil.  I make no promises that I will always be consistent, but I will try to err on the side of promoting more open discussion and airing of different views.  This comments policy will evolve depending on the number of readers this blog receives.

I probably will not convince everybody, or most people, to share the reservations I have about the union, etc.  And although I wish to keep an open mind myself, I might not come around to supporting the union and its goals as robustly as some of its champions seem to.

To all these ends, here are my promises to you:

1.  I will not knowingly claim something to be true that I know is false.  Whenever possible, I will try to cite where I got my information.  When I am speculating or stating things based on rumor, I will try to be as upfront about that as possible.

2.  I will try as much as possible to be clear about my biases so you all know where I'm coming from.  I also realize that I am probably better off than many of my colleagues, and this fact makes it easier for me to adopt the ambivalent stance I do.  I think all arguments for or against the union need to be based mostly on reason and on discussion, but I would like to be respectful of the fact that I enjoy certain privileges that others do not.

3.  I will keep post-hoc editing of my posts to a minimum, and I will try to be as clear as possible about what I've edited.  In other words, once I've written a post, I would like readers to be confident that what I've said is there to stay.  I may, from time to time, tweak the formatting, especially in the beginning as I try navigate the in's and out's of the blogger templates.  In exceptional circumstances, I may delete a post, but even then I pledge to announce such deletion and explain the reasons for it. 

4.  I will try to anonymize my discussions with union members and others as much as possible.  I do not want to put anyone on the spot who has not taken a public position, and I myself am posting this blog anonymously.  I shall try to use the "he or she" or "he/she" formulations as much as possible, although I'm sure I'll slip up from time to time.

5.  I will not disclose a private communication from the union unless the union has also made that communication public.  I am on at least one listserv for union members only, and I would like to keep those messages as "in house" as possible.  I may report things that are said at a union meeting, but only if it meets one of the following two criteria:

  • The union meeting itself is open to the public.  For example, I was not at the "teach in" several months ago, but because it was open to the public, anything said by the speakers there I would have considered fair game for public discussion.
  • The thing I repeat is not meant to be confidential AND is a general comment not made on behalf of the union AND I take care to anonymize what I repeat as much as possible.


UPDATE, AUGUST 31, 2014:  It appears I may not actually be a member of the bargaining unit after all, and therefore not a bona fide member of the union.  I am indefinitely disabling comments and indefinitely withdrawing any invitation to submit guest posts.

UPDATE, JUNE 26, 2015: In keeping with my last update, I have recently found out, apparently definitively, that I am not a member of the bargaining unit, and may have never been a member.