Friday, February 07, 2014

University Strikes

Living Through a Labour Action

Labour actions -- strikes and/or lockouts -- are tough on everyone. There, I have offered the standard sympathetic statement to open this blog. Sure, labour actions are difficult, particularly at places like the one where I work: Mount Allison University. But, stating that they are difficult does not really get to the heart of the matter. There are deeper, more important questions that need to be asked if a labour action is to have some meaning. Strikes, or lockouts, I hear people say are last resorts. They occur if -- and only when -- the two sides (employers and employees) disagreements about potentially a whole host of matters are irreconcilable. A labour action is part of a process. It signals that discussion and negotiation has moved to a more overt and determined form of conflict. This creates the impression that labour actions are unusual circumstances, unfortunate events that mar an otherwise smoothly functioning workplace. The goal of this blog is to articulate the opposite perspective. I will argue that right now, the workplace I know -- Mount Allison University -- is not functioning smoothly. Before anyone says "hey, this guy is a prof who has been on strike and he's going to bitch at the admin" let me say both "yes" and "no". The issue of smooth functioning is complicated -- in both a yes/no way -- and this is not inherently the fault of administrators. Certain approaches to university administration can mediate conflict or augment it. My goal is, then, to argue:

  • Conflicts between faculty and university administrators have a number of causes. We need to examine these causes in a clear-sighted way so that we can make some provision for the future by beginning a difficult type of conversation about them.
  • We need to avoid -- at least at first -- personalizing labour conflicts because that is a bit of an intellectual cop out. Stating "hey, this is the other guy's fault. I am just in here trying to do a good job at my job" really does not get us anywhere because … the other guy can do exactly the same thing. In other words, it is a non-starters as a conversation (leading only to polarization and silly accusations) and it studiously avoids considering the issues that created the labour action in the first place.

I state over and over again in this blog that I have biases and that addressing our biases are not simply a matter of will. (Will can be important, a willingness to see things from other perspectives as opposed to "sticking to your guns".) To repeat the line that a friend of mine uses: bias is something we all think other person has. I tell my students: the most troubling biases (in terms of analysis) are those we do not know we have. So … of course I am biased. I was on strike. I have some fundamental disagreements with a number of the policies that university tried to get my union to accept. The fact that one has biases, however, should not preclude being part of a wider conversation about the future of the university. I offer this blog as a contribution to that conversation.

Two things obscure our understanding of the root cause of strikes: personification and path dependency. In strikes or lockouts, the issues involved "get personal" but in more than one way. Striking workers, for instance, often associate specific university policies -- drawing on the place where I work for examples -- with individual administrators. This might be true or it might not be in the sense that it is often difficult to figure out who is responsible for specific policies in any workplace. The important thing is that the individual administrator -- for the striking faculty -- becomes a symbol of what they do not like. Likewise, administrators do the same thing. Specific faculty, for instance, are cast as troublemakers or administrators imagine that the faculty union does not have a lot of support and blame the union executive for being too "radical" or "financially irresponsible," etc. The problem with personification is that it disguises the issues at hand and which stand at the root of labour actions. I have never met the group of workers -- in a university or otherwise -- who are sheep blinding following a radical and irresponsible leadership. Particularly when it comes to faculty who work at universities, we are dealing with articulate people who conduct their own research. Likewise, specific policies may be championed by specific administrators (and, in that sense, changing administrators can change the direction of university policy) but anyone who has been involved in labour negotiations at a university knows that policies have a life cycle that often goes far beyond that of individual administrators. What is at issue, then, is not individual personalities but policy options; the focus on personalities obscures the important issues that are actually under consideration.

The other thing that disguises an understanding of labour actions is path dependency in the media. For a variety of reasons -- and I don't think bias in favour of one side or another in a labour action is one of them … most of the time -- reporting on strikes works from a standard script. Workers (in this case faculty) are asking for more money. Employers claim to not have the money. You've all seen the headlines "wages are the main issue". In the case of the labour action at Mount Allison (the one I am currently living through), money issues are important. I don't think anyone would deny that on either "side." But, in this case (I cannot speak for others) money in terms of wage increases in actually a very small issue in the realm of everything that is being negotiated. There are, to be sure, monetary implications to most issues. We live in a market based society and so things cost money (neither you nor I made this rule; we live by it whether we happen to like it or not). To say that one side is interested in money (say, "greedy profs") and the other side is not is, then, to fundamentally misconstrue the nature of a market economy. (A quick example: I will drive my daughter to the opening game of a basketball tournament this evening. That trip will be conducted for a variety of reasons: family time, athletics, fellowship. But, it has monetary implications. For instance, I need to buy gas (Irving does not give the stuff away) to get to the tournament; there are registration fees for the tournament (used to pay referees and timekeepers, etc.). To state, then, that there are monetary implications to contract negotiations is simply to state the obvious. It can be no other way. But, there is a different between monetary implications and people asking for a raise. For instance, one of my union's positions is that faculty who leave the university should be replaced in order to maintain a certain faculty to student ratio and provide for effective instruction. There are monetary implications to that but it is not asking for a raise. For one reason or another, reporters have a hard time exploring and describing these issues and default to a "wages are the main issue" position.  This serves the same effect as personification: it disguises the issues that are actually under consideration. (I don't, btw, fault or blame reporters for this, perhaps in another blog we can explore the reasons why default positions pop up so frequently in the media. The reporters that I have encountered during the current Mount Allison labour action seem, by and large, like good people who are interested in doing a professional and effective job with their craft.)

If university-based labour actions are not, therefore, the product of either wage demands (though, clearly they can be) or individuals (who do play a role), what causes them? Where do they come from? There might be an endless series of answers to these questions. Let us focus on just one to simplify things. Others can chime in with issues that I have missed or with different perspectives.

From what I can tell, there is a disjuncture between the ways in which the faculty and administrators view the university. Part of this disjuncture is a change in the way universities are administered. This change has been a long time coming and proceeded unevenly at different places in the country. In some places, the change is not complete. Smaller religiously based universities, for instance, have developed in different ways. The change can be described as the development of a professional managerial set of administrators. In the past, one became an administrator at any particular university by "working one's way up through the system." Faculty became heads who became deans who became presidents or vice presidents. This was a far from perfect system. It could breed an insular perspective in which the broader currents of scholarship and education were neglected in favour of traditional approaches to matters. (Whether or not this was really a bad thing is something that would need to be empirically assessed; one should not assume that one is insular because one worked one's way up the ladder at a particular university. I am just highlighting a potential problem.) There were other problems that insularity could create but in the service of keeping this blog at least reasonably short, I'll pass over them for now. On the other hand, the strength of this system was that it breed a community of interest. Administrators had a lot of experience with particular institutions: they understood how things worked, strengths and weaknesses of various faculty, valued the traditions of particular institutions, and knew the people with whom they worked. Some might have been nice; some might have been jerks but they had a close connection to the institution and its values.

The development of a professional managerial group of administrators changes this. Again, let's not personify: some might be good; some might be bad. The point is that professional managers are not tied to the values of particular institutions but rather bring a set of values in with them that are alien to the institution. This difference is further augmented by a host of new professional services that train university administrators. Because I run an academic programme I periodically run into these training options and I can say that they are generic. They ascribe a set of policies that should be in place regardless of the institution. I'll give you an example: increase the amount of grants that faculty apply for. Everyone likes grants but students frequently complain that faculty are more interested in their research than in teaching. Indeed, the Mount Allison Student Union is asking for new policies to make faculty more accountable for their in-class teaching. But, what happens to the focus of faculty is the administration starts to say that your future at this institution depends on grants. Grants are not at all a bad thing. No one I know believes they are but the question that needs to be asked is about balance. Should an institution like Mount Allison follow a generic approach to grants that is designed for a larger multiversity? What effect will that have on teaching? Grants take a long, long time to apply for; that time has to come from somewhere. We can focus on grants, to be sure, but that focus will come at the expense of in-class instruction. Moreover … I will ask this rhetorically but really I mean is "consider this and tell me how you would respond" … what would you do. If someone said "you will be judged on your grants and your salary will be tied to that" … what would you do? How would you balance the equation? Whether you liked it or not, you'd shift resources. This is what any business person does so we should not be surprised if faculty would do it. A business person may like selling certain products but if there is no market for that product, they will shift resources to a product for which there is a market. Capitalist societies laud this; they call it good business sense. The same thing will happen with faculty.

The disjuncture between administrators and faculty, then, creates conflict. This is a conflict of values; it is a conflict that is about the future. How do we balance the equation? Leave Mount A out of it for the sake of discussion. What faculty are saying to university administrators with strikes is "we do not share your conception of the way the future should unfold at this institution." When administrators decide that they will accept a strike -- or, keep issues on the table that they know will force a strike -- they are saying to faculty "we do not share your conception of the way the future should unfold at this institution." Each side, of course, thinks they are right. Let's grant that. But, what we need to do is to find a way to mediate between them. The spate of labour actions at various universities indicates that we are not doing a good job of this. It indicates that a different approach is needed. Once the labour action at Mount Allison is done … I'd like to see some reaching out in order to find that new approach.
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