09 April 2009

Dialogue With the Union... Sort of...

Ajamu Nangwaya, the VP External for CUPE 3097, responded to my last post with a friendly email:
Greetings Mark:

I must give you an "A" for your consistency in arguing for a position that would strengthen the power of capital over the working class. Your blog on the collective bargaining process and the Employer at OISE is "Exhibit A" in support of my assertion.

I am sorry that you are still receiving messages from your former union. I will attend to this matter ASAP.

Take care,
Here's my response:

Greetings in return, Ajamu:

And you equally receive an “A” for your consistency and coherence of vision, casting all human interactions in the singular context of class struggle, even when there may be other, potentially more useful contexts with respect to solving complex issues. I draw your attention specifically to this passage in the post:
Systemic funding issues and overall budgetary balancing concerns that affect all constituencies in the institution morph into labour negotiations and so-called bargaining in an environment that has been artificially, and not usefully, constructed as such. Rather than encouraging collaboration, the presence of a union mentality, embodied as CUPE 3907, has taken the Dean's Office off the hook in terms of its moral and ethical obligation to openly and frankly consult with its various constituencies. The presence of a union enables the Dean's Office - "management" - to hide behind an anachronistic but legal process that is, in its purest form, simply a test of power and will.

I am, indeed, implicating the union in facilitating an easy out for the Dean's Office in not dealing honestly, openly, or appropriately with all OISE constituencies in what is a complex, multi-faceted fiscal problem. Enabling them to essentially divide and conquer by intertwining mentored research opportunities (i.e. the GA positions) that are essentially an academic matter, with funding structures which are essentially university policy, wrapped inside a class struggle that they are only too happy to fight is, in my opinion, the wrong way to deal with the intricacies of the overall OISE budget and student funding in particular.

I will remind you of the last process in which the Dean's Office actually engaged in useful conversation with all constituencies. It occurred the year before you came to OISE, and it had to do with restructuring the model for the funded cohort, and the new budget model that was being forced by Simcoe Hall. One aspect of the proposal was tantamount to indentured labour for a certain group of students - those who would be admitted under a professor's SSHRC funding. The original proposal called for those students to be required to complete their doctorates under the admitting professor, irrespective of personality clashes, divergence of research interests, or any other circumstance. (There were some other more minor hare-brained provisions in the originally proposed funding scheme, too.) There was an awful lot of wrangling among the DO, the faculty, and the students (led by the GSA), plus each department individually, and the official review committee (which included student reps). The whole thing lasted for most of a year, at the end of which, we all were able to find a workable and viable structure that more-or-less balanced everyone's interests and needs. Sadly, the lesson that the DO took away was that engaging the various constituencies in the institute took a lot of time and involved listening, learning and a lot of thinking. Some of us in my area of research and practice would characterize this as a form of “learning organization.” Unfortunately, there is little organizational learning at OISE: From then on the DO's modus operandi became, decide in camera, then ram a policy down everyone's throats (e.g. part-time student policy, conference funding policy, faculty evaluation policy... there are probably others of which I'm unaware).

This is not strictly a union-management issue because it impinges on creating a viable and healthy environment for everyone, irrespective of whether they have been forced into a union, have chosen to be members, or are ineligible to participate - after all, unions are exclusive, elite clubs when situated in a mixed locale. It is about creating an environment in which those who previously (perceived they) had control are convinced to cede that control to an inclusive group which then engages in processes of dialogue to collectively come to an optimal solution, considering all contexts and constituencies involved. (This, it may surprise you, does not involve what has of late become a mockery, namely, the version of so-called democracy called "majority rules" by stacked voting - in my observation, this is a characteristic of the ruling elite class of unions and unionists like yourself. Yeah, superstructure is a bitch, isn't it? In my opinion, a democracy is not judged by how well the voting majority does, but by how well the voices of its weakest members are demonstrably heard.)

I'm not surprised that you misread my approach to all this. You attempt to neatly categorize me among the privileged elite who would “strengthen the power of capital over the working class.” In that very dismissive (and, I would add, disrespectful) characterization, you fail to realize that I am as much, and as little, a member of the working class as you, and as all of the people whom your union claims to represent. As I assert in my original blog post, we are, at OISE, a very privileged class indeed. Many of us are also sacrificing and struggling financially to be able to complete our degrees. As I probably do not have to point out to you, privilege is not one-dimensioned: it is a complex construction of circumstances, history, and relationships. In circumstances where there is exclusive privilege, oppression, and exploitation of people, and no opportunity for those who are exploited to have voice (or even to be able to frame words to be conveyed by that voice) I am a strong advocate of strong unions. On the other hand, in a privileged environment comprised of mostly privileged people, who all enjoy the gifts of intelligence, reason, voice, access, autonomy and agency, to frame complex problems that affect everyone in the confines of a class-power struggle merely adds to the complexity, and creates artificial intransigency where none really needs to exist in the first place.

This is not an attack on unions alone. My primary critique is founded on an indictment of management's belief in what Marjorie Kelly calls the “divine right of capital” (see here for the book's introduction) and their de facto sense of entitlement (by the way, note how ironically analogous this is to the fundamental union belief in seniority rights). My contention is that unions enable a sort of reverse Foucauldian dynamic: resistance breeds control as much as control breeds resistance. My premise is that management must cede control and engage in honest processes of collaboration, which is a far more challenging prospect than even you might imagine. For this to happen, everyone must find a place of common effect and will to action that is not born in a revolutionary worldview.

Be well,

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Joanna Fletcher said...

Bravo, Mark! This discussion is very overdue and may end up going much further.

Plus thanks for the intro to the base/superstructure dialectic - I don't have knowledge of socialism but clearly this is an area I must research further.

I've decided to run for School Trustee here in Calgary, next year.

I watched Gus van Sant's "Milk", and decided I didn't want to wake up 40 years old having done nothing.

Mark Federman said...

Thanks, Joanna, and good luck with your decision to run for office.

I had the same epiphany when I hit 40, which is partly how I set off on this current course.

I'm not a fan of Marxism, myself, but I do find Gramsci's ideas on hegemony particularly useful.