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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

To Fight the Bosses, First We Fight the Union Bosses

by T.E. Winningham, Syracuse University

This is the first of two papers we're posting from an MLA panel last week, entitled "Organizing University Labor," put together by Eva Cherniavsky at the University of Washington- Seattle (her most recent post here was on the gutting of the humanities in WA). I thought of both papers under the title "After Shared Governance," as both discuss non-Senate modes of faculty control while also taking a critical look at faculty unions.

From the moment Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee right up to election night, Cornel West’s stated position, which he repeated almost as a mantra on every platform that would have him, was: The Left must do everything possible to defeat Donald Trump, while at the same time we cannot lie to ourselves about who Joe Biden is. Which is to say, he is no friend of ours.  And I begin with this because there’s never been a day in this country when the labor movement was not under attack, so unions must be defended. Defense, though, does not preclude legitimate, robust critique, and we cannot ignore the structural flaws in our labor unions as they actually exist.

Indeed, just as a Biden administration provides more advantageous terrain for struggle, having a union is overall better than not—virtually every metric shows this to be true—but we’re still in a fight, and unions, far from being the end point, are just another battlefield. Because despite romanticized ideals of workers coming together in democratic self- determination and so forth, national unions are bureaucratic institutions with their own internal hierarchies, and in many ways collaborate with employers in a class war against their own membership, while at the same time working tirelessly to contain a growing militancy within the working class.

First a brief overview of my own experience. Between the Fall of 2015 and Spring 20l8, I was a Lecturer in the University of California system, represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), first for two years at UC Riverside in the University Writing Program, then a year at UCLA in the English Department. “Lecturer” is the term for full- and part-time non-Senate Faculty. Tenure-track this obviously was not, but working conditions were decent—certainly better than in many contingent positions. A full teaching load at UCR is eight courses per year, which is a 3-3-2 on their quarter system, with a base salary of around $53,000 plus benefits, with 1.5% deducted from each paycheck for collective bargaining fees under the fair-share provision of California law. In other words, this was a comfortable second-tier academic job.

No one approached me, but I formally joined AFT Local 1966 right away, since membership aligned with my political beliefs and there was no extra cost.

I’d initially been hired at the very last minute and given three classes for the Fall quarter. Shortly thereafter, it became apparent I’d also be needed for Winter and Spring, at which point the collective bargaining agreement required that I be appointed to an annual-year contract, and I was back-paid to the previous July. Over the winter I reapplied for my job—a full application complete with cover letter, teaching materials, letters of recommendation, and so on—and near the end of spring I was rehired on another annual-year contract, which was great as there’d be no gap in my income over the summer.

So, again, there were real upsides overall, but I use the term “rehired” intentionally, as I’m sure many of us are familiar with the stress and uncertainty of self-terminating contracts. The union had negotiated a “Continuing Lecturer” designation, which secures ongoing employment after 18 quarters in a single department, but that’s still six years of reapplying for your own job, and a number of departments within the UC had reputations for excessive turnover, particularly around the 14th or 15th quarter to avoid granting ongoing status. I was told this was a priority for future negotiations, but it seemed nothing else could be done.

In my case, late in the summer after my second year I received a department-wide email announcing that unless we’d already heard otherwise, we were not being rehired, and that this included “several experienced Lecturers.” Obviously, we were in competition each year with the entire applicant pool. The union could not or would not protect our positions, and all those nice union benefits were out window as I was out of a job.

Late in August 2017, I was hired by the English Department at UCLA, and though I was part of the same bargaining unit, that department viewed the Lecturer position more as a gentleman’s postdoc for their own PhDs who’d failed to secure tenure-track jobs upon graduation, and never hired anyone for more than a year or two at most. I was only brought in because one of their medievalists backed out last minute to consult full- time on a television series then in production. Such is Hollywood. And as another unspoken rule, the UCLA English Department did not hire anyone full-time, so I was given their standard 2-1-1 for the year. To be fair, this is a 57% appointment and thus benefits eligible. But I had to supplement my income with courses across town at USC, and neither of these unwritten rules were known to me until well into my time there.

This also happened to be the lead-up to the Janus v. AFSCME decision, which everyone correctly anticipated would rule fair- share fees unconstitutional and spread the free-rider problem to the 20 states where these fees were then legal. No longer would the AFT automatically collect that 1.5% of every Lecturer’s paycheck; they would now have to incentivize workers to join the union.

I signed up to help with some outreach, paired with a union staffer. This turned out mostly to involve chasing down Lecturers between classes and confronting them with a sales pitch that basically started and ended with: You’re benefiting from a contract the union negotiated, be grateful, and feel guilty for not signing up. To be blunt, it was a shockingly lazy, patronizing effort. 

Jane McAlevey, a veteran organizer and now a senior policy fellow at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, extensively documents her experience and frustrations with national unions in her first book, Raising Hell  “Today,” she writes in her second book, No Shortcuts, “attempts to generate movements are directed by professional, highly educated staff who rely on an elite, top- down theory of power that treats the masses as audiences of, rather than active participants in, their own liberation” (9). She goes on to outline three approaches unions take to bring about change and engage their members: Advocacy, Mobilization, and Organization. Advocacy takes place at the level of policy and political lobbying. Mobilization relies on large numbers of workers at rallies and photo-ops, but still “staffers see themselves, not ordinary people, as the key agents of change. To them, it matters little who shows up, or, why, as long as a sufficient number of bodies appear” (10). 

But in true organizing, as McAlevey defines it, “the primary goal is to transfer power from the elite to the majority… Individual campaigns matter in themselves, but they are primarily a mechanism for bringing new people into the change process and keeping them involved” (10). Few unions today invest the time and resources into organizing, first, because it takes those time and resources, but also because it decentralizes power away from the union leadership that has worked so hard to consolidate its power.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the AFT campaign. While the histories, memoirs, and how-tos of the labor movement focus on the challenges, rewards—the excitement—of unionizing a workplace, our bargaining unit had remained unchanged since 1984, and relations between the UC administration and the union had long since stabilized.

So aside from the obvious—hoping people would sign up—what were we doing? Certainly not organizing, and not mobilizing to put any pressure on the administration. Even in a contract year, the negotiations were just tinkering around the edges, and more importantly they were a thing that happened elsewhere, at some conference table behind closed doors, among people neither these prospective members nor I would ever meet.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was experiencing the culmination of decades of labor concessions and institutional inertia--much of it the result of fair-share fees and exclusive representation, both products of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Shaun Richman, a former organizing director for the AFT and writer for In These Times, explains some of this in his book, Tell the Bosses We’re Coming:

From their inception, mandatory union fees were never intended to compensate unions for the financial costs they bear for bargaining and filing grievances. Mandatory union fees are the compensation for the political costs of representing all the workers in a shop and maintaining labor peace… It is the combination of exclusive representation and the union shop that enables unions to agree to “shared sacrifice” or just plain old concessions and do the heavy lifting of selling them to the workers as being “good for the company” or the long term viability of jobs.  (33, emphasis in original)

This is precisely how unions have defended mandatory fees and the structure of the National Labor Relations Board itself in court, right from the start. Richman again: “Unions were there defending the NLRB on the basis of collective bargaining’s stabilizing effect on the economy” (64). This is the same line of argument that union attorneys used in Janus v. AFSCME.

David Frederick, attorney for Illinois AFSCME Council 31, argued: “The key thing that has been bargained for in this contract for agency fees is a limitation on striking. And that is true in many collective bargaining agreements” (Kishore). He went on: “The fees are the tradeoff. Union security is the tradeoff for no strikes." 

Illinois Solicitor General David Franklin went further in supporting the union’s position, claiming the state has “an interest… in being able to work with a stable, responsible, independent counterparty that’s well resourced enough that it can be a party with us” (Kishore).

And here is Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, whose salary is around $450,000 a year, in the Washington Post

Collective bargaining allows employers and employees to forge agreements on the basis of shared interests that address both parties’ priorities and concerns. Without bargaining rights, educators are left with few options to have their voices heard and are forced to take more public actions, such as protesting to lawmakers, to have their priorities addressed.”

 Heaven forbid, we might take it upon ourselves to protest to lawmakers.

It doesn’t get much clearer; in their own words, the state and the union are partnering to collude with employers to suppress worker opposition, and the union’s main concern—”union security”—has nothing to do with workers and everything to do with consolidating its own power to mirror, organizationally, its counterpart.

In their article "Intergroup Solidarity and Collaboration in Higher Education Organizing and Bargaining in the United States," Daniel Scott and Adrianna Kezar of USC write:

Bureaucratic unions shifted their organizational structures and procedures to be more formal, pursuing survival through efficiency as they became more organizationally similar to the employers they negotiated with. They … hired additional administrative staff, and many adopted rigid procedures for addressing grievances… so that the union could evaluate and respond to grievance issues one-by-one. 

This trend had the effect of strengthening the union’s position as mediator between employer and employee, while limiting the individual worker’s ability to collaborate with others and take other forms of active involvement in addressing their concerns (Clawson and Clawson 100). (Scott 106)

As David Graeber points out in The Utopia of Rules, “a bureaucracy, once created, will immediately move to make itself indispensable to anyone trying to wield power, no matter what they wish to do with it” (150). This is why the AFL-CIO opposes the Green New Deal and why AFSCME, the AFL-CIO, and UNITE-HERE are resistant to Medicare For All: negotiating healthcare being one of their main reasons for existence.

The AFT has built a robust infrastructure within the UC system. It made itself an indispensable mediator between administration and non-Senate Faculty, contained labor unrest through no-strike clauses while extracting fees from the entire bargaining unit, and locked in an academic underclass of limited-term, contingent faculty. This is not out of character for a national union, as the United Auto Workers is infamous for a 2007 concession that created a two-tier wage system for hourly employees, with the lower tier maxing out at $10 less per hour than higher-paid workers. From the AFT’s perspective, too, individual Lecturers are interchangeable. Remember, “it doesn’t matter who shows up." Thus the bargaining unit, the overall entity, is not contingent: between 2015 and 2018 there were about 3,000 Lecturers and the number now somewhere just over 4,000. The bargaining unit is not just stable but growing.

From the Lecturers’ perspective, though, the situation is far different. I, we, didn’t complete a dozen years of higher education to cycle through a one-year job, and yet that is what is increasingly happening. Unions have indeed faced a coordinated, decades-long assault by both business and government. But the decline in union membership throughout the country, as well as the resistance I saw from fellow Lecturers, is also fueled by unions’ willful impotence.

In that same Washington Post article, Weingarten admits: “Fifty-two percent of teachers say they feel their perspective is only ‘somewhat’ represented, and 20 percent say their perspective is ‘not very much’ or ‘not at all’ represented by their unions.” That’s roughly three disaffected teachers out of every four. And how could they not be, when they have no say in the priorities, strategies, or tactics of their union?

With fair-share fees now unconstitutional, unions are forced to convince workers of their value, but what does that process look like? Can a union deliver the kinds of working conditions we want? In my ideal university—and given the current political situation I want to be careful with talk of revolution or overthrow—but in my ideal university we expel nearly all administration and return to faculty governance. Perhaps our employment would be built around a traditional tenure system, but regardless we would work full-time and we’d bring an end to self- terminating contracts.

Here’s where it gets tricky: according to the NLRB, if you have a say in the operation of the workplace, as you’d have as a member of a functioning academic Senate, then you’re considered management and not eligible for union representation. And no formal union will help us reach a point that dissolves its own membership.

Further compounding the problem of organizing is the fact that the academic labor force is divided into not two, but three tiers--tenure-track, full-time non-tenure track, and adjunct--or actually four tiers if you count graduate students, who over the years have shifted more and more from TAs toward teaching their own sections.

Three of these tiers comprise their own unique bargaining units, and it’s not an apprentice or seniority system in which we toil for a certain amount of time in the lower rungs before moving up to a better position. As my own experience showed, even Lecturers in slightly-less exploited union jobs are still, every year, part of the reserve pool of adjunct labor. 

Universities, as a class, determine the overall size of that pool, by virtue of awarding PhDs academia controls its own labor market. This is a problem to be sure. But complaining about the overproduction of PhDs misses the point. In my current department, a full teaching load is 4/4. With a sane and pedagogically appropriate load my department would double in size.  I’d argue that’s the case nationwide.

So how then to organize? Our first responsibility is to the most exploited and precarious among us, and that includes not just contingent faculty but our fellow workers in custodial and dining services, groundskeeping, and so on who make our jobs possible. “Wall-to-wall” unionization is one possible answer, in which everyone in the institution—graduate student workers, faculty, and staff—are represented collectively, as Arizona State University workers just announced would happen. 

But organizing takes time and a commitment to investing in individual people. With contingent faculty, even if you convince someone to join the fight they might well be at another university next semester or next year.

Non-union associations like New Faculty Majority seem to be a good start, but they appear to be operating mainly on the level of advocacy: writing policy papers and op-eds, circulating petitions, tweeting, and fundraising.  We don’t need more petitions (or conference papers) so much as we need more strikes. So I fear they will encounter the same organizational incentives of other top-down nonprofits, the most important being that when your salary depends on a problem it becomes difficult to solve that problem.

One of the more interesting approaches, it seems, and one deployed with success by SEIU in Boston, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Washington D.C., is the Metro Strategy. In this, organizing is based not on institution or department or bargaining unit, but instead on metropolitan region. In Los Angeles, there are three UCs, seven Cal States, and well over a dozen city colleges within driving distance of downtown, and I'm counting only public institutions.

As Scott and Kezar write, the Metro Strategy is

particular[ly] effective for contingent faculty and other types of contingent workers because it follows the distribution and flows of contingent workers, rather than starting with the individual university and inevitably leaving many workers at other institutions out (Berry and Worthen 436–38). . . . [This] increases the mass of workers who are organized, so they can negotiate with multiple employers and have an impact that goes beyond an individual site. (119)

Both “wall-to-wall” and Metro strategies organize within existing union infrastructures, of course, but build solidarity across larger sections of the academic working class—particularly throughout the adjunct labor market of a fixed location—and provide far more leverage and potential for escalation.

Escalation is key, as strikes get the goods. More importantly, strikes beget more strikes. To quote Richman again: “It is the visible resistance of organized workers that inspires people to join the labor movement” (58). We’ve seen this in the Red For Ed strikes that spread across the country in 2018, and the credible threat of strikes during COVID-19 that are inspiring more and more workers to stand up for their own safety. 

We can expect, however, that any increased militancy or strike attempts will be vigorously opposed by union leadership, whose class interests are not our class interests, which puts us in the same dilemma faced by the broader Left with respect to the willfully impotent Democratic Party: is it better to organize within and attempt to take over a neoliberal institutional apparatus, or to build power from below and challenge existing structures from the outside? 

As a popular meme asks: Why not both?

Works Cited

Graeber, David. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2016.

Kishore, Joseph. “Union lawyer tells US Supreme Court: ‘Union security is the tradeoff for no strikes.’” World Socialist Web Site. 28 Feb. 2018. Web.

McAlevey, Jane F. No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Richman, Shaun. Tell the Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020.

Scott, Daniel and Adrianna J. "Intergroup Solidarity and Collaboration in Higher Education Organizing and Bargaining in the United States," Academic Labor: Research and Artistry: Vol. 3 , Article 10, (2019).

Stone, Evan and Randi Weingarten. “As unions await a key Supreme Court decision, a simple plea: ‘Educators want their voices heard.’ Washington Post. 21 June 2018.

White, Jerry. “As teacher struggles spread, unions redouble effort to suppress class struggle.” World Socialist Web Site. 09 Mar. 2018. Web.

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