Monday, November 29, 2010

On The UAW (My thoughts, a day late and a dollar short)

There has been an unusual amount material about the proposed contract between grad students (represented by UAW 2865) and the university. Most notably, a number of the members of the bargaining team are calling for a no vote on the contract. Here's their response if you want to take a look. However the concerns about the contract can be broken down into two categories, more or less. The first set of concerns focus on the nature of bargaining. They argue that the membership was not properly informed about the bargaining process, and that the power of that membership was not utilized when the bargaining process got sticky. The second argument is that the gains from the contract were minimal and insufficient given grad students economic circumstances. The team got a 2% raise, but that was after no raise last year, and very little in the way of raises before that. In effect, the raise doesn't even meet the costs of inflation and increased inflation. In addition, the other gains were minimal. For instance, we still don't have a full fee remittance, and although childcare subsidies increased, they only cover 10% of the cost of childcare.
The argument on the yes side is fairly simple. They focus on the turbulent political situation, and argue that this is the best that we can do at this in the crisis. The problem with this argument is that it buys into the lie of the crisis. The bargaining team refuses to ask why is it that the upper administration is giving itself millions of dollars in bonuses at this moment of crisis, or why the university is taking up extensive building projects. To put it simply, they refuse to challenge the lie of that narrative, and if we accept the lie, we simply become another cog in the retrenchment of class power.
Those who defend the contract can ask two legitimate questions in response. First, if the bargaining committee had called upon the rank and file to act, would they have been willing to put in the time and energy that would be needed to succeed in such a campaign? Second, could we have challenged the narrative of 'crisis' given our isolation, both as public employees, and as participants in the university? Those questions are legitimate. To begin, any alternative narrative presented about bargaining operates at the logic of a counter-factual. We can never know what would have happened if we did something different. More significantly, I'm less convinced than some of the no vote folks that the current political terrain is somehow defined by a militant and engaged rank and file being stifled by a repressive union bureaucracy. My experiences with organizing on campus tend to gesture towards a rank and file that will sign a union card on the premise that the union will take of the business of the contract and grievances.  However, we should remember that that process was produced by the forms of organizing, as well as our hours of work.
The problem is that the bargaining process never gave the rank and file the opportunity to act in their own interest. Rather than giving us as workers the chance to get involved in the bargaining process, through coherent reports on the bargaining process and through campus activities such as protests, grade-ins, etc.  Those actions could have been used as a pedagogical process, moving towards an active participatory notion of membership, as well as a possible strike.  In effect, the bargaining committee, through not engaging in those processes, forgot that our ability to get a good contract depends on the strength of our rank and file, not the clever skills of the fifteen members of the bargaining committee, the officials of the union, or lawyers. We can never know what would have come out of such a process, but we would have won or lost on the strength we bring to the table as a union, not as an economic interest group being represented by its lobbyists. Those on the sideline would be put into a position where they perhaps would have taken action, would have recognized the need to be active union members.
As a last note, there has been a bit of backlash to the no campaign on the part of folks who support the official position. Their website is here. There argument is not much more substantial than the one that I list above. But, they make a second argument in support of the campaign through the logic of grievance. They point to a set of incidents where no vote folks have attacked the bargaining committee, particularly around their intentions. I don't know about the veracity of these events, but I don't find them particularly surprising. After all, those who were openly opposed to the closed structure of bargaining have been cut out of the process, and there are no votes folks who have lost and are in danger of losing their position because they have challenged that process.
But despite that, I actually agree with them. I see no reason to challenge the intentions of the bargaining team. I suspect that they see their closed approach to bargaining as the strongest approach to the process, because of their belief in experts, because of their distrust of the rank and file, etc.  These factor lead them to believe that they have gotten the best possible contract out of the process. In addition, the kind of bargaining we have seen is a dominant form of bargaining in the country. WHICH IS WHY IT IS WRONG. This kind of unionism, business unionism, a unionism dependent on the activities of a small group of experts representing a largely inactive rank and file, has devastated the level of union power in the United States. The level of union representation of the United States has gone from 35% to less than 10% in the past thirty years because of this logic.
More significantly, all major gains in union power have occurred because of the sacrifices and militancy of rank and file power. The current dominant logic of the unions has pissed away the blood and sacrifice of those women and men through this inaction. Whatever their intentions, the effect of the policies of business unionism has been the wholesale destruction of working class power. Perhaps after three decades of capitulation to the bourgeoisie on the basis of a long dead post war labor peace, we can recognize ineffectiveness of this approach to union organizing within the context of neo-liberalism. For those who are interested in looking into this with more detail, I recommend the work of Kim West, as well as the work of Bill Fletcher.
That is why I am recommending a NO vote on the current contract. The only legitimate basis of labor struggle is based upon the active participation of the rank and file. Democracy is the process of making decisions collectively, not the simple passive act of voting on a contract. We need to go to the table again to bargain on that basis.  I think that we are capable of remarkable things when we act, and perhaps we should give ourselves the chance to do so.

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