There was a recent kerfuffle on the Santa Cruz Academic Workers for an Democratic Union website recently in response to a posting by my friend and colleague, Sara Smith. The dispute arose because a member of the leadership of the union (now calling themselves the 'Social and Economic Justice Caucus', but largely known as an extension of the UAW's larger administration caucus) posted a series of responses anonymously. My intention is to read those responses symptomatically, revealing the reductionist and problematic approach that the official leadership take to questions of collectivity, democracy, politics, and procedure. But before I begin that analysis, I thought I would offer a brief summary of Smith's argument.
In her critique of the procedures of the union, Smith largely makes two claims about the union. 1. The power of the president to temporarily appoint officers throughout the union, which was initially introduced as a stop gap measure to fill offices at moments of crisis (most notably during contract bargaining, in order to give the union a better bargaining position) is being used to make decisions about who will take leadership positions in the union without democratic elections. 2. The structures of the dissemination of information disallow the elected officers of from communicating with the membership without going through the central office, in effect creating an ultra-centralist approach to organizational structure, giving the central office an effective veto on all forms of communication, but more significantly, making it very difficult for the elected leadership of the various campuses to communicate with their rank and file in a fast and efficient manner. The essence of the critique is summarized effectively by Smith in her first rebuttal, "Finally, on the contrary, I think my views on what a truly democratic union looks like are very clear. What I’m opposed to is a version of democracy in which power is highly centralized, a version of democracy in which the top leadership *micro-manages* even the most mundane details of the union (creating a flyer, sending an email, ordering paper). I do in fact believe in a degree of autonomy for the campuses, rather than the rigidly centralized nature of our union as it currently exists."
None of these critiques will seem terribly surprising if you have kept up with the debates within the union at all. These critiques have been stated in a number of venues, including this one, and go back to larger debates that have gone on within a variety of counter-systemic movements. The critique effectively demands that the formal aspects of representational democracy need to be taken seriously. When these formal aspects are ignored, it is very easy for abuses to occur, effectively undercutting the ability for the rank and file of the organization to decide who is going to represent them, and to hold those representatives accountable. The demand for more responsibility on the part of the local branches can largely be seen as a demand for a more federalist system, allowing for the branches to take a greater role in shaping the strategies of the union, creating a less centralized structure, and introducing a more dialectical approach between the central leadership and the leadership of the branches. This would allow for the leadership of the branches to deal with the issues of their own rank and file in a more nuanced manner, and would additionally more directly connect the rank and file with representational structure of the union.
This produced an immediate response from a member of the so-called Social and Economic Justice Caucus. That response offered a critique of the technical interpretation of one of Smith's readings of the bylaws, but then largely fell into a mischaracterization of the argument. The argument effectively collapses Smith's argument into a claim for campus autonomy, or perhaps more significantly, “everyone gets to do what they want,” creating a straw man argument. More significantly, the definition of democracy that is offered is extremely limited, ignoring the question of institutional structures that Smith brings up in her critique. If we accepted the narrative provided by anonymous, then there is equal access for all members to produce platforms and factions under the principle of free association. But this narrative ignores the ways that the centralized structure of the union effectively limits these forms of horizontal communication, through limiting access to ways of communicating with each other, and by centralizing all forms of communication. Moreover, it ignores the ways in which the democratic centralist structure of the organization is manipulated to mark the legitimacy of the leadership's agenda and to delegitimize and exclude what falls outside of it. (Anyone who has been to a joint council meeting will understand the ways that Robert's Rules of Order are selectively enforced, for instance, or the secret meetings that often occur before a controversial decision amongst the leadership.) Perhaps most significantly, the initial post constructs a binary approach to the question of organization, either one accepts the status quo or one supports rampant individualism. This binarism goes hand in hand with the continual mischaracterization of the other arguments presented there.
Before we move on, I think that it is also important to recognize that anonymous never recognizes the relationship between the top down structure of the union and the low participation within the structures of the union. S/he refuses to recognize that an effective rank and file organization depends on the ability of those individuals to shape the decisions of the organization that they are in, to have a say, a way of making their labor meaningful. Instead, one can simply instrumentally fill these positions as needed, effectively reinforcing the centralist structure of the union at the cost of democracy. Additionally, s/he brings up mechanisms that ostensibly allow for the rank and file to act as a counter-power in the structure of the union, but these structures either are very difficult to use (when referring to referendum) or appeal to the very structures that reinforce the structures of leadership that are ostensibly being opposed. Finally, the independence of the election committee has been put under question during the contract elections. (At a more basic level, it's notable that we were inundated with emails from the leadership to support the contract, without any reference to the dissent both in the rank and file and on the bargaining committee itself.)
The second set of debates are all to familiar if one has been involved in these conversation. Anonymous brings up a series of incidents that have occurred during the conflict over the contract. These primarily involve the use of provocative language and imagery to condemn and satirize the leadership, the structure of the union, and the process of bargaining and voting on the contract. Anonymous uses these actions taken in a variety of contexts, often by individuals, to stand in for the behavior of the reform caucus as a whole. S/he opposes this with the principled and restrained behavior of the leadership. There are a couple significant problems with this. First, there is an uncanny resonance between these claims and the university's claim for the need for civility, both are committed to neutralizing errant forms of speech in defense of some form of status quo. (I think that some of these actions were problematic, tactically and ethically, but that is another conversation.) More significantly, by making the debate about the conduct around the contract dispute a matter of speech acts, anonymous effectively erases the ways that the leadership shaped the contract process through small acts of repression of the opposition. This occurred through excluding bargaining team members from important conversations, through limited communication of the bargaining process to the rank and file, and through the selective use of disciplinary actions to remove dissenting members from the bargaining process. Additionally, the decorum of the caucus was dropped in closed door sessions, openly attacking dissenting members, and using divide and conquer techniques in one on one meetings and phone calls. Why would the caucus members use photoshop when these mechanisms were available?
I want to end this conversation responding to the last comment made by anonymous. In response to Jessica's distaste for the rhetoric of the so-called social and economic justice caucus in her comment, “Frankly, ‘speaking with one voice’ is kind of creepy”, s/he states, "You see, it’s called COLLECTIVE bargaining for a reason. And that’s because, with collective bargaining, the workers do, in fact, speak with “one voice” to management. Otherwise, individual workers would be free to negotiate individual contracts. And in the labor movement, those individual contracts have historically been known as “yellow dog” contracts, and are typically used as a management ploy.
So the fact that Jessica finds this foundational principle of collective bargaining, that workers speak with “one voice”, to be “creepy” should tell people a lot about her true views on the labor movement, “militant” protestations notwithstanding."
More than anything else in the conversation, we see the impoverished understanding of collectivity on the part of anonymous. S/he immediately collapses the term 'collective' and unity, when 'unity' (or to speak as one voice) is only one approach to creating a collectivity, one that has tactical advantages within certain contexts (such as collective bargaining), but is repressive and anti-democratic when it is interpreted as the only approach to collectivity. It's also notable that s/he once again slips back into binary logic, offering only the option of the present approach to bargaining or individual contracts, ignoring the demand for a different type of collective bargaining. It's important to note that the ability to 'speak as one voice' when at the bargaining table only effectively works when an intense process of debate occurs within the union to establish our priorities. The ability to 'speak with one voice' is a tactic made effective through this genuinely collective process. It's also a process that needs to occur throughout the bargaining process to gauge the shifting views of that collectivity, mapping out where it is willing to compromise and where it is not. In effect, s/he has put the process of collectivity on its head, interpreting the effect, ie the tactical creation of a 'unity at the bargaining table' for a cause, which must be understood as the process of a genuine participatory democracy.
As a final note, people are expected to name themselves in the course of any discussion that occurs here. I'm going to delete anonymous comments as I see fit.