Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ranciere and Contract Bargaining

        The past few bargaining sessions have provided a fairly good argument for the value of Jacque Ranciere's definition of politics, one that also retroactively links up with the reactions to the defensive of public education movement that began in 2009.  For those who haven't read Ranciere's Disagreement, and I suspect a fair amount of you haven't read the book, Ranciere sets up a distinction between the police and politics in his book.  He argues that the vast amount of activity placed under the category of the police.  Drawing off the work of Michel Foucault, he defines the role of the police as one that creates and enforces complex and hierarchical structures of order, whether in the form of forms of factory discipline, penality, or the forms of domination within the heteronormative and patriarchal family.  Politics only occurs in those moments where excluded and dominated parties, people he refers to as 'the part with no part' reject and try to undermine those orders.  We can see politics in the sense that Ranciere means it when workers fight for democratic control of their factories or when women reject their proscribed domestic roles.  We can see some potential limitations in Ranciere's definition.  After all, most counter-systematic movements contain a mixture of both a rejection of old orders, and the call for a new order, an intermixture of what Ranciere would consider politics and the police.

     Despite these issues, the value of the notion of the political as that which destroys conventional structures of order is of some value in watching the reactions of the labor relations officials when we bargain.  It has been precisely at the moments when we challenge the monopoly of power of the UC administration that those individuals become most nasty, when we bring up issues of class size, social justice issues such as all gender bathrooms, issues of discrimination, along with economic issues not traditionally within the purview of our contract.  It's precisely at these moments when we can recognize that the process of contract negotiation contains the potential for challenging the structures of order that those administrators have spent so much time policing the borders of, and their response gestures precisely to the sort of fear that can occur when those borders are challenged.  A more notable occasion happened in one of the late UCLA sessions, when we brought up potential discrepancies between the management rights clause of our contract and the stipulations demanded by the rules that regulate the collective bargaining process as set up by HEERA (Higher Education Employee Relations Act.)  The middle managers of labor relations went on a tirade, refusing to even answer our questions about the differences between the act and our contract.  In effect, even the implication of challenging the myopic domination of management must be stamped out, a response we saw in the conversation around classroom size and housing, both of which would create different expectations and relations within the university.

      Ironically enough, Ranciere's framework offers a pretty good explanation of why the conservative forces at Paycheck First have the same response to the new framework of demands as presented by the union.  They have dismissed many of the contract campaign, and have offered virtual no commentary on the activities that have gone on outside of the bargaining table as hundreds, if not thousands of rank and file members have acted to fight for a new contract.  Implicitly, they accept many of the same principles of policing set up by the administration of university, accepting the premise that was initially set up by the labor peace of the 1950's, where labor gave up its more radical aspirations of workers' control of the workplace for higher wages, job security, and some workplace regulations.  However, those demands were only gained by the properly political actions of radical unionists, who created the conditions for the labor peace, and were simultaneously crushed as the precondition of that very peace to go into effect.  (I want to emphasize that this peace destroyed thousands if not tens of thousands of workers' livelihoods, and occasion, lives.)  As we have moved away from the high points of radical activity within the labor movement, the ability of that movement to hold onto the gains it bargained at the cost of those radical activists.  From the impressive gains provided by business unionism in the 1950's at tragic costs, we see a comic repetition in the demands of Paycheck First, who cannot even imagine bargaining our way out of poverty wages, let alone contributing to the fight for a just and genuinely public university, as the majority of the bargaining team has attempted to accomplish.

     I should also note that Ranciere's analysis offers an interesting alternative view into the melodramatic interpretation of the conflicts within the union as offered by both Paycheck First and the former members of the USEJ caucus.  When we look at their descriptions of these conflicts, we find a very consistent narrative, built upon the concept of what Nietzsche calls wounded identity.  The narratives generally erase the political dimension of the conflict, what rules and traditions were being challenged within the conflict, and instead focus on the singular vision of wounded individual who defended these traditions.  Reform forces are generally presented as a malevolent collectivity exemplified by representative figures, who are often interchangeable.  This narrative is properly melodramatic in its Manichean vision of the good and the evil, the good being represented by the old traditions and leadership of the union and the evil by the inevitably incompetent and hypocritical collectivity of AWDU.  It is a narrative that erases the forms of implicit and explicit hierarchical domination that previously defined the union, the intimidation of union activists through yelling, and private one on one meetings (these would often occur in the middle of activities, with individuals being pulled behind closed doors, to be intimidated into voting the 'right way.')  The narrative also erases the lack of activity and participation within the union in those years. 

       The conflicts that have occurred in the past three years have inevitably occurred at moments when forms of policing have been reduced or eliminated from the union structure, from opening up structures of communication, to reducing the ability of single individuals to hold multiple offices.  The conflicts within the bargaining process, additionally, have generally occurred at moments when old assumed activities were not repeated in rote fashion.  (I will have more details on this question, later, when the process of bargaining is over.)  They have also occurred at moments when the new leadership has committed itself to the student movement, and has refused the automatic support of Democratic Party initiatives.  These conflicts have often been ugly, and I'm not going to fully endorse the actions that we have taken individually or as a caucus in all of these situations, but they have pointed towards a revitalized, more democratic, and stronger union structure.  We have moved the union from a massive political backwater to a relevant party in challenging the austerity measures of the state.  I think we have had distinct limitations in this reform process, which I hope change as I leave the union.  I would like us to give much more thought to our structures of organizing.  The reduction in membership is a process common to both the later years of the old leadership and our time in office, but we have not been able to reverse this process.  The ability to do so cannot, however, be accomplished by the simple acts of exhortation used by the old leadership, or their organizing techniques.  Instead, we need to develop new forms of organizing that engage with and challenge the new structures of the university.  They must be, within the framework laid out by Jacques Ranciere, political forms of organizing.

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