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Should faculty embrace solidarity?

Taking a side should come after careful consideration, not instead of it.


 

The CBU maintenance workers’ strike is less than a day old, and a new villain in the dispute has already emerged in the Facebook statusphere: faculty. Not the strikers for walking out, not the administration for refusing  the requested pay raise, but faculty for not being supportive enough. Why? Because the workers want a 2.9 per cent increase in pay, the same percentage increase that faculty got in their 2009 agreement. How can fat-cat profs pocket their loot (not that cats have pockets, but you get the point) and not support their brothers in arms who want only the same deal?

Underlying this question is the idea that unions should necessarily support one another. It’s called solidarity. Or, as a senior faculty association member put it to me, “the principle of solidarity.” Solidarity says that since the maintenance workers are a union and we are a union, we must necessarily be on their side. Whatever their position, whatever the employer’s position, the principle holds: unions are always right.

This plays well in Cape Breton, where a lifelong Caper once told me “Everybody hates their boss: it’s the pit mentality,” but I’m not buying a ticket to this show. Why not? Because solidarity means not evaluating the particular case on its merits. It means closing one’s mind and taking sides without critically appraising the evidence. That kind of thinking is dangerous in general, and it is anathema to a university. The whole point of my job as a professor is to encourage independent thinking, to get students to question authority and to take a position based on evidence. To side with one side or another only because they are on our side flies in the face of every principle of sound intellectual discourse.

Case in point: the maintenance workers want a 2.9 per cent bump, arguing that if the university can pay faculty more, they can pay others more. Fair enough. But there are reasonable counter-arguments. The most obvious is this: CBU faculty justified that raise based on a comparison with other small Nova Scotia universities. Would it not follow, then, that fair compensation for other CBU employees would be based on what others doing similar jobs at similar institutions make? Are our guys paid less than the guys at Acadia or SMU? I don’t know and I don’t know if anyone has checked, but I would want to know before I took a stand one way or the other.

For all I know, they deserve more than 2.9 per cent. Similarly, the CBUFA signed its agreement when the university was still in the middle of a three-year funding agreement with the province. Now a new agreement is being worked on and all indications are that money will be tighter very soon. So one might reasonably argue that the situation of the two unions is simply not the same. I have it on good authority that other maintenance workers at the university have already settled for what this union has refused; should the other maintenance workers be out fighting for their coworkers to be paid more than they are? That’s a tough question. And that is to say nothing of an even tougher question: are maintenance workers as important to the university as faculty?

None of this is to say that the strikers are wrong. Only that I don’t know if they are or not. Perhaps others could effectively counter my concerns, but that is just my point. If I am  going to take a position at all, I would need to know the facts and think them through, and ask questions and hear answers. Sadly, that kind of thing doesn’t happen much in the context of labour disputes. Lines are drawn, sides are taken, and sneers are leveled at those who question the unquestionable principle of solidarity.


 

Should faculty embrace solidarity?

  1. I think you should venture outside and speak with the striking workers and take a pamphlet, which I understand they have to pass out today. You may become more informed and be able to independently and critically assess the situation, as you state you wish to do. I’m sure you’d find there are more issues in the contract negotiations than just wages. I’m sure you’d find that other institutions have a larger staff to perform the same duties as well, which effects things significantly. Other professors and members of the faculty union have ventured outside, I’m sure the workers would be happy to talk to you. That being said, you might want to watch the speculation and innuendo about sabotage of elevators if you are still forming an opinion.

  2. Seeing how these are the maintenance workers, what other maintenance workers at CBU are you referring to? As for the 2.9% increase, it was offered to them last year, when other issues were still on the table. Now that offer has been withdrawn. Do a little research on labour laws- such action is known as bad faith bargaining.

    • Cynical Prof, it is my understanding that just as not all faculty are represented by the same union, not all maintenance workers are affected by this strike.

      As for withdrawing an offer, can you tell me where, precisely in labour law, withdrawing an offer is defined as necessarily in bad faith? From what I have read, good faith requires that parties make a reasonable effort and that the determination is a subjective one. Has the university acted in bad faith here? Maybe they have, but then can’t the union file some sort of complaint with the province? Have they filed one? Don’t get me wrong: I’m open to the argument, but “do a little research” is not really an argument.

      Update: I tried to get a pamphlet from the picketers but they had run out. I checked the NSGEU web site but could not find any detailed argument in support of Local 18’s position. I did find this. In fairness, the university’s site is no better.

      In any case, are the other CBU profs commenting here willing to concede my main point? That support for a strike should be based on the merits of the strikers’ case and not on solidarity among workers? If not, why not?

  3. Todd, my understanding is this other offer you refer to was made to CUPE staff, and I’m not aware of any maintenance positions in that union. I’ll concede that I’m not a labour lawyer, but in general, if you are negotiating or haggling over a price, and you go in the opposite direction than you were heading, it doesn’t go over well. Perhaps there is some legalese I’m unaware of, but it sure looks like bad faith, at least in spirit.

    Actually, I’m in general agreement with your main point- I don’t think solidarity should be blind. However, having looked at the facts of the case, I have decided to support the workers. While wages are the main issue remaining, issues of language and working conditions have been a big part of the negotiations. This is a group of people who for a long time have not been treated with respect, much the same as the faculty pre-2000.

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