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.