The tragedy of the unorganized

Organizers might assume that organizing among highly-educated and critical university lecturers and librarians would be a piece of cake. Most lecturers and librarians know that the production of educational and cultural goods, while central to any university, does not insulate the producers of these goods from gross inefficiencies. As in any under- or unregulated business, efficiencies tend to migrate up the income hierarchy. Those who produce these efficiencies — those at the bottom — are rarely these same individuals who enjoy their benefits; in large measure because policy-making is left to those, relatively speaking, at the top of the income hierarchy.

And, for the most part, organizing among highly-educated and critical university lecturers and librarians is a piece of cake. And, yet, occasionally — more often than you would think — you run into individuals who, “on philosophical grounds” will not join the union.

Yesterday, I donated a few hours to organizing lecturers and librarians for the California Federation of Teachers. This entails working through a list of names that shows the room where they are teaching, their department, and when they are scheduled to finish their teaching. Armed with literature and a sign-up form, organizers let as yet unorganized lecturers or librarians know what the union has done for them — which is substantial — and let them know that fees are already being deducted from their wages to support this work. Since the union is currently in contract negotiations, it would strengthen the union’s hand to have every fee-paying lecturer and librarian be counted among the union members. All the lecturer or librarian needs to do is sign up and instantly their fees are transformed into dues. Its that simple.

But yesterday for the first time I ran into a lecturer who was positively hostile to the union. “Let me make this short. I appreciate what you are doing, but, on philosophical grounds, I cannot let someone else represent my interests. Therefore I will never become a member of either of the unions that claim to be representing me.”

When you run into someone who is openly hostile to collective bargaining, there is little to say. “Thank you for your candor. I appreciate you giving me your time. Have a nice day.”

And, yet, judged analytically, the hostile response of this lecturer is a tragedy since, in matter of fact, he is represented; but his voice is muted. He is represented by the CFT/AFL-CIO, which accounts for why he enjoys a contract superior to the contracts endured by non-represented lecturers and librarians on other campuses; and he is represented by university management, which has no other goal than to increase efficiencies by reducing the costs of the factors of their production, chiefly labor. These two parties — his union and his employer — are negotiating; and they will negotiate whether he is a member of the union or not. Moreover, the CFT will use his fees to support their efforts at improving his contract whether he is a member or not. All that changes is that he will not play an active role shaping the union’s goals.

Analytically, the hostile response is a tragedy. Which makes me curious about the “philosophical grounds” informing his hostility: I refuse to be represented by another agent. Of course, he is represented; and not simply as a lecturer at UC Berkeley. He is represented in the City of Berkeley by School Board and City of Council members; he is represented in Sacramento by Assembly and Senate members; and he is represented in Washington, DC, presumably by Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein, and Barbara Lee. And he is represented by the union to whom he currently pays fees (not dues) and by his employer’s representatives who are trolling for that sweet spot sufficient to attract quality lecturers at as low a cost as possible.

But, since he is represented in all of these ways, what can it possibly mean for him to refuse to be represented by another agent? After giving it some thought, I think I know the answer. I think what this union-hostile lecturer was in fact telling me was: I feel that I have no voice. I feel that other people are speaking for me and are silencing my voice. I don’t want other people to speak or act for me. I want to speak and act for myself, in my own defense, in my own interests.

Perhaps it is now clearer why I consider this a tragedy. Philosophically, in the best of all possible worlds, each of us would independently represent ourselves under only conditions we ourselves have created and chosen. Yes, there is much hostility, misanthropy, and anger in this wish: I wish that I were alone. And, yes, there is a lot of fear; fear of being controlled, used, duped. How tragic. But there is also a fundamental failure to grasp how human society works.

I don’t think it is revealing too much to say that this particular lecturer is in the sciences. Does he believe that quarks and muons behave as they do in complete isolation from one another? Or does he believe that their rigid adherence to fixed (although dynamic) laws of physics relieves them (as it should relieve us) of choice in the matter? How very annoying that we must wrestle with these matters. How very troublesome that we must engage one another and resolve conflict in this messy, less than fully lawful, manner. How much better were it all automatic — like supply and demand, like neoliberal price theory, like the market mechanism, like quantum mechanics.

But it is not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.