Saturday, March 27, 2004

Wearing the Union Label

I also tried to go to the TAA's (Teaching Assistant Association – the graduate student labor union at UW, organized under the banner of the AFT) general membership meeting Thursday evening. It was well-attended from what I could tell. But one kind of obvious thing should have gotten my attention about the premise of the meeting – that it was a members meeting. People were lined up outside, and a woman tried to bring order to chaos by having us line up in two groups, according to our last names. That's when I realized. I asked the woman point blank about this, and she said that yes, you had to be a member to attend. But if I just got in this other line, I could sign up right then and there. I just barely overheard her say that as I walked away, eventually going home.

Why didn't I sign up, you ask? Two reasons. First, there are weird technicalities about whether I can join now, because I'm not actually in the bargaining unit until next fall. Until then, although I get some benefits like subsidized health care, I can only be a kind of proxy member. I didn't want to mess with that, or the membership fee I'd have to pay. But the second reason was more substantive, and has largely been vindicated by the TAA's behavior of late.

You might think that, given that I will soon (starting this fall) have to pay the same membership fee full members pay anyway, that I might as well join. The TAA, like all grad student unions, operates as a union-shop. In compliance with the Taft-Hartley Act, they cannot compel membership or “closed” shops. But the law allows them to have it written into the contract that all employees, members and non-members alike, pay the membership fee. The reasoning is, well, the union still acts on behalf of the non-members, and the non-members get certain benefits from the TAA's actions. “It's just as justifiable as compulsory taxation!,” they argue. (Hmm...) This also helps the TAA to encourage people to become full members when they might not otherwise bother; I received TAA propaganda making this very argument when I first arrived here. “You already pay the fee, so why not join, and play a role in decision making?” Obnoxious.

But aside from being obnoxious, why not join? Simple – I don't want to participate in illegal strikes, or be castigated by the Unionistas for choosing not to participate in one. And if there is something compelling about the TAA's claims that joining symbolizes solidarity and the like, then there is an equally compelling argument that joining morally sanctions the TAA's existence and nature. I don't necessarily object to the idea of, say, graduate students organizing on an ad hoc basis to pressure regents or other authority figures for specific grievances. But public choice theory (and personal experience) says a lot about established organizations operating in political contexts; they do not serve a purpose and “whither away,” like Marx's post-Communist State, they only demand more in terms of power and money. The TAA, in effect, operates as a permanently established special interest. But what makes it worse than that is that it's motivated by almost undiluted Marxist ideology; membership would give it extra power to wreck havoc in my professional life, and to a large extent, in my educational and personal life. I won't sanction such an organization with my voluntary membership. They can force me to pay for them, but they can't force me to like them or support them morally.

To be sure, I have thought about joining from time to time, in hopes of being a voice of reason that could moderate the TAA and make them less Marxist, and more rational. But based on events of the last few weeks, that would be futile, self-defeating gesture. I don't want to play the martyr, or get actively involved with this. Besides, the leadership cabal of the TAA has already decided they want to mount their illegal strike. Today, I saw some of the minutes from the meeting, and it looks they're planning to hold the big vote in a few weeks. I'm betting it will pass. The minutes handed out at the meeting, true to form, only contained material about why striking was a good idea, and why it was imperative to plan it, and why the negative consequences were easy to mitigate. (Here's what their website says about their meeting.) I don't get the sense that they want an open debate. They want to strike, and will serve as the vanguard of the graduate student proletariat, leading us into the strike they think will shake the regents and state government to its knees.

For what, you are probably asking? What abuses could motivate such a reaction? No, UW hasn't violated any contracts, and there are no abuses of “graduate workers” I've seen cited anywhere. You see, the leadership doesn't like the new contract the State offered them. It only increases pay by a modest 1% instead of the 5% the TAA wants, and even worse, the State wants graduates to pay (I think) $9 a month for their health insurance, instead of getting it for free, as they do now. If it's such a bad contract, why not pass it on to the members to vote down? Instead, they've decided it's worse-case scenario time, and they want to strike. Please. $9 a month is nothing when you consider how much the cost of health care is increasing for everyone. I wouldn't be surprised if the State is actually paying significantly more for this contract than it is for the previous contract, even with the extra $9. We do get free tuition, after all, and that has to cost the State something substantial considering how the price of that is going up. I'm still unclear on why graduate students should retain free health care when everyone else's costs are skyrocketing – what makes us so special so as to be free from basic economic laws? Oh, that's right – to each according to their need.

So yeah. That's why I'm not joining. Even if it's kind of useless to stop the abuses its framers wanted to stop, I suppose Taft-Hartley is better than nothing. At least this way, I can cross picket lines with greater ease, as a non-member. I only hope that the Unionistas remember their distinction between members who don't go along with the strike, and non-members who don't go a long with the union. If they treat us as scabs, I'll only be more vindicated in my decision.

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