Friday, April 30, 2004

Dialogue with my Union Stewart 1


Subject: Re: The Strike Is On
From: my@emailaddress.com
Date:Wed, 28 Apr 2004 18:30:13 -0500
To: My Department's Steward

I hope things went smoothly for you today. As you suggested, I entered through the garage, and met with Prof. Soll to discuss my term paper, and I exited the same way.

> First, the complaint you expressed about the decision making process seems misguided. The criticism you raise seems one that could apply
> to any democratic decision in which the voting turnout is not 100%.
> How else could a volunteer, democratic organization make decisions
> besides holding general meetings at which these decisions may be
> discussed and voted on? Over half of the philosophy dept attended.

No, no, that's not what I meant. What I meant was that the TAA's demand that NO ONE, undergrad, faculty, non-TAA grads, etc., enter buildings, was undemocratic. The TAA does not represent these people, so it has no moral authority over anyone who was not a voluntary member. As you say, decisions of organizations (and governments), even in the most democratic of circumstances, should not depend on 100% turn-out (aside, perhaps, from some circumstances that could have a mandated quorum).

> By the way, at any point, you could have joined the TAA and tried to
> influence the decision by presenting arguments at one of these
> meetings. So as I said, this criticism seems misguided to me. And

But there's the rub. I do not support this strike. I think the TAA's been completely wrong-headed from the beginning. As a member, I could exercise a small amount of power in my ability to vote, attend meetings, speak, and the like. But membership is a double-edged sword. Since I doubt very seriously that I could persuade others to my way of thinking, my impact would be negligible. But even worse, as a member, I would be bound by whatever decisions the TAA made, including striking, even when they violate my values. So why join, when it would only obligate me to accept the authority of decisions that I will almost certainly disagree with?

> what is the relevance of the fact that 40,000 undergrads did not get
> to vote? This is irrelevant. They are not members of the
> organization (though they can join as associate members, actually).
> So yes, this is democracy.

No, that was precisely my point. They could not vote, so the TAA lacks any authority to tell them that they can't attend their own classes. The TAA only has authority over its own members (yes, whether they make it to meetings or not).

> Second, one of the purposes of a picket line is to stop the functionality of the workplace. The workplace in question is a place
> of education. Thus, to be wholly effective, our picket line would

Why is this the case? Not speaking of UW and the TAA specifically, but in general about unions. It seems to me that the thing that gives rise to this idea is that by picketing certain businesses, a union's "stopping the functionality of the workplace" costs an employer money. A union may thereby increase the costs of not acceding to the union's demands, hitting the employer "in the pocket book," thus giving the employer enormous incentive to back down.

Now, how exactly does this situation map on the plight of grad students at UW? UW is a non-profit, state university. By walking out and pressuring everyone, all non-TAA people who may otherwise attend, how does this provide an incentive for the State's bargaining committee or the State Legislature to cave in to TAA demands? If anything, and judging from what politicians have said about the strike, it sounds like it only provides fresh ammo for people who may push for policies that the TAA would likely oppose.

> stop all instruction and other work within the buildings picketed.
> Yes, the primary purpose is to prevent graduate employees from
> performing their tasks. But a secondary purpose is to dissuade
> undergrads, faculty, staff, and non-TAA member grad students from
> entering and participating in the business of the building. When
> people cross the picket line, it does not weaken the strike in the
> sense of letting the state know numbers of people who crossed. Instead, when people cross the line, they contribute to the
> functionality of the workplace, which is what we are trying to stop.

As I indicated above, it's not clear how the functionality of the "workplace" makes a difference for the TAA in negotiation, aside from undermining community and political support, alienating potential allies and empowering opponents.

> If the workplaces are functional without us, we clearly are not
> essential to them. But if our striking shuts the workplace down
> completely, then we gain leverage at the bargaining table. I hope
> this is clear now. By the way - for the reasons stated above, your

What you say here may apply to the grade strike (though I'm not certain even about that), but I'm not sure that the same is true of the walk-out. The thing that troubles me is that if anything, grads appeared decidedly _inessential_. Most classes continued after all - many people just met in the Rathskeller or outside for their course, and I just entered HCW through the garage instead of the front. But then, because the University still functioned more or less like it was supposed to, you certainly only had symbolic impact, and as one person expressed to me, "not even good symbolism," given that it made grad students look petty and unconcerned with the educational welfare of their students. Even if we both know that's not the reality, perception is what matters if you're aiming for a symbolic victory.

I still don't see what me crossing a picket line to attend a seminar or meet with my professor, none of which involves graduate employment, plays a role in the TAA's prospects at the bargaining table. Had Prof. Soll met with me on State Street, or held the seminar there, the University would have been just as functional, and as I argued above, the TAA doesn't even have a symbolic victory.

> crossing the picket line would hurt grad student interests. And even

More than the strike itself already has?

> if you choose to cross, you will not receive verbal abuse (if by that
> you mean swearing, screaming, etc). Instead, you would experience

I didn't expect that kind of thing from the philosophers, but there were reports of such activity, and I knew that philosophers wouldn't be the only ones at the picket line.

> your fellow graduate students pleading with you not to enter, and
> then their disappointed looks when you refuse to honor our line. As
> I said, however, the most important thing is for grad student
> employees not to work. Your crossing would hurt our cause, but to a lesser extent than if you were crossing to work.

This is only way that I could see it having an impact, I suppose. As you articulated to me today at HCW, it might have hurt the morale of strikers to see a graduate student like myself enter the building. But if that's the case, it's only because that's the emotional value that strikers put upon that action, because that action played no causal role for the TAA one way or the other.

And it should be said - this also cuts both ways. I may only be one person, but what emotion do you think I felt when I saw the strikers blocking the entrance? Disappointment and sadness would sum it up pretty well. But does where I'm coming from make sense here? The picket line created a situation where people with different values or different understandings of how to apply those values had to choose between doing what they felt was right and disappointing their friends. It was a conflict of the TAA's own devising, and one that didn't need to be there.

> Thank you for your understanding.

Ditto. :)

BTW - judging from your emails up until Monday, you clearly didn't want this strike to happen either, so I'm sorry if any of the points above were just preaching to the choir.

Cheers,

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