Academic Narrow-mindedness, or the Idealization of Collective Bargaining: A Reason for Starting a Blog, Part One

It has been slightly more than three years since I started this blog. I thought it appropriate to begin a series of posts on what, partly, inspired me to start this blog. 

Before I started this blog, I had sent an article critical of the implied concept of “free collective bargaining.” The article was rejected for publication. Given that the reasons for rejecting the article seemed absurd, I decided to skip the academic process and post directly my views. This seemed all the more necessary since the journal that rejected my article is called Critical Education.

Since I believe in the politics of exposure (exposing the real nature of social processes and not the rhetoric of such processes), I thought it would be appropriate to post my proposed article, the criticisms of my article by the reviewers and my commentary on their criticisms.

The proposed article is found in the Publications and Writings link on my blog, entitled “Critique of Collective Bargaining Models in Canada.” (There is a slight difference between the article submitted to Critical Education and the one found at the link: the article submitted to Critical Education contains an abstract, which I include below, and the title of the proposed article was changed to: “A Critique of an Implicit Model of Collective Bargaining: The Nova Scotia Teachers’ Strike and a Fair Contract.”

Abstract

This paper looks at Brian Forbes’ presentation of the recent Nova Scotia teachers’ strike in order to analyze critically the nature of collective bargaining in a capitalist context. Forbes shows the underhanded nature of the McNeil government’s supposed negotiations, but he implies (like many trade unionists) that collective bargaining, in its normal form, results in a fair contract. The paper argues against this view. It does so in two ways. Firstly, it looks at Jane McAlevey’s alternative method of collective bargaining. Secondly, it looks at the limitations of her method in terms of the capitalist economic structure—especially as am exploitative and oppressive structure that transforms workers into means for others’ ends. A humanist view, by contrast, requires that human beings need to be treated as ends in themselves in a democratic fashion at work. Such a view, however, is rarely discussed precisely because the rhetoric of a fair (collective) contract in the context of the collective power of employers prevents such discussion from occurring.

Key words: teachers, collective bargaining, capitalism, exploitation, oppression, strikes, justice, fairness, Nova Scotia, Jane McAlevey

The decision to reject the article as is, as well as the first review are given below along with my comments on the first review. I put the reviewer’s evaluation in quotation marks:

We have reached a decision regarding your submission to Critical Education, “A Critique of an implicit model of collective bargaining: The Nova Scotia teachers’ strike and a fair contract”.
Our decision is to: Decline submission.

Three external reviewers supplied reports (see below); I have also attached the file with the marginal comments of Reviewer C.

All three reviewers see potential in the manuscript and each recommends major revisions are necessary before the manuscript is ready for publication. The comments are the reviewers are quite detailed, but in short I believe it’s fair to say they all agreed that further theorizing and deepened/more sustained analysis of events are necessary.

I hope you find the feedback from the readers helpful as continue to work on this project.

Yours truly,

E Wayne Ross
Co-Editor, Critical Education
University of British Columbia
wayne.ross@ubc.ca
——————————————————
Reviewer A:

“The author identifies his/her aim as using the  Nova Scotia teachers’ strike “in order to analyze critically the nature of collective bargaining in a capitalist context.” The author disputes the assumption that workers under capitalism can use collective bargaining (hereafter CB) to create human workplaces, using Jane McAlevey’s book with a new paradigm for collective bargaining as an example of why even reformed CB will not succeed in transcending what are  CB’s inherent limitations as a strategy for creating a humane workplace.

I think this submission could be a useful addition to research and thinking about the limitations of  CB in altering teachers’ work, however for it to be so it requires significant revision.

 • The Nova Scotia strike becomes lost in the paper’s analysis. If the author wants to retain this focus, the critique of McAlevey’s book should be applied to the Nova Scotia strike.”

This reviewer at least appears to capture my intent—although s/he subsequently fails to show such understanding. I do indeed aim at showing the limitations of collective bargaining even in the improved form of Jane McAlevey’s approach to collective bargaining.

However, given this focus, the Nova Scotia strike and Brian Forbes’ implicit contrast of what “good collective bargaining” should be when compared to what transpired during the Nova Scotia teachers’ strike (Brian Forbes’ implicit attitude is an example of what the typical trade-union leaders’ attitude is towards collective bargaining), serve as an exemplar of the implicit attitude of union representatives towards collective bargaining as a process and product (the collective agreement). In other words, I use the case of the NTSU and Brian Forbes’ implicit use of the run-of-the bill bargaining process (and the resulting run-of-the-mill collective agreement) as a representative of what is typical among union representatives in their practical dealings with workers, managers and employers: As John Dewey argued, in his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, pages 436-437):

We arrive again at the conclusion that “induction” is a name for the complex of methods by which a given case is determined to be representative, a function that is expressed in its being a specimen or sample case.’ The problem of inductive inquiry, and the precautions that have to be observed in conducting it, all have to do with ascertaining that the given case is representative, or is a sample or specimen. There is no doubt that some cases, several or many, have to be examined in the course of inquiry: this is necessarily involved in the function of comparison-contrast within inquiry. But the validity of the inferred conclusion does not depend upon their number. On the contrary, the survey and operational comparison of several cases is strictiy instrumental to determination of what actually takes place in anyone case. The moment anyone case is determined to be such that it is an exemplary representative, the problem in hand is solved. It is customary to infer from examples and illustrations; from what Peirce calls diagrams or “icons.” That course has been frequently followed in the course of previous discussions. But it should be clear without argument that the entire value of such a mode of inference depends upon whether or not the case is genuinely exemplary and illustrative.

I used the NSTU [Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union] strike and Brian Forbes’ attitude towards an obvious breach in collective-bargaining protocol as an exemplar or representative  of the limitations of traditional collective bargaining.

I used Jane McAlevey’s book as an illustration (exemplar) of a changed collective-bargaining practice that, though it breaks new ground in some areas of collective bargaining, nonetheless shares many of the assumptions of the traditional collective-bargaining model. Ms. McAlevey persistently refers to the contract that she negotiated as a “good contract.”

In addition, when Ms. McAlevey presented her model in Toronto, I specifically pointed out that I had tried to expose the limitations of the collective-bargaining process by indicating what we had demanded and what we had obtained. Her response was that she did not know whether that was such a good idea. That is the point—her model, like the traditional collective-bargaining model, does not enable workers to see the limitations of the model. Ultimately, despite the innovations in her model, Ms. McAlevey idealizes collective bargaining in a modified form—her own model. The point is not to idealize it but to expose its inadequacies.

“• The language is often polemical in a way that undercuts the author’s credibility as a passionate and also objective analyst. Describing an action as “underhanded” isn’t useful or necessary. Present instead empirical evidence.  One way this can be done is to identify who besides the author understood the action as “underhanded”? Others present? Leaflets? This becomes the source of the description.”

The suggestion of providing further evidence is useful in order to bolster the argument. However, to claim that polemics undercuts credibility is an academic point of view. The audience to whom I aim are workers—not academics. What would be an “objective” analysis in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers?

“• Often the article is not clear in its focus. Is this a critique of the limitations of CB or of the limitations of trade unionism under capitalism?”

It is both; they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are tied together during this time. Some trade unions may not engage in the rhetoric of fair contracts and so forth, but where are they? Certainly in Canada the trade-union leaders idealize both the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement. See two previous posts that illustrate the rhetoric of fair contracts by the two largest unions in Canada (  Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One  and ???     ). 

“If it’s the former, what would unions do to protect workers’ rights if they didn’t negotiate contracts in a capitalist society?  What might workers’ struggles look like?”

It is not a question of not negotiating contracts; it is a question of not idealizing such contracts and bullshitting workers by claiming that such contracts are somehow “fair” or that they somehow are “livable”–a typically apologist point of view of management and union alike.

“A provocative example of this is how teachers and school employees in West Virginia who do
not have the right to bargain collectively or the right to strike have closed down the schools in the entire state for a week, outside of the union’s control or leadership.”

This is beside the point. The strike was a wildcat strike; wildcat strikes have occurred in other contexts. Such strikes have not aimed at challenging the inadequacy of collective bargaining in principle but the inadequacy in particular circumstances. They may or may not challenge such inadequacy—but the point is to do just that.

In addition, did the West Virginia strike actually challenge the idealization of collective bargaining? It could have the potential to do so—but whether such potential was realized would require evidence that the potential was realized in practice.

Unless there is evidence to the contrary, it can be concluded that since collective bargaining is illegal in West Virginia, the strike did not challenge the principle of collective bargaining. It was an effort to achieve results without collective bargaining by going on an illegal strike. Workers have gone on illegal (wildcat) strikes before (even when collective bargaining is legal) without challenging the inadequacy of collective-bargaining in principle. Such strikes do indeed challenge the inadequacy of particular collective agreements (and the concomitant collective-bargaining process), but they often do not often do so explicitly and need not be a general criticism of the collective-bargaining process or a general criticism of collective agreements. That is what is needed now.

[For an analysis of the West Virginia teachers’ strike, see the post The West-Virginia Teachers’ Strike and a Socialist Movement).

“• I think the piece will be more focused without the author’s anecdotes about his/her work experiences as a teacher and union representative.”

In other words, forget about a worker’s own experiences “as a teacher” (that is to say, as a worker of a particular kind) “and union representative” (that is to say, as a radical union representative who questioned the legitimacy of the power of employers to dictate to workers what to do, when to do it and how to do it)). Linked to the claim that the polemical style lacks objectivity, the idea that a radical worker’s personal experiences should be excluded is meant to “academize” the writing—making it more conform to the typical form and content of academic writing.

Is there really any wonder why I stopped trying to have any further writings published by means of formal academic journals?

“But if these are included, they should be more closely tied to analysis about the Nova Scotia strike.”

The Nova Scotia strike is an occasion for illustrating the inadequacy of collective bargaining and the inadequacy of present unions—and my experiences as a teacher (and as an employee) and as a radical union representative were also to be illustrative of this. The focus is hardly the Nova Scotia strike; the issues are much wider.

“• The author briefly discusses education, teachers’ work and CB. If this material is retained, it should make note of some of the considerable research on teachers’ work.”

Teachers are employees; the specificity of their work as teachers is irrelevant in relation to the issue of their existence as employees and their relationship to the typical process of collective bargaining and to the collective agreement (although the specific nature of their work may have an impact in other circumstances). To discuss that specificity would detract from the focus on the inadequacy of collective bargaining and the collective agreement.

“I suggest this manuscript be taken through a significant revision, moderating its language, supporting its claims with evidence,  to do what it states is its focus: A critical examination of the limits of CB in the strike in Nova Scotia.”

The academic contradicts her/himself. S/he accurately characterizes, initially, the manuscript as using the Nova Scotia teachers’ strike as a means of criticizing collective bargaining. Now, s/he claims that I claim that my focus is a critical examination of collective bargaining in the strike in Nova Scotia. They are not the same thing by any means. S/he aims to narrow my aim, but such narrowness is exactly what I am criticizing.

“The questions it is addressing seem to me  “What was needed to improve teachers’ working conditions?” “How did ideology about the role of unions in capitalism and within that, the importance of CB, affect the outcome?”  The latter question will involve application of Jane McAlevey’s book.”

Again, it is the reviewer who is confused—s/he at first accurately characterizes my intent in the article and then inaccurately characterizes it.

“If the author wants to discuss a framework for labor that transcends CB, I suggest looking at Stanley Aronowitz’s “The death and life of American labor: Toward a new workers’ movement.” Although it focuses on US labor its arguments seem quite relevant to the Canadian context. “The future of our schools,” by Lois Weiner might also be useful as it discusses the limitations of CB.”

I subsequently looked at Aronowitz’s book and included a reference to it in this blog (see The Educational Needs of the Labour Movement: A Radical Imagination). Aronowitz does provide an interesting point of view that is consistent with this blog. Thus, Aronowitz argues that we need to have a new labour movement with a social vision of the good life. However, my emphasis in the article that I sent was on the implicit inadequacy of the collective-bargaining model that Brian Forbes implicitly uses to criticize what happened during the Nova Scotia teachers’ strike. A new social vision requires a break, at least in Canada, with the typical idealization of the collective-bargaining process and the idealization of the collective agreement.

Although there were a few useful suggestions in the above review, in general the reviewer failed to adequately capture how I carried out of my intent to expose the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements. Along with the comments of the other reviewers, I decided that it was a waste of time to attempt to have my views formally published in academic journals. Starting a blog would carry out more effectively my intent.

A future post will look, critically, at the second reviewer’s assessment.

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