Academic Narrow-mindedness: A Reason for Starting a Blog, Part Three

This is a continuation of a previous post.

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, the short version of the third review (there is a long version of the third review, but I will not post that–it would be tedious to reply to all of reviewer C’s comments) as well as  my comments on the third review.

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 C begins his comments as follows:

Reviewer C:

“Please see the uploaded document for my complete review of the manuscript. Review of manuscript: “A Critique of an Implicit Model of Collective Bargaining: The Nova Scotia Teachers’ Strike and a Fair Contract”

The manuscript has potential; however, it requires major rewriting. The present manuscript lacks a clear focus and coherence. The author implies that the focus of the paper is the Nova Scotia teachers’ strike and Brian Forbes’ perspective about collective bargaining in relation to that struggle. However, there is very little content in the article that addresses the NS teachers’ struggle, the collective bargaining process, or the ‘collective agreement’ that was the outcome.”

The academic did not even understand the point of the article. I hardly implied “that the focus of the paper is the Nova Scotia teachers’ strike and Brian Forbes’ perspective about collective bargaining in relation to that struggle.” The focus of the article is on Brian Forbes’ perspective on collective bargaining in general as illustrated by his implied view of the fairness of collective bargaining in the case of bargaining and the breach of that form of what he considers fair collective bargaining by the Nova Scotia government.

The Nova Scotia teachers’ strike was an occasion to critically analyze a general perspective on collective bargaining by a former head of the Nova Scotia teachers’ union. This perspective, in turn, is illustrative of many trade-union representatives in Canada, such as Tracy McMaster, president of Greater Toronto Area Council (GTAC), to which are affiliated 35 local unions of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)), who referred to “decent work” and “fair wages” as something realizable in an employment relationship.

To be fair to the reviewer, in his long review, he does at one point correctly identify the point of my article: I wrote, on page 23:

Free collective bargaining cannot remedy the basic problem of treating human beings as means or things for others’ purposes

He wrote:

This seems to be the central thesis. Why not present this early as the focus the paper?

Part of what I was trying to do was indeed to show that collective bargaining and collective agreements cannot remedy this situation. However, since trade union representatives often claim that a contract is fair (even if they do not explicitly state it), my purpose was to criticize this implicit assumption. As I said near the beginning of the article:

The purpose of this article, though, is not to review the articles in the journal. Rather, it is to point out and criticize the hidden standard that is uncritically assumed by most of the authors of articles in the journal.

The reviewer fails to consider the need to criticize explicitly such hidden standards:

Indeed, only a paragraph is quoted in the words of Brian Forbes and the quote does not say what the author says it does. Forbes states that negotiating a contract with the full participation of the negotiating teams of both parties, instead of through backroom deals, would be an approach more likely to result in an agreement that both sides could live with. He was speaking about the process of collective bargaining, but the author claims that Forbes is referring to the outcomes of the process—the contents of the agreement. There is no evidence that this is the case.

This too is inaccurate. I explicitly state that the purpose of the article:

The purpose of this summary, however, is to provide the background for a critique of the implicit assumption by Forbes (and many of the other authors of the spring/summer edition) that the typical model of collective bargaining and the corresponding collective agreements constitute something that is fair or just to the members of the contract.

Process (collective bargaining) and product (the collective agreement) are both seen as limited, with the inadequacies of the process being reflected or expressed in the inadequacies of the product.

But let us look at my quote of Brian Forbes, or rather both what I wrote before the quote, the quote itself, and what I wrote immediately after the quote.

What I wrote before the quote:

The first question to ask is: Who is Brian Forbes? The brief biography at the end of the article provides a summary: “… a retired teacher. He taught for 30 years in Amherst and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia before serving as President of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union from 2000 to 2004” (2017, 29). The second question to ask is: What standard or criterion does he use to criticize what happened in Nova Scotia? A quote in the Herald News (Gorman, 27 November 2015) indicates what that standard is:

My quote of Brian Forbes’ statement:

What we suggest would be a reasonable way out is that the union … would say to the government, ‘There’s a lot of opposition to what has been presented to the members and very well may not pass and we should go back to the table, engage in proper collective bargaining, give the process time to work, discuss the issues that you said you want to discuss and try to arrive at something that we can both live with,’” said Forbes’.

What I wrote after the above quote:

The implication is that bargaining should occur through the bargaining teams ([quote of Brian Forbes’ statement] ‘engage in proper collective bargaining’). Further evidence of what Forbes believes is a legitimate or fair collective bargaining process is his statement in an information release from the South Shore District School Board, dated April 28 2003, when Forbes was president of the NSTU:

NSTU President Brian Forbes said, ‘The negotiations were conducted in a very professional manner, the resulting agreement was achieved in a timely fashion and teachers are satisfied with the results. I believe this agreement will not only benefit the South Shore District School Board and its teachers but, most importantly, the students.”

Indeed, the reviewer is correct to point out that Mr. Forbes is referring to the process of collective bargaining:

 Forbes states that negotiating a contract with the full participation of the negotiating teams of both parties, instead of through backroom deals, would be an approach more likely to result in an agreement that both sides could live with.

Forbes, unlike the reviewer, is not only referring to the process, but is implying that the process of collective bargaining in general leads to results that are fair. How else could “both sides live with it?” If one of the sides does not believe the agreement is fair, why would they comply with the provisions (except due to a consciousness of being forced to comply with the collective agreement)? Forbes , when he was president of the NSTU, links “the professional nature of the collective bargaining process” to the agreement being realized “in a timely fashion” and to teachers being “satisfied with the results.” Process and product are united. If the process is tainted (as it was in the case of the McNeil government), then the product will be tainted as well. Mr. Forbes does not explicitly state this, but it can be inferred from what he wrote. Such a connection between “free collective bargaining” and “fair contracts” (product) is constantly made by trade union reps either implicitly or explicitly.

The reviewer continues:

The preamble masks the real focus of the article, which is (apparently) a critique of the industrial model of labour-management relations and, in particular, a critique of business unionism within that model. At certain points, the manuscript becomes a critique of capitalism.

I explicitly stated, in the second paragraph, the following:

The purpose of this article, though, is not to review the articles in the journal. Rather, it is to point out and criticize the hidden standard that is uncritically assumed by most of the authors of articles in the journal.

That hidden standard, as I attempt to show, is the legitimacy or fairness of both collective bargaining as process and product—which is a legitimization of capitalism and the power of employers as a class.

The critique is hardly just of “business unionism”–but of unionism as an ideology that the left and the labour movement never questions.

The reviewer continues:

The problem is not only lack of clarity about the central argument, but the way in which the manuscript rambles and sometimes goes off on tangents that seem unrelated to the argument. Concepts and theories are not clearly presented (e.g., McAlevey’s ideas) and that leaves the reader floundering while trying to identify and understand the author’s argument.

Since the reviewer’s critique both distorts the nature of article and fails to understand the argument, I will leave it up to the reader to determine whether “the manuscript rambles….”

The reviewer continues:

Some of the claims made in the manuscript are not well supported. For example, the author claims that union leaders represent the voice of employers, not the voice of union members.

I never implied that. Unions are often contradictory, with elements that oppose particular employers in diverse ways. However, they generally accept the power of employers as a class, and that acceptance is expressed in diverse manners.

The reviewer continues:

I think he means to say that if a union operates under a business unionism model, the union leaders’ perspective about the labour-management relationship is likely to be skewed in favour of management’s interests.

This way of putting it is itself likely to be interpreted in a skewed manner. “Management’s interests” is often tied to a particular interest (this particular employer and this particular management structure). Unions have to deal with this particular structure, but my focus is on management’s interests as class interests and their representation of the power of employers as a class—and the ideology that expresses such interests—such as the so-called legitimacy of collective agreements.

The reviewer continues:

If the argument is that the NSTU operates according to business unionism, then this should be stated and supported with evidence. Making a generalization to all unions is wild and unjustifiable.

Hardly. Various posts on this blog express the hostility of unions (whether “business unions” or “social unions”) to my views.

Another example is the author’s assumption that all workers belong to a single class—a Marxist argument that has criticized and long-since debunked. It presents an overly simplistic representation of modern day capitalism.

This view that all workers belong to a single class as having been debunked is written from a purely academic point of view, of course. What would this academic do when faced with workers in the private sector and in the public sector—if s/he aimed to oppose the power of employers as a class?

Initially, as Geofrrey Kay and James Mott imply in their work: Political Order and the Law of Labour, those who work for an employer can be considered as part of the working class since they are economically dependent on a wage. The elimination of certain wage workers from consideration of the working class organizationally can then proceed; for example, one of the major functions of the police is to protect private property in general and capitalist private property; organizationally, they oppress the working class and cannot be considered part of it. Another group are managers. Some have the objective or material function of coordinating work, but this coordination is overlaid by their function to exploit and oppress workers.

In the private sector, part of their work makes pulls them towards the working class and part towards the class of employers; some of their work contributes to the production of surplus value and part of it to the extraction of surplus value.  In the public sector, bureaucratic and financial pressures also function to have managers pressure workers to work more intensely. Organizationally and partially objectively, they are not part of the working class.

I recommend to the author that he focus his paper on problematizing the taken-for-granted assumptions about collective bargaining, especially in the public sector, and especially in an era when governments have decided to use their legislative power to legislate so-called ‘collective agreements.’

The point of the essay is to question the legitimacy of collective agreements even if the best-case scenario of respect for the process of collective bargaining and respect for its product, the collective agreement. To introduce the issue of back-to-work legislation would only cloud the main issue. The critique fails to understand the target of my criticism.

The reviewer continues:

If the argument is that the industrial model of labour-management relations does not (and possibly never did) work well for teachers and other workers, then focus on that.

Again, the argument is that no collective-bargaining process as such has definite limitations—limitations which the social-reformist left do not recognize or discuss. This academic’s own failure to understand the point of the essay illustrates this.

The NSTU case might be an example of the dysfunction of the arrangement but would not be the central focus of the manuscript. I recommend that the author read Tangled Hierarchies by Joseph Shedd and Samuel Bacharach to gain background information about the settlement between teachers and their employers that happened decades ago and what its implications are.

Any reference may be relevant. I will read this when I have the time. However, I will undoubtedly draw different conclusions than this academic if I do read it.

The reviewer continues:

Finally, if the present system of labour-management relations does not work, what does the author think should replace it? If the author believes that workers should have agency or control over their working lives, what would that look like?

To require this in an essay is absurd. One of the first things to do is to criticize the existing situation. What will replace this system is a related issue, but it can hardly be divorced from the definition of the problem. In other words, solutions are functions of problem definition.

The reviewer continues:

“What would be the pros and cons of such a model and for whom?”

What a stupid way of looking at the world—as if it were a question of listing the pros and cons and checking them off. For workers who work for an employer, being treated as a thing is the con; all other pros can hardly compensate for this treatment of human beings as things. Perhaps this academic would do well to consider whether her/his question would be appropriate in the context of the master/slave relation. Imagine if an academic asked the following question about slavery: “What are the pros and cons of such a model and for whom?”

As for what it would look like, I have specified that in posts what an alternative might look like (see for instance Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like) but such a discussion would require much more space than that allotted by the journal, as I indicate in a previous post.

I suspect that one of the ways in which academic reviewers limit the publications of those with whom they disagree is by this method: the author, they claim, should have included such and such—whereas journals generally impose strict limitations on the length of journals.

The author needs to take into consideration that the public sector involves many stakeholders, not just employers and employees.

Firstly, who are these “stakeholders?” The concept of “public sector” independently of the employer-employee relation has no meaning in a capitalist context.

Secondly, in her/his detailed comments, s/he mentions “social justice for children, social justice for taxpayers, social justice for society.” The author simply assumes that the status quo will continue to exist.

In a society without employers, the tax structure would be very different (if taxes would exist at all)–a subject for debate). In a society without employers, the school structure would be very different, with a far greater integration of physical and intellectual activities than exist at present—the abolition of the division of labour between physical and intellectual (and artistic and aesthetic) activities. In a society without employers, society would be very, very different.

“How do we achieve social justice in a complex system? And social justice for whom? Should the rights of workers trump the rights of others?”

That of course would be up for negotiations, but workers are the “front-line” class who face employers directly. Other groups, as Tony Smith implies (Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Approach) would definitely have their interests represented in a socialist society (which I have outlined in other posts), but the leverage for eliminating the class of employers and the social structures corresponding to their power must come from somewhere, and workers, being the front-line class which both positively faces the power of employers and negatively can oppose that power through their organization, are key. However, this is not the concern of this undoubtedly social-reformist leftist.

The reviewer continues: 

I recommend that the manuscript be rewritten and resubmitted for review. I have attached the manuscript with more detailed feedback.

Since I refused to rewrite according to the criticisms of these academics (undoubtedly some of the writing could have been improved—as can all writings), I decided to eliminate these “middle-(wo)men” and start my own blog. It is obvious that most so-called leftist academics lack a critical attitude towards the society in which we live. I naively expected more from a journal with the title Critical Education. What is meant by “critical” in the title is critical according to social-reformist criteria.

I should have been wiser; when attending university, when the professor was sympathetic to my views, I generally obtained better grades; when they opposed my views, I received worse grades. I also had my experience as a Marxist father to go by (see for example A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part One).

Although workers’ experiences are hardly the last word, they should also form an essential part or any “Critical Education”–but the reviewers of my article obviously consider their academic backgrounds to be superior to anything workers’ experience on a daily basis at work–even in unionized settings subject to collective bargaining and collective agreements.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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