May 01 2012

The Union Against Itself: The Mirror Stage of Contract Faculty Labour

Category: Conferences,Contract FacultyBob Hanke @ 3:59 pm

by Bob Hanke
Departments of Communication Studies and Humanities

Paper presented at The University is Ours! A Conference on Struggles Within and Beyond the Neoliberal University,  April 27-29, 2012, Toronto, Ontario

In the Production of Living Knowledge, Gigi Roggero focuses on the relationship between autonomy and subordination. As he writes:

The line of the processes of struggle and of hierarchization is not longer … located on the border dividing those within from those outside of the labour market, but is completely internal to it. In the intersection between life and labour struck by the condition of precarity, it is the quality of inclusion that becomes the object of the practices of exit and of voice. The behaviors of living labour, between the search for autonomy and subordination, self-valorization, and competitive individualism, describe, therefore, the material constitution of subjectivity, becoming at once a form of resistance and of potential conflict (Roggero 2011, p. 103).

I want to draw on this rich passage to describe and analyze how CUPE 3903 was put against itself. In response to the acceleration and intensification of casualization of academic labour, the quality of contract faculty’s inclusion in a member-driven, democratic union became problematic. In the following account, I emphasize how organization and mediation must be considered as constitutive in the production of subjectivity. I will close by raising the question of affective bargaining with the union and the shaping of subjectivity.

Currently, CUPE Local 3903 is the bargaining agent for 1726 teaching assistants in Unit 1 and 691 graduate assistants in Unit 3. In Unit 2 representing contract faculty there are 900 members; of these, 687 hold course directorships, 340 hold tutor positions, and 127 hold both positions. Given the changing composition and orientation of the local towards more graduate students, what was remarkable about the 85-day strike in 2008-09 was that contract faculty and graduate students were in solidarity on “job security.” That strike only ended when the McGuinty Liberals passed  Bill 145 – the York University Labour Disputes Resolution Act – on January 29, 2009. After the employer’s war of attrition against the strikers, the neoliberal government acted to regulate the academic labour market by stripping strikers of their collective bargaining rights.

One episode from this strike illustrates how union communication is enabling and constraining. After the strike had already started, a Unit 2 communication committee was formed to develop a communication strategy to inform and mobilize contract faculty. They started a listserv and produced the inaugural issue of the CUPE 3903 U2 Chronicle. Recognizing their underepresentation in the internal and external media, a subcommittee made plans for a press conference to make contract faculty visible and articulate the relationship between job security and the quality of education. This press conference never happened. The executive committee following CUPE National’s communication officer’s centralized, coordinated communication strategy insisted that this conference be delayed until after the forced ratification results were known. In this way, union communication was structured to foreclose the representation of “hidden academics” (Ragagpol 2002).

This is not to say that the issue of “job security” – through sheer repetition if nothing else — was ignored or unreported. Rather, it is to say that it was not attached to those most affected by casualization. The union’s communication strategy failed to make the connection between “job security,” the two-tier faculty employment system, and the threat that contingency poses to academic freedom and governance. As one senior contract faculty member put it, “At a certain level I feel that efforts to keep U2 out of the media represent an ageist attack on who we are. The lack of our voices and our faces… throughout 3903’s media representations is appalling (as is the lack of racialized bodies, differently-abeled bodies, elderly bodies, female bodies).” To put it in a post-autonomist Marxist framework of cognitive labour, if communication is cooperation and production, then what was at stake for contract faculty in this strike was not just putting a face on public service, educational workers but the production of living knowledge of precariousness.

I want to go on to argue that it is out of the memory of defeat that a new path to self valorization and determination would be tried. The union would be put against itself without being transformed. As Antonio Negri suggests in The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century, communication is production. To this, I would add that mediation – the space between the subject and reality – as well as organization must be considered constitutive. Despite its legacy of achievements, resources have yet to be allocated within CUPE 3903 to enhance contract faculty’s capacity to communicate, discover who they are, and to network. Moreover, in 2011, another way was tried – restructuring the local – but it ended up having no traction. This has left contract faculty less able to tackle the problem of casualization and to protect themselves from exploitation.


To read the rest of this 9-page paper with references, download
The Union Against Itself — The Mirror Stage of Contract Faculty

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