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In ‘Who Signs the Paychecks’, I wrote:

Hiding the fact of an unequal employer – worker relationship behind an illusion of equality is dangerous at the best of times, but especially so in a period of collective bargaining.

And only a couple of months later we have the example of the Long Island University faculty/librarian lockout, which has several interesting features. On the one hand there’s an almost unprecedented (in academia) resorting to classic union-busting maneuvres (short-notice lockout, obstruction of communication through blocking access to faculty email, scab labour), but there’s also a tactic which seems especially heinous to those of us north of the border: the unilateral and immediate cancellation of health insurance. At this point, the tactics of university administration tips from being ugly but still within the bounds of traditional labour disputes to - at least from a Canadian perspective - a criminal act. It is no longer the ability to work and organize that is being disrupted - Russian roulette is being played with people’s lives.

It is in this context that I think it is actually dangerous to ignore or obscure the fact that the needs, wants, and missions of administration (whether at the library or the university level) are not the same as those of faculty, librarians, and staff - especially in, but not restricted to, periods of collective bargaining. To pretend otherwise puts not only livelihoods at risk but also, as in the LIU case, actual lives.

It was argued that the CAPAL statement on collegial governance was meant to be read as an aspirational document. It strikes me that aspirations should be framed using “ought” language, no matter how idealistic that sounds (“the university ought to be a democratic organization”). To frame an aspirational document in “is” language is either disingenuous or dangerously naive. An aspiration is inherently idealistic, otherwise it would be a programme (of change, of revolution, of reform), so there is no need to shy away from idealistic language.

It is much clearer to point unambiguously to the inequities of power, especially as labour disputes sharpen along with the depths of capitalis and ecological crisis in both Canada and the US. That such a crisis is deepening can be seen in the more-or-less open warfare on workers (especially workers in weaker positions, according to race, gender, sexuality, poverty) in the US. Cancelling workers’ health insurance is tantamount to putting a gun to their heads to force them to approve a “collective” agreement (the bourgeois euphemisms become positively obscene in a time of crisis).

However, it is important to bear in mind that in universities, absent an actual owner, administration is composed of workers too. Coopted by a capitalist system that has even reached our institutions of higher learning, they are acting according to the requirements of the system. So too with scab labour. There was some debate yesterday about the justice of calling “replacement workers” scabs, and it is again vital to remember that calling in scab labour (Marx’s “industrial reserve army”) has a higher function than merely replacing labour power: it is to divide and disorganize workers themselves, setting them against each other in order to weaken their opposition to the real power - that of capital itself. I have no problem using the “scab” language, if only to combat the prevalence of mealy-mouthed bourgeois euphemisms like “labour action” instead of “strike”, but we have to remember that scab’s especially are put in a terrible position by capital. In the LIU situation, replacement workers are drawn from ununionized positions and threatened with termination for noncompliance. The violence of the relations of production touch unionized workers, that is beyond dispute, but unionized workers have to look out for nonunionized workers too, even scabs, who are often in an even worse position.

And on that note, might we hope that a lockout of faculty might convince some of them that they too are workers, that their privileged socio-economic position behooves them to act in solidarity with all other workers in the university? One of the main tactics of capitalism is to divide and conquer through offering better standards of living to some and not to others, but it is important to remember that these standards of living are granted by capital on sufferance, they are not the just desserts of some intellectual essentialism.

These are just a few thoughts, not fully worked out. I felt it was important to write something up about the LIU faculty and librarian lockout, in solidarity.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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