What Should We Teach #XXL

Kent Wong is bringing a delegation here in January. As preparation, he has sent us a video made by Howard Kling in Minnesota, about the 2007 delegation.

also at https://youtu.be/J-MSTu-RcWY

Watching this video makes me think about our first question: “What are we supposed to be teaching?” In this video, they talk about the benefits of exchanges with labor and labor educators. So here we are. And what are we supposed to do? The original answer to that question was, “They know that capitalism is coming and they want to know how to fight it.”

Well, this is true, as I’ve said before. But we’re still figuring out what that means in terms of what we do when we are standing in front of a class of 70 students at TDTU.

The problem surfaces in many ways. First was the surprise to find out that in many firms, the HR professional is also the union president. Second was to notice that in many of the student research projects, students bring back a report that says that workers are “satisfied” with their wages and working conditions. This is in spite of the fact that the VGCL has publicized the fact that minimum wage, which is typically the actual wage, not the floor wage, only covers 65% – 70% of what a person needs to eat. So our students are bringing back news of workers working for minimum wage and not much more, and they are “satisfied.”

What about “fighting capitalism”?

We also saw a video in Vinh’s class that demo-ed how collective bargaining works. It was created by the ILO, as part of a whole project to increase the use of collective bargaining and develop stronger relationships between the workers and union at the grassroots level. All of this is very good. However, here are some things we noticed about that video. One, in an early scene, the workers are complaining. They don’t organize, they just gripe. Then along comes the local union leader so they talk to him. This happens more or less by accident — he just happens to be coming by. He informs them that social dialog is taking place at this time and so their concerns will be brought up.

The local union leader then asks the District leader for help, and he agrees to come in and help.

Then we go to the scenes about social dialog. Now we see the District union leader visiting the management leader in an office. The two of them are alone in the room together. They talk in a friendly way. We don’t actually know what they talk about, but it is surprising, from my experience to see the two leaders alone together. You would expect that the union leader would have brought another union representative along as a witness that nothing untoward was going on.

Then we see some scenes from the negotiation, also friendly. Both sides get a lot of what they want. The union side lays out their demands without prioritizing them strategically.

Then we see the District leader reporting back to the workers. He says, “This is what we got.” The workers are disappointed — they wanted a 25% wage increase and they only got 12%, or something like that. So they fuss a bit and then the District leader explains. They also got a joint labor-management committee to work on the food and bathroom sanitation.

My reason for writing all this is to make clear that all communication between workers and representatives, from the griping workers who encounter their local leader, to the local leader requesting help, to the report from the District leader, is top-down. No real democratic participation is shown. The people lower down ask for help from the next level up, and get it, but they are otherwise passive and the workers don’t even seem to know that social dialog is going on at that moment. Also, nothing in this video suggests that there are serious vested interests on each side which are in conflict with each other. George Borjas’ sharply black-and-white view of the conflicting motives that drive the actions of workers and employers are no where in sight. Instead, you have people explaining things to each other and maybe arguing a bit to convince the other party that something is important. But it doesn’t look like “fighting capitalism.” Instead, it looks like a committee meeting.

Joe and I realized, after trying to run four  — no,five – different collective bargaining simulations, that this basic assumption — that workers and employers are on the same side, that there is no fundamental conflict of interest — leads our students to think that what they are supposed to be doing at the negotiating table is convincing the other side. It’s as if, by appealing to fairness, generosity, good-heartedness, pity and justice, or even efficiency, the workers will convince the employers that they deserve and should get more, and the employers will convince the workers that they can’t afford to give more. If only they can touch the hearts and maybe the minds of the people on the other side, they will get what they want. All they have to do is talk more.

At this point, the “bargaining” collapses into squabbling and he-said-she-said and maybe blaming, including confrontational questions and sometimes threats and insults. Bad behavior, in other words.

So Joe and I were trying to figure out what to do.

Suddenly, we realized what the problem is. We knew it all along, of course. What happens at the table is not the most important part. It’s what happens away from the table that really matters. Why? Because that’s where the strength of each side is. What happens at the table is not debate or convincing the other party. It’s strategy.

Conflict of interests does not mean shouting, insults, rough talk at the table. Conflicting interests, if they are embodied in smart strategy, can look totally cool and disciplined. The cooler they are, the bigger the threat, in fact.

We spent most of Friday writing the handout which I will post next, which we are calling Power Theater. I am thinking about how big martial arts are here; very formal, very disciplined — and then you grab the other guy and throw him on the ground. It’s not messy sloppy fighting with snatching and scratching. It’s one-two-three boom, very formal, very strategic. It’s a show, from the beginning when opponents bow to each other until the very end. The discipline, and the display of discipline, is essential to doing it right.  Same with bargaining, only the discipline is how well each party is in control of its agenda, how well it carries out its strategy, and how deep into the membership (or, on the other side, into its allies) the discipline goes. All of which depends on having an educated, active, conscious membership, which is where labor education comes in.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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