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Posts Tagged ‘Academia’

There has been quite a lot of discussion of unions lately, and to be honest, I think it is kind of exciting. Unions had been quietly fading away, especially in the private sector, but now they seem to be in the headlines once again and I think the attention that is being paid to unions might end up back-firing against those who seek to eliminate them. We heard a lot about Unions with the WalMart employee’s planned “Black Friday” events organized by OUR Walmart: Organization United for Respect at Walmart and the recent controversies over the introduction of “Right-to-Work” laws in Michigan. In this post, I want to concentrate on private-sector employees.

The following video made the rounds of the internet a little while ago. It purports to be an anti-union training video produced by Target. (I looked it up on snopes.com and did not find any debunking, so I am going to assume it is legit).

One of the things that I find so interesting about this video is the way it seems to have a number of internal contradictions. For example, Target is a business, and when we think of Target we are supposed to think of a happy family according to these actors’ lines. In contrast, when they describe the unions, all of a sudden “business” becomes some kind of frightening and corrupt thing. So in the one case, business is supposed to be benign but in the other it is supposed to be scary (complete with scary music! Which is great).

But there is something else odd about this, which is that they seem to be importing a for-profit business model into the not-for-profit union domain. For example, they state that a union “is not a charity” it is a business. But it has no products, only memberships to sell. The “only alternative” (to what is not made clear) is to get more people to pay more money to them in dues every month. But unions aren’t seeking to increase their own profits, because unions are not-for-profit organizations. Therefore, they don’t need to follow business models that require the “only alternative” of getting more people to pay more money to increase profits.

Second, unions sell services, they don’t sell products and they don’t sell memberships. Many businesses don’t sell products. Many businesses sell services. If we want to think of unions as businesses, then they should be thought of more along the lines of service industries and not along the lines of widget-makers. The services that unions sell are bargaining services, and they sell a good service when they are able to effectively bargain on workers’ behalves.

Now, it might be true that there are certain oddities about unions that make them somewhat market-unresponsive.  For example, Wikipedia describes a number of union types:

  • closed shop (US) or a “pre-entry closed shop” (UK) employs only people who are already union members. The compulsory hiring hall is an example of a closed shop—in this case the employer must recruit directly from the union, as well as the employee working strictly for unionized employers.
  • union shop (US) or a “post-entry closed shop” (UK) employs non-union workers as well, but sets a time limit within which new employees must join a union.
  • An agency shop requires non-union workers to pay a fee to the union for its services in negotiating their contract. This is sometimes called the Rand formula. In certain situations involving state public employees in the United States, such as California, “fair share laws” make it easy to require these sorts of payments.
  • An open shop does not require union membership in employing or keeping workers. Where a union is active, workers who do not contribute to a union still benefit from the collective bargaining process. In the United States, state level right-to-work laws mandate the open shop in some states. In Germany only open shops are legal; that is, all discrimination based on union membership is forbidden. This affects the function and services of the union. An EU case concerning Italy extended this principle to the rest of the EU in that it stated that, “The principle of trade union freedom in the Italian system implies recognition of the right of the individual not to belong to any trade union (“negative” freedom of association/trade union freedom), and the unlawfulness of discrimination liable to cause harm to non-unionized employees.” (Source: Wikipedia “Trade Union”)

Now, Republicans in so-called “Right-to-Work” legislation like to focus on the first three types listed above (closed shop, union shop, and agency shop unions). The Republicans often suggest that requiring union dues violates negative freedoms of association (the right not to associate, if one so chooses). There might be some truth to these complaints. For example, I would be mighty unhappy if I were forced to pay my hairdresser (a service provider) every month whether or not I wanted a haircut.

On the other hand, “Right-to-Work” legislation favours open-shop unions, and this too has its troubles.  Open shop unions allow employees to decide whether they want to associate as a union (the positive freedom to associate without government interference requires allowing workers to continue to make this choice if so desired, though this right is not honoured in all of the United States or Canadian provinces). But those who choose not to associate with the union are still able to reap the benefits of the services provided by the unions. This is destined to weaken the union. Keeping with the hairdresser metaphor, if I were not required to pay my hairdresser, but I was still able to obtain a haircut whenever I wanted one, there would be no incentive for me to pay the hairdresser. Sure, a few people who really believed in the skills of hairdressers might continue to pay, but in short time most (if not all) hairdressers would likely go out of business. Ironically, in making the anti-union case, the Target video points out precisely this problem: “And no body wants to pay dues for something they already have” (Source: “Doug” about minute 3:22).

Before I go on to suggest an alternative, it might be worth considering whether union services are something we bought once, and now “already have” forever. It is a strange suggestion, since most services are things we buy on an ongoing basis and if we stop buying them, then we lose the service. Perhaps if we were thinking of unions as something that sold a “product” then this would make sense. For example, if I buy a book, I don’t need to keep buying it every month. But as we’ve already discussed, unions sell a service, not a product. If I have enrolled in a cleaning service, then I will need to continuously put money into that service, otherwise the cleaners will no longer come.

This video: Debunking anti-union myths takes on this point directly:

This video notes that unions are a service. One of the things that they provide is on-going representation in addition to helping to enforce the legislative gains that were made by unions in the past.  Even if labour laws exist, they will not be effective unless they are enforced. Part of the service that this video claims is provided by unions is assistance in enforcing their legal rights under labour standards legislation.

In contrast, Target tries to have it both ways. They paint for-profit businesses of the past as evil, while making for-profit businesses of the presents into benign entities. So they are not daemonizing unions, you see. Just modern not-for-profit unions (businesses), who are “out of step” with the evolving and competitive modern for-profit businesses. Here is Gwen Sharpe on this issue:

What I found especially striking was the segment starting at about 3:10, where they argue we don’t need unions because, basically, they were so effective in the past, they already fixed everything! There’s no more child labor, you can get worker’s comp if you’re injured…what more could you need a union for? So on the one hand, today unions are useless, empty organizations that just take your money and give you nothing, but in the past, they were great. Presumably employers only had to be told once to clean up, and then for all time everything is fixed. (source: Sharpe)

In addition, the union can serve as a buffer or “anonymizer” between the employee making the complaint and the employer who will hear the complaint. Is this necessary? I guess that is for employees to decide for themselves. The union case is that if an employee makes a complaint about the way they are being managed, and the only outlet for this complaint is that very same management, then there is a heightened chance that the employee will be fired for the complaint. Target disagrees:

[“Maria”] Person 2: …Target prides its self on our open door policy. Ask your team leader, ask your ETL [executive team leader], or ask any supervisor. There doors and every door are always open to you and what you have to say.

I don’t know how most employees might feel about talking about their problems with management directly to management, but as a union member (not a ‘higher up’ whose whole job is negotiating, but just a regular employee who is a member of a union whose job has nothing to do with union negotiations), I am pretty happy to have someone to act as a go-between so that I don’t have to fear being fired.

Link Round-Up and Transcript of the Target Video below the fold.

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John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

There is a list going around Facebook recently, though the list is quite old published in 2005, of the top 10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries from a conservative perspective. Many of the books listed are quite predictable, since anything that challenges capitalism or Christianity is an immediate candidate. But one book that made the top 5 kind of surprised me. There sitting at #5 is John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. I mean this book is at #5, it ranks as more harmful than Marx’s Das Kapital (#6) and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, where he proclaims that God is Dead (#9). Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and The Decent of Man don’t even make the list (though they get honourable mention). What on earth could be so dangerous about Democracy and Education? Well, lets see what they say:

In Democracy and Education, in pompous and opaque prose, he disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education–particularly in public schools–and helped nurture the Clinton generation. (Source: Human Events: Powerful Conservative Voices)

So thinking skills are threatening? I find this passage odd because “hard knowledge” itself comes from the exercise of thinking skills. Dewey does not actually argue against teaching knowledge in Democracy and Education. Instead he argues that while teaching knowledge is important, this ought to be done in the context of examining and questioning the knowledge that is being taught so that students will learn how to create new knowledge and advance our understanding. There would be no new scientific, mathematical, engineering, or other advances in knowledge without exercising thinking skills.  If Einstein had not been curious about physics and spent his time thinking while working in the patent office, then we would still be stuck with only Newtonian physics. In fact, we wouldn’t even have Newtonian physics, since his ideas about gravity and so on were derived from his thinking about apples falling to earth. Dewey on this point:

Dewey on the relation between thinking and knowledge

Dewey notes that knowledge is subordinate to thinking because knowledge cannot progress without thinking. From Democracy and Education, page 146.

Dewey's Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Dewey’s Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Second, it is strange to admit that teaching thinking skills leads to voting democratic. Surely if one’s views were worth their salt they should be able to withstand critical scrutiny.

Third, it is frightening to see how this kind of fear of critical thinking finds its way into official Republican policy only a few years later. In the 2012 election season the Republican party of Texas included the following in their educational platform:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. (Source: The Washington Post)

Of course, it is important to note that the undermining of parental authority does not follow from the development of critical thinking skills that challenge students’ fixed beliefs. For that to follow you would have to make explicit the premise that parental teachings are of a kind that cannot withstand critical scrutiny. If one were truly certain of the knowledge one was imparting to one’s offspring, then one would have no fear of their critical questioning, since the critical examination of true beliefs merely leads one to understand their truth more deeply.

But finally, one of the things that I find most odd about the inclusion of Democracy in Education among the top-five most harmful books is that the very distinction between knowledge and thinking that these conservative fears are based on is a distinction that they seem to be getting from the very work they are afraid of. Here is Dewey’s description of this distinction:

Dewey on Knowledge and Thinking

Dewey Describes knowledge as that which is settled and known, that which is certain, while thinking arises from doubt, questioning, and the unknown. Thinking can also expose false knowledge, according to Dewey. From Democracy and Education page 283.

It seems strange to me to invoke a distinction introduced in a philosophical work in order to describe why that work is harmful when one clearly agrees with the distinction introduced therein. One of the means of evaluating whether philosophy is good or bad as philosophy is on the basis of the distinctions introduced by the philosopher because introducing and elucidating distinctions is part of the work of philosophy. The fear of Dewey’s work seems to have a tension in it because they seem to agree that the distinction between knowledge and thinking is a worthwhile and important distinction (therefore it is good philosophy) but then think that introducing the distinction is harmful because it might encourage thinking which would challenge children to examine their beliefs to discover whether what they have taken to be knowledge (what has been ‘called knowledge’ as Dewey puts it) really deserves the label.

I guess Hannah Arendt was right when she wrote:

There are no dangerous thoughts;
Thinking itself is dangerous (See Discussion on SciForums)

And just for fun, Stephen Colbert’s take on the Texas GOP’s position against thinking: for those in the USA, you can find the clip at this link. For those of you in Canada, you cannot find the clip because the Comedy Network’s website sucks, contrary to what their commercials claim.

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On Sunday July 22, 2012, the Québec Student Strike (grève générale indéfini, #ggi or Indefinite General Strike)  resumed protesting after a brief pause in June to give students some time to rest.

Student Protest on July 22, 2012

Students marching in the streets on July 22, 2012.

The Student Unions that organized the #ggi in Québec used the summer pause to travel to Ontario for a “Solidarity Tour” to help educate Student Unions there about how to organize a successful student strike. The Canadian English media’s coverage of the tour has been astonishingly poor. Take for example Tasha Kheiriddin’s article in The National Post: “We don’t need no solidarity with Quebec students.” Here is an excerpt from her piece:

Rather than inviting Quebec students here to infect them with their protest virus, the Ontario students would be better off going to Quebec, to see the effects of all this mayhem there. I played tourist in Quebec City and Montreal last week with my partner and his teenage children, and we had no trouble getting into any attractions because there were few big crowds. In June, hotels reported that business in Montreal was down by $5.8-million from the May of the previous year, with 5%-10% of bookings cancelled. While it might be great for vacationers who do show up, it is bad news for tourism operators and merchants — and for their employees.

Among those employees, of course, are students working summer jobs to pay their tuition. Between May and June, employment in the hotel and restaurant sector fell by 9% — at a time when it usually increases to serve the high season. Meanwhile, student unemployment overall stands at 16% compared to 14.5% for the same period time last year. And even if they find jobs in July, students have to head back to class in August to recoup class time lost to the strike, precluding them from holding full-time employment for the rest of the summer. (Source: The National Post)

It is not clear to me why Ontario students would be expected to take advice about their solidarity interests from a Whitby-based journalist who is unlikely to share the same interests as them since she is no longer a student.[1]

But even more striking in this quote is the lack of understanding of what a strike is, what a strike is for, and how one might measure the success of a strike: It is even less clear to me why Ontario students should take advice from a journalist, like Kheiriddin, who could not even be bothered to research strike actions and their history before writing about them in a national newspaper.

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In honour of the start of research time:

Sir Reads-A-Lot

Sir Reads-A-Lot

From here.

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So I guess this blog was two years old yesterday. What do you do when you miss your own blogoversary? Do you punish yourself? Make yourself promise to make it up to you later? I don’t know. I guess you can always offer yourself excuses, like ‘but I am marking, that takes all of my attention right now.’ That is true enough.

I have written 71 posts (or 32 in the last year, see last year’s stats), and I have received 231 non-spam comments (or 90 in the last year, see stats link to last year). That is not too bad, although both stats are less than the first year I was writing this blog. I suppose it is not really surprising the stats are down a little, however, since I did have to finish my dissertation this year and that takes some time. I will give myself a break for credential attainment. I am still pretty good at keeping my comments and spam queues pretty cleaned up.

Things improved in the site visit department, however. Last year I had 12, 087 visits, and this year I have had 13, 287 visits, for a total of 25,374 visits in two years. This seems to be mostly due to the two posts I wrote about Portal 2. The first was about some worries I had after reading some developer commentary and watching the trailer at E3. The second was after I had played the game and was describing the feminist analysis of structural power relations that I believed was embedded in the plot. Thanks gamers!

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Books

Books

Utilitarianism is basically the moral view that in order to judge whether an action is good one should consider the consequences and then evaluate whether the act provides the most good to the greatest number of people. (It is more complex than that, as you can see from the description at this link, but the nuts and bolts are as above).

This summer I began a new job as an assistant professor at a university. I was thinking about which textbook to order, and I applied a kind of utilitarian reasoning to my selection process. I began by reading the texts and I selected only those that I thought would do good by providing educational benefit to the students. After this process there were three texts that were about tied in terms of educational benefit.

Next, I thought about how I could make the students happy, and decided they would like a low-cost text book. So I went on amazon and looked up the price of the three texts. One was around $90 and the other two were around $40. This narrowed it down to two, and the selection between them really would have resulted in probably a more-or-less equal amount of benefit at lowest cost to students, so I selected the one that had a faster shipping time (1-2 days).

I also support local bookstores and so I ordered the text to a local bookstore so the students could have immediate access to the text without having to wait for the shipping time.

In my reasoning I was trying to maximize the good for everyone involved. The publisher would sell a few hundred copies of the book, the local bookstore would have a few hundred sales, and the students would experience educational benefits and cost savings.

Imagine my surprise when my students informed me that the book cost $75 from the local bookstore! I thought:

“What? How is that possible? Why are the textbooks so expensive?”

So I called around to find out what was going on. How could the actual consequences of my action be so different from the consequences I intended?

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When parents discuss their choices about their children’s education and extracurricular activities they often mention that they want the best for their children:

I just want the best for my kids.

I want my daughter to have all possible advantages.

I want my son to have a head start.

This attitude is usually taken to be unproblematic and perhaps even praiseworthy. Government programs for poor children often echo these types of sentiments in their titles: for example, Head Start. So what could possibly be wrong with this view?

I want the best for my kids: I want them to stand out above yours

I want the best for my kids: I want them to stand out above yours

Well, things like “advantages,” “head starts,” and things that are “the best” are positional goods. This means that in order to have them, others need to be kept from having them. We cannot all be “the best” or have “the best,” otherwise it would stop being the best and would be average. We cannot all have “an advantage,” otherwise it would cease to be “an advantage” and become the average. You can only have a “head start” relative to some baseline that is somewhere behind. So whenever a parent says something like the quotes above, there is an implicit statement about other children:

I want your son to have disadvantages (relative to my daughter).

I want your daughter to start behind my son.

I want what is average for your kids.

I seriously doubt that when parents make statements about wanting “the best” “advantages” or “head starts” for their own children that they are also considering the flip-side of these statements. In fact, I think that if many parents were asked about the implicit statements about other children, they would probably deny them. Nevertheless, the first set of statements does correlate to the implicit second set of statements.

To the extent that we believe in meritocracy (that people should get what they deserve through their hard work and talent) and to the extent that we think people should have equal opportunities (or a level-playing field) then there is something troubling about these often-lauded parental sentiments.

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