On Interest, Individual and Collective

The finger-pointing has, I assume, already begun, but that’s not where I’m going with this post, except maybe to point it at myself for a few minutes.

Most of my thoughts on Voting Day surrounded what I understood as people’s willingness to vote against their own self-interest, in a “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” sort of way.  Thinking back to my more powerful impressions leading up to the vote was the face of one of my colleagues whom I respect – a woman of character and fortitude – who on several occasions informed me of how scared she felt at the prospect of a strike.  I, of course, was scared at the implications of the next contract for my work as a professor, and (therefore) my students.

So before I accuse her for voting out of fear, I should probably recognize that I did the same.  Maybe most of us did. And maybe we were encouraged to, by both sides, although I don’t think that that such influence can simply account for the way that we voted.

But I don’t want to write about fear; I want to write about self-interest.

I’ve always believed, and still do, that democracies work best when people act upon their own self-interest.  I still do believe that.  Enlightened or no, people are probably best able to understand their own interests, and the voices on the television that most often exhort me to sacrifice for the greater good are, I find, those who stand to benefit the most and sacrifice the least.

So the union appealed to self-interest: The partial-load faculty’s interest in having their workload monitored or in enhanced seniority measures; Full-time faculty’s interest in greater decision-making power and workload protections.  The college management did the same thing, with their sunny, bloodless, italicized descriptions of the terms of their new offer, and their threats of a protracted strike.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised when I heard people so often justifying their vote (or, more specifically, their contempt for the way other people were voting) according to their narrowest self interest:  “I’ve worked here for 25 years – you’re crazy if you think I’m going to go on strike for academic freedom”; “My manager listens to me – I don’t need any contract to include collegial decision-making”; “I’m partial-load – I’ll never make back the money I lose by striking”.  And invariably, I would appeal to their own enlightened self-interest when trying to persuade them otherwise: “You could have a different manager next year, and then you’ll wish you had those things”, or “a SWF will be the only way to limit the abuse of your partial-load position”.

I don’t think that at the time there could have been a stronger appeal.  If people aren’t willing to strike to get academic freedom or workload protections for themselves, then they’re probably extremely unlikely to do so, to get them for someone else.

But I recognize that all of the appeals to self-interest have served ultimately to diminish the perceived reasonableness of collective interest or even altruism – acting to protect the interest of another.  Self-interest may be the best foundation of a democracy, but increasingly I wonder whether it’s an adequate basis for collectivism.

And that’s what’s struck me in the aftermath of Wednesday’s vote: Not the weakness of our union, but the weakness of our collectivity.  In the hallways I can hear people sniping at “the union”, as though they weren’t a part of it.  Similarly, I find myself talking about “the malcontents”, as though they weren’t a part of the union, either.

If a union membership fails to recognize that they have common interest, or that their collective success is of mutual benefit; if part of a union local wants to see the other part screwed over, either because they are “out-of-touch” or (which is the same) because they are perceived to act against the membership’s best interests – if that happens, then the divided house cannot stand.

If we are a union, then we are only as strong as we are a community.  Union, however, does not necessitate unanimity.  We must feel free to attempt to persuade people that the membership’s collective interest may best be represented through one course of action vs. another (e.g., that our collective interest is better served by avoiding the ire of Ontario’s taxpayers, rather than by withholding our labour), but I do think that collective interest should, perhaps, go back to being the privileged basis of argument within our union.  Regardless of whether people think of self-interest or collective interest when they cast their ballots, I think that they — we — should be compelled to at least ground public statements in the language of collective interest.

If a professor has reasoned “I don’t need academic freedom, therefore we do not need academic freedom”, it is the requirement of the union to show how others – colleagues in one’s department, campus or college are suffering from its absence.  That can only happen if we actually get to know each other’s needs – if we get to know the difference between my teaching experience and yours.  Collective action hinges upon collective consciousness; collective consciousness depends upon some degree of actual knowledge of others within the collective.

In short, we don’t need to rebuild solidarity, we need to build community.  We need to tell each other our stories – of our students, our classes, our exam crunches, our summertime paycheque predicaments.  We need to listen to each other’s stories, or at least we need to be able and encouraged to do so.

Nothing in that formula will magically change the way that people think, let alone act.  But if we do not know each other’s work, then we cannot identify what we have in common and the ways in which our working experiences may be profoundly different.  Only when we recognize our commonalities can we credibly make claims to act in the common benefit; only when we recognize our differences can we begin to look beyond our own self-interest and actually achieve that common benefit.

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