Josh Boldt

Technology Director at University of Kentucky

We’re All Labor Now

Full 06102014 unitedstrike

In April, pilots at JetBlue airlines voted to join the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA). ALPA is the largest union of its kind, representing 50,000 pilots at 31 carriers, including Delta and United. The vote at JetBlue is unique, though, because pilots at the airline had a history of union resistance.

Twice before, ALPA had attempted to organize pilots at JetBlue—once in 2009 and again in 2011. Both efforts failed. Prior to the 2011 vote, the airline conducted an campaign to convince the pilots that union-free “collaboration brings better results than the traditional industry negotiation model.” The message of the anti-union campaign was that a fair outcome could be achieved by retaining management’s “direct relationships with employees.” This strategy worked: 58 percent vote of the pilots voted against forming a union.

Three years passed. ALPA tried again. This time around, the JetBlue pilots changed their tune. The pro-union vote was a landslide. More than 70 percent of JetBlue pilots voted to join ALPA. Nearly 1,800 people voted yea.

A dramatic shift in union sympathy had occurred at the airline in just three years. Why?

One reason given for the sudden change was the growing threat of consolidation in the airline business. High fuel prices and airline bankruptcies have catalyzed a merger trend in the airline world. And mergers threaten jobs. So pilots at JetBlue chose to join up with ALPA due, in part, to a perceived threat to their job security.

That’s a pretty good reason to unionize. But I have to wonder if it’s the only reason for the JetBlue vote. Happy employees rarely flip from anti-union to pro-union in just a couple years. I’m inclined to believe that the rhetoric of the “collaboration model” between labor and management wore thin. Management can only say so many times that it has labor’s best interest in mind before labor starts to demand that someone back up those promises.

I can’t say for sure if a communication breakdown like this contributed to the vote flip at JetBlue. It would make sense if it did. In fact, we’ve been seeing this same phenomenon play out lately in higher education. As I see it, the dissonance between what is promised and what is carried out has been a leading cause for the rise of adjunct-professor unions in the past year or so. University administrators often communicate to workers in the same way as the JetBlue leadership did, claiming that an intermediator would destroy the “positive relationship” between management and labor.

Yes, I use the term labor to describe professors. David Perry’s piece a few weeks ago got me thinking more about how university workers define themselves and how semantics and ideology can inhibit their ability to work together for the good of the whole.

It’s tempting to buy into the idea that the best deal is negotiated without the influence of a middleman. And that may actually be true if both parties are on equal footing. But that’s almost never the case in labor negotiations. In a one-on-one interaction, management holds the power. You won’t do exactly what we want? Goodbye. You no longer have an income.

But get labor together in a group and the scales become more balanced. Losing one professor may be no big deal, but lose them all, and suddenly you’ve got a problem.

Anyway, for decades, adjuncts have bought into the message that collective bargaining is unnecessary on campus. After all, as David Perry points out, “Academics, even many adjuncts, continue to think they belong to a loosely meritocratic system in which the best work rises to the top, peer review remains the optimal way to judge the quality of work, and if [they] work hard enough, [they’ll] be fine.” By ignoring the reality of the new corporatized campus, faculty members actually make themselves more exploitable. Wearing blinders doesn’t make the problem go away.

Like the JetBlue pilots, adjuncts have been fed the message that, not only do they not need a union, but joining one would somehow make their working conditions even worse by destroying the relationship between the university administration and the part-time faculty. Well, on most campuses, that relationship has long since been destroyed, due to an exploitative labor structure that benefits management far more than it benefits workers.

At this point, the adjuncts’ hand has been forced. The meritocratic ideology and the rhetoric of sacrifice for the sake of a calling has been exposed and has worn thin. Adjuncts of the past may have been indifferent to unionization. But like the JetBlue pilots, professors have now begun to realize that organizing may be the only way to save what’s left of the profession as the university enters a phase of leaner budgets and resource consolidation.

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