Sunday, May 25, 2008

Exclusive Responsibility vs. Exclusive Work

It seems that the big hang-up in the current negotiations between AGSEM (the TA union at McGill) and the McGill administration is the question of whether or not the work assigned to the TAs on their workload forms is exclusively theirs or not. If it is exclusively theirs, then no one else can do that work should they go on strike. If it is not, then the course instructor can step in and do whatever needs to be done during a work stoppage.

That this would be a deal-breaker for the union makes perfect sense to me. If the union were to agree that TAs had no exclusive function, then striking seems to go out the window. Or, rather, striking would cease to be a confrontation between the TAs and the administration and would become instead a confrontation between TAs and their supervising faculty. If my TA goes on strike that means I have to do a bunch of extra work. No union wants to to get its members into that sort of bind. The line of confrontation must be between workers and management, not between two groups of workers.

Why the University should be equally adamant about this issue is a bit harder for me to see (unless one wants to attribute purely cynical motives to the administration, and that is never very satisfying). Here is the rationale the Provost has put up on the website:
Since the start of this unfortunate strike, professors have sent me a consistent message on this matter: do not compromise on this principle. Let me quote you one such particularly eloquent message:

The idea of exclusivity is absolutely unacceptable, and the university's proposed revisions to the workload form are clearly needed. The more AGSEM insists that it does not view the exclusivity question as closed, the more important it is that it be settled somehow, and the workload form is a good way to do it. Exclusivity is not simply a matter of TAs' working conditions; it is a matter of faculty working conditions, too. Exclusivity would mean a serious impairment of professors' pedagogical autonomy, and a serious infringement of our ability to meet our responsibilities as educators.

A colleague I respect said something very similar to me just yesterday. Frankly, I just don't get it. I don't see how my autonomy or responsibility as an educator is affected one iota by me being unable to take over my TAs conferences or grading in the case of a strike. I would still make the syllabus and delegate tasks to the TA. I would still bear final responsibility for checking and rectifying grades, for determining the form and content of the course, for setting the standards by which student work is to be evaluated. In short, I would still have ultimate responsibility for the course. But that doesn't mean I should be able (or required) to step in and do everything in the case of a strike. The Provost's position just seems like a non-sequitur to me.

There are other employment situations in which a similar distinction must be drawn between work and responsibility. Nurses, for example, have work that is their own, even though doctors have ultimate responsibility for patient care. And, in fact, the University seemed to recognize such a distinction early on during this strike: no one asked professors to run conferences the last week of classes.

Can any one explain the University's position to me in small words that I might understand?


jpf said...

Well, it seems your autonomy has been affected at least one iota during this strike. Each time I asked you if the essays were ready, it was always "Well, there's some ambiguity about whether I can grade them or not." If this is not being affected, I don't know what is.

I understand that you will take a longer time to get through all that work. As your student, I understand that I must be patient in this situation. But was the delay because you had piles of papers to get through (a major part of it, I am sure) or was it also due to the concerns about the legality of putting a letter at the end of my paper and posting the appropriate letter on my transcript? Since I handed in my final essay a month and a half ago, I would be willing to bet it was the second.

In a unionized kitchen environment, if a cook takes his 15 minute "pause-syndicale" and leaves a steak on the grill, the unionized pastry chef who sees it happening can't step in and take the smoking steak off the grill because "it's not in my job description." Oh, Lord! help me if I ever end up working in a unionized environment.

Will Roberts said...

You're conflating three different things, Joey:
1) What I can or cannot--legally or ethically--do in the present strike situation.
2) What I would or would not be able to do if the University granted that TAs had their own work.
3) What has (or has not) happened in the vast annals of union history, here or there or somewhere else.

In the present situation, the university takes the position that I should do the work assigned to my TAs on their work load form, work that I assigned them at the beginning of the term. The Union's concern about this is that if the University can reassign their work to me when they go on strike, then the University is going to be better able to weather a strike by putting the burden on a sub-section of the faculty. While I have had my doubts about the legal and ethical status of the University's position, the fact of the matter is that I had a lot of other work--conferences, research, writing--that I had planned for after the end of the term, and that I had to get through before I could do a bunch of unanticipated grading. So, yes, my autonomy has been affected by the current strike, but not in the way you think: my autonomy has been affected by suddenly being assigned a whole mess of work that I did not plan on and that I have precious little time to do.

If the Union were to get its way, and the duties assigned to TAs could not legally be performed by other in the case of a strike, then what those duties were would still be up to the course instructor to decide. This would affect things only in the case of another strike. This would certainly strengthen the Union's bargaining position. No doubt. I understand why the University wouldn't want to do that. I don't see how that would undermine my instructional autonomy, however. There would be a different framework of rules, but I would still be in control of what gets assigned to the TAs, etc.

Finally the nightmare scenario you cite. There are of course stupid union rules from time to time, but those rules were negotiated by the members of that particular union, they didn't come automatically with the package. If you were in a unionized setting, it would be up to you and your fellow workers to negotiate the rules you wanted to work under. It would be up to you to define the situations where management couldn't assign you new duties, etc. Those rules do not have to take Byzantine forms.