Where to Place Your Trust: In Magic or in Organizing?

Marc Schroeder (2021-04-14)

It’d be comforting to believe in magic.

By the time we return to teaching this fall, our current round of collective bargaining will be nearing its second birthday. Despite overwhelming evidence that MRU’s Board has no interest in accepting anything other than major concessions from faculty and has been obstinately unreceptive even to the mildest non-monetary improvements to contract language, maybe a change in the heavens will bring an astounding, preternatural change in our earthly fortunes at the table.

Then again, why would it?

Would having all the right plans in place in the MRFA office mean the leadership could mobilize many hundreds of members, on a dime, when the time came according to the statutory bargaining process of Alberta’s Labour Relations Code?

Again, why would it?

Like any hope that bargaining impasse will resolve itself without a change in conditions, any hope that capacity for widespread mobilization will spontaneously materialize would constitute magical thinking on everyone’s part.

This year’s Executive Board has done excellent work in supporting the current CAFA/PIA advocacy campaign for post-secondary education and in organizing a fall solidarity protest in support of healthcare workers. Many members have paid attention and have showed up to events. These raise public awareness, challenge government talking points in the media, and build experience planning and executing interventions. They do not, however, build the capacity for large-scale collective action at MRU specifically about our own workplace issues. Such action needs to be employer-facing and support bargaining directly.

Concerning bargaining, it’s right that the MRFA is employing the legal means at its disposal. Yes, careful planning in the MRFA office is critical, including ensuring that the job action plan is ready. It’s important that members hear all of this and understand that plans and funds are in place.

My point is this: The above is necessary but not sufficient for a better outcome. Taking a fair but firm position at the table and having a sound job action plan on paper in no way assures that the membership can be mobilized, en masse, when the time comes to seek a solid, legal strike mandate via a resoundingly affirmative vote of support (let alone to actually strike).

Only an organized membership can be mobilized. Organizing, in turn, is slow, political work that happens out among the members, not among the leadership. The membership is a complex social system and solidarity is an emergent phenomenon within it. Ultimately, there must be broad consensus that a strike is warranted (however much we wished it wasn’t necessary) to deal with an intransigent Board. And, members need to have had gradual, embodied experiences with collective action in the workplace that build confidence and grow webs of solidarity stretching throughout campus. There are many ways to develop these, too long to list here, but readers can look to AUFA and CUPE 3902 for some recent examples.

Some will argue that doing this power-building work now is antithetical to reasonableness. This is a false dichotomy–neither reason nor justice are inconsistent with power (a healthy union attends to all three). Recognize the depoliticizing discourse of business unionism, which seeks to mollify members and diffuse their power in favour of legalistic strategies executed on a distant, professionalized terrain. It will leave us unprepared to deal with the eventuality that assuredly lies at the end of our current path. It is no more “strategic” than waiting for some moment when, for mysterious reasons, the Alberta public will suddenly understand our workplace issues well enough to sanctify our cause.

The reality is a Board set on all take, no give. Now that well over a year of reasonable arguments has not led to movement, are we left with no option but to accept the Board’s demands? Or, do we forge a better path forward by actively building the capacity to mount a majority strike, thus changing the conditions in which bargaining is taking place? There is no credible third way. The capacity is not that of a small core of leaders, staff, or engaged activists, however capable, and it does not live on paper. It’s the collective willingness of the members to withdraw our labour from a flawed system, in solidarity, in order to defend and improve it.