Missing the forest for the trees.

The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has announced with considerable fanfare that members at eight NZ universities have voted overwhelmingly (a claimed average of 80 percent in favour) to strike in pursuit of an eight percent wage increase in the current negotiating round. I used to be a member of the TEU and wrote and co-wrote two books about comparative labour relations in seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand and Uruguay). As part of my field research I observed collective bargaining sessions between Argentine and Uruguayan central labor federations and employers associations. I was a participant in and focus of negotiations between my former university employer and the TEU over my unlawful dismissal, something that resulted in an Employment Court victory but no reinstatement (which is what I wanted but which the TEU argued was a step too far for them to continue to litigate). In other words, I have a fair sense of what collective bargaining entails (including between Marxist and non-Marxist unions, employers and Labor Ministry officials) and I have seen the TEU negotiate with my own eyes.

I mention this because at the same time the TEU is crowing about its high strike support rate across the sector, the Auckland University of Technology has announced plans to eliminate 230 jobs and disestablish entire programs as a cost-cutting measure. This, in spite of generating record surpluses in the past two years (12 percent in 2021; the annual report can be found here). The university managers argue that inflation and the loss of international students due to travel restrictions imposed by Covid mitigation efforts has negatively impacted on their bottom line. That is nonsense. The truth is that the surpluses exceeded expectations in spite of the pandemic impacts. Moreover, most of the programs destined for the chopping block, like the BA in Social Sciences, cater to domestic students. In fact, the majority of students in that particular undergraduate program, which has 300 fees paying students currently enrolled in a year one course on NZ politics, are of Pasifika and Maori heritage and many are the first members of their families to undertake university studies. For many of these students the BA Social Science program is an avenue of upward mobility into a variety of careers, including Law and Policy Studies. That avenue is now being shut down despite AUT management assurances that students “will find some other place to go.”

It is ironic that those directly responsible for disestablishing this program (the AUT Vice Chancellor and the Dean of Arts and Humanities) are Samoan and Maori respectfully.

Yet, even with the imminent displacement of dozens of TEU members from this one university, the TEU is patting itself on the back about the overall membership support for the wage increase strike call (which involves two-to-five-hour workday walkouts on seven campuses so as to not have staff docked pay under current employment law regulations. AUT is the exception, with a 3 week ban on submitting course marks UPDATE: Under threat of a two week suspension without pay for any member who withholds marks from the central office, the AUT TEU branch has caved and will engage in a 4 hour walkout along with the other universities). In spite of the strong support for the strike, I believe this is a short-sighted perspective that ultimately betrays member interests in favour of preserving the influence of what is essentially an employer-cooperative (if not coopted) union that abides by the employer’s logic and rules.

As it is, the 8 percent wage increase is an aspirational, not an achievable goal. The TEU will likely wind up settling for around 5 percent across the board, but then has to deal with each university’s counter-offers based on their different circumstances (wage bargaining for NZ universities occurs in decentralised fashion, with each university TEU branch negotiating with its respective university management based on overall guidelines from the TEU central office). For example, the cost of living in Auckland is higher than in Hamilton, Palmerston. North, Christchurch and Dunedin, so the “one size fits all” TEU approach to wages is clearly unrealistic as a practical tactic. Add to that different enrolment numbers, research grant endowments and other influences on university budgets, and the notion that an eight percent across the board wage increase for all TEU branch members is feasible becomes nothing more than a pipe dream.

The issue is more than a matter of unrealistic wage demands. It is a question of strategic myopia and self-serving organizational preservation. When unions focus solely on short term tactical goals (wage increases) rather than longer term strategic goals (job security, working conditions, individual and collective labor rights), or trade off the latter for the former, they (con)cede the broader contest to the employer. This happened at my former university employer and sadly, looks to be the trade-off that is about to occur at AUT, where “redundancies” may be exchanged for pay rises to the staff that are left (including the (non-union) middle- and upper-layer management layers that free-ride off of collective bargaining outcomes by tying their salary increases to what is negotiated). But those union members at AUT who may benefit now may be the target of future cuts down the road given that the branch union is no longer consulted about employment matters before decisions about them are made. In other words, under the current TEU approach short term gain is traded for long term pain.

Even the focus on wage increases is fraught in a sector such as higher education. Much of the public view academics as overpaid do-nothing navel-gazers with too much free time and very little responsibilities other than to blow hot air at impressionable youth. Saddled with their own economic concerns and in the majority non-unionised, they are therefore unsympathetic to union claims that university wages have not matched inflation and that morale is low. The reality of academic work is very different than this, but it is the context in which the TEU has to operate. It does not appear to be cognisant of this fact.

What is most sad is that the staff designated for redundancy at AUT and eventually elsewhere would likely trade any wage increase for job security, and many of their colleagues not designated for dismissal would agree to less (or even no) wage increases in order to see respected peers retain their jobs. Coupled with voluntary redundancy and retirement schemes for older or unproductive staff after review and consultation, this could achieve both cost and employment savings, thereby bolstering morale for what is now a very anxious and resentful academic cadre. After all, after spending years pursuing advanced degrees in academic disciplines and focusing on undergraduate and graduate-level teaching and research, it is difficult for many university staff to move laterally into other career fields (especially where suspicion of holders of advanced degrees is present), particularly if older than 50 where and when employment ageism is at play. From the perspective of those on the AUT management hit list, that means that they wasted years of time, resources and energy dedicated to pursuing a specialised craft, only to receive a very poor reward for years of service to the institution.

As things stand, this is a classic collective action problem. Myopic focus on wage increases allows union bosses to claim that they are delivering the goods to their members. But ceding involvement in workplace administration decisions leaves the field open for, in this instance, academic management Taylorists to erode both the individual and collective rights of all staff. Decisions on things like research leave, enrolment numbers, course pass rates, ratio of full-time to part-time lecturers, even (in some instances) course content and evaluation requirements are relinquished to non-academic managers with no familiarity, much less degrees in the subjects they are administering and whose main purpose is to engage in “make work” exercises that justify their existences (and salaries) rather than the delivery of a quality intellectual and education product to the research and student communities.

The TEU long ago gave away its participation in the longer-term strategic goal setting in exchange for its iterative resumption of tactical wage bargaining. That is the mandate for its branch unions and that is why NZ universities have been able to erode working conditions for academic staff and downsize permanent staff numbers in favor of part-time, less qualified personnel in pursuit of cost-cutting measures such as those being used as a justification for the AUT jobs massacre. Exceptions to the rule duly noted, the overall impact is a lowering of standards and deterioration of academic quality in NZ universities.

For people like me with a background in academia this is disappointing but not surprising. That is because the TEU is behaving exactly as the sociologist Robert Michels said it will in his seminal 1911 book, Political Parties (I am usually loathed to use Wikipedia as a citation but in the context of a blog post it will suffice. Also see this). Explaining why complex organizations (such as parties, firms and unions) behave as oligarchies in democratic societies, he noted that the first duty of the organization is to itself. That is, preservation of the organization comes before full satisfaction of membership interests. The dynamics of interest group competition and need for ongoing representation leads to a bureaucratic syndrome where leadership (agent) interest in maintaining the organization as a collective representative outweigh the broader interests of the principals (members). This is a dilemma because if unresolved it runs the risk of alienating principals from agents, leading to abandonment of the organization by members and the diminution of the organization’s power over time.

The more that happens within labor organizations, the more unions enter into decline, lose their collective weight when attempting to bargain and consequently are increasingly ignored by employers and the State when reactively defending the interests of their members, much less when making proactive demands. That is especially true when governments adopt market-driven reforms that in their approach to worker’s rights and representation are deliberately designed to weaken union power.

This is exactly what happened in NZ, the US, UK and elsewhere with the rise of so-called “neoliberalism” as the dominant intellectual and policy paradigm. Market-driven approaches to labor relations are designed to atomize individuals in the workplace and subject them to the greater power of corporate or profit-driven entities whose managerial logics are dominated by the quest to generate surpluses, not improving the material and emotional welfare of employees. That logic is now at play at AUT and other NZ universities.

One way of reconciling this agent-principal problem is for union leaders to focus on immediate gains via wage bargaining while sacrificing longer term objectives tied to workplace autonomy and employee job security. In a sense this is a type of false consciousness where, by gaining incremental wage concessions from employers, both the union leadership and many members convince themselves of the value of the short-term tactical approach to collective bargaining even as they are gradually stripped of control over non-wage aspects of the employment relationship.

That is exactly the approach taken by the TEU. But it is just a short-term solution in a much longer-term, extensive form game dominated by market-oriented managerial logics rather than genuine belief in the role of the academe as “critic and conscience” of society. Seen by that measure and notwithstanding the apparent sincerity and commitment of some of its officials, the TEU is acting more as an employer vassal rather than as the committed agent of its members.

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