Saturday, June 18, 2022

Data Transparency and the Faculty Union

A group of faculty members organized a drive to get a data transparency motion on the agenda for the UBC Faculty Association's AGM, held June 16/22.  They managed to collect about 150 signatures in support of their resolution.  The history behind their motion and the driving subtextual motivations are not clear, but the

argument made is one based in terms of the current moment of intersectional values and intersectional theory.

The idea seems to be that the UBC FA is not taking into account diversity amongst complainants, that the assumption is there are "particular groups of faculty more likely to experience injustice in the workplace," and that concerns related to equity need to be highlighted. This, it would seem, the proponents argue can only be effectively dealt with through a compilation of a detailed report made available to the entire membership of the faculty union on an annual basis.  They don't really say what the fundamental purpose of this might be. Nor do they say how their analysis might be different or better.  I appreciate that as academics many of us deal with all kinds of data and we often run the risk of becomings experts in all manner of things related to and well beyond our own professional fields. One supposes, sitting somewhere sub-textually in all of this, there is an idea among a subset of the proponents they are better suited than the professionals our union has hired to do this work.  

The current faculty association executive disagreed with the specifics of the resolution and recommended defeating it, or at least referring it to a joint committee

(comprised of members of the executive and signatories to the resolution) that would report back to the fall AGM.  As the meeting stretched well past its scheduled end time I had to leave before the matter was resolved. I was subsequently informed the motion was deferred to committee.  

A limited circulation summary document, described by proponents as legal advice from a labour lawyer (who is not named, nor is it disclosed what kind of labour lawyer they are and whether they work mostly for business or unions or individuals), was used to counter the executive's statement. The excerpted comments in the summary, as pertains to the data transparency resolution, mostly referred to the ability to protect individual member's privacy and offered some fairly pro forma commentary. 

I have served several terms on the Faculty Association Executive, though it has been about a decade since I last served. During my three terms on the executive I was there immediately after UBC's voluntary recognition of the Association as a union and during the acquisition of Okanagon College's academic programs and facilities. As an executive member I was party to discussions of reports from the member services committee which involved all manner of issues (tabulated summaries of which have been included in annual reports to the membership for years, if not decades).  I gained a deep appreciation of the work the member services professional staff do and the amazing volunteer work of chairs of the standing committees, like the member services committee. My experience on the executive left me knowing we have strong staff and committed volunteers dedicated to considering the wellbeing of our collective membership.

A union has many responsibilities, but one of the most important is the duty of fair representation. In practical terms this means that as a member of the union I can bring a complaint about my work to the union and it is within their discretion how to proceed. The union has to fully and fairly consider my complaint (if it merits going to grievance). I might not agree with their decision, but once the union decides how they are proceeding I have no recourse unless they acted arbitrarily or discriminatorily.  

At the same time the union cannot simply refuse to consider my request for representation. This is an important point. Especially in the context of a university workplace were political ideologies and cultural beliefs can play an oversized role in workplace relations. So even a worker with an unpopular perspective has to be fairly represented in conflicts with management, even if a majority of other union members disagree (There are implications in the resolution that seems to imply that the focus of union support should tend toward equity groups - a union must represent all members fairly and without bias no matter who we are or what we believe). 

One of the best pieces of advice in my career at UBC came early during the first or second year of my employment.  I was chatting with a senior colleague in their office.  They were asking me how things were working out. I was quite naively optimistic about things. "Well," my colleague said, "if ever anything was to come up you should talk to the staff in the faculty association for their advice." At the time it seemed a non sequitur.  How did we get from casual chat about settling in to UBC to seeking advice from the faculty association? The conversation continued on its path as I reflected on the advice I had been given.

In retrospect I'm glad my colleague shared that advice. I had a prior working life that involved membership for many years in an industrial trade union.  As a student I was also involved in the TA union at SFU and the academic staff union at York University. So I was familiar with the idea of going to the union for help in tricky spots. Yet, I had this impression that UBC's faculty association of the day (before it became a union under the Labour Code) acted closer to management than to frontline or junior staff. But I kept my colleague's advice in mind.

As it turns out there are many reasons to contact the faculty association and ask for help. I don't wish to innumerate all the reasons I've emailed or called or visited. For one reason it makes me feel uncomfortable. Despite my experience in industrial trade unions I've found the university workplace less supportive of going to the union for help. It's almost as though going to the union is an admission of personal failure, an admission of not having what it takes to be excellent. I want to be clear, the union staffers have always been supportive and encouraging. My discomfort comes from the comments in the hallways shared with me and overheard over the years, the tone in meetings about excellence combined with the devastating critical comments colleagues provide in reviews and evaluations, and simply a strange antipathy toward unions I have observed here over the years. My experience with unions in other workplaces was far more affirming (not from the bosses) - these unions weren't perfect, but fellow workers didn't act like going to the union for help was my fault.  Just the same when the need arose I went to the faculty association for advice and support and it has been a positive circumstance each time. 

Most of the kinds of concerns and question I have had have not ended up in a formal grievance process. It is possible that some could have, but with advice and support I had positive outcomes instead. The idea though, that the nature of any of my requests for support tired to my demographic attributes, might be collated into a detailed report available for all to read and review does not sit well with me. I think that if others thought about it, it shouldn't really sit well with them either.  While UBC itself is a big corporate entity with thousands of staff, as academics we work in relatively small units with low turn over.  It doesn't take very much effort to piece together who might be referenced from considering the nature of a concern with how that concern is related to equity, and then how it was resolved (especially if one is party to the concern in some way via management - and many faculty are also implicated in our academic management structures).  Even with PIPA (not FOIPA) like controls at play, the act of making these data reports public runs a risk of worsening an individual's situation, not improving it.

A union represents a segment of a workforce in its struggle (negotiations) with their employer to better lives of all members.  It is naïve to think an employer, no matter how liberal, is unconditionally interested in the wellbeing of their workforce outside of their particular vested interests. We need to be cognizant that a union is not the same as an employer, the university, a human resources office, or an equity and diversity office.  A union has different obligations and responsibilities.  

That doesn't mean this kind of data shouldn't be collected, analyzed, and used in the functioning of the union as it fulfills its duty to represent.  We need such data to shape bargaining, to inform professional member services staff in their work, and union leadership in the setting of policies.  This kind of data is indeed critical for the operation of a union. I don't, however, need to have a big data report to pour over to satisfy my own analytic needs. Neither should my employer have it in hand so they can determine which groups of us are going to our union and which are not (they will already have their own data where they track 'incidents'). Making union data freely available to the boss helps the employer shape the terrain of interaction in ways that may well undermine the wellbeing of all of us.

It may be possible to mitigate individual risk with such data as the resolution's proponents suggest. I, however, prefer an approach that doesn't create the risk in the first place.  Let's not share our data with the bosses, let's keep the data in house.