Saturday, March 26, 2011

Prof Cronan's fight is actually about workers' rights

If you haven't read about the attempt to use a state FOIA like law to silence Wisconsin University Professor William Cronan by the State GOP, please do so.  Or try Krugman for a much shorter recap.

In the comments to both pieces, I quickly found examples of the answer I expected to see:  Cronan has nothing to complain about, employees should always know they have no expectation of privacy for anything they do at work, so should never use a work resource for anything they wouldn't want revealed to others.

Cronan's write up focuses a great deal on the academic freedom aspect.  He makes good and valuable points which rely on the understanding that a University professor is not an "employee" in the usual sense.  The job requires someone to seek and publicize truth wherever they find it and however uncomfortable it is for others.  Providing the security and opportunity to do this is the whole point of things like tenure, and the general lack of a hierarchical structure for academics.  Very few other jobs compare at all to this. 

Part of the problem surely ties to the ongoing corporatization of universities from public interest institutions that adopted corporate structures and practices to improve their financial situation, and have morphed ever more into actual profit seeking businesses that keep a veneer of academic-ness because it's good for business.  In a purely for-profit private "university" - can one really distinguish a Professor from a regular corporate trainer?

But as the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a public institution, I think the larger shift here is about how the typical American worker has come to accept the employer's absolute right to snoop on nearly anything they do at or for work and often even beyond.  I suspect putting cameras in the toilet stalls or changing rooms is about the only currently culturally accepted limit to what US employers can do to spy on their employees (the actual legal picture is more complex, but in general it is safe to say the US is quite tilted in favour of the employer monitoring nearly anything under any means at the workplace or done with company assets).

This is simply accepted as some kind of inevitable feature of the employer-employee relationship, but it really doesn't have to be so.   Employment law regarding the employee's expectation of privacy varies significantly in other countries.  It's a complicated subject, but in Canada a number of precedents exist (and new ones still appearing) which limit what may be monitored, or what action an employer can take based on what they find with it.   I've heard from professionals in the field that laws in some European countries go much further, and there are also EU wide regulations providing a level of privacy protection beyond what employees in Canada or the US would experience.

The deeper point here is that if one's attitude is to treat Cronan as just another "state employee" and claim that everything he does at work is subject to inspection by his employer (the people of the State) then yes, Cronan's fight really becomes not about academic freedom, but again about simple employee rights.  That he is a public sector worker only increases the similarity to the fight of the public sector unions against the very same anti-employee forces of the right.  The balance between freedom of information style laws and various legitimate reasons for not disclosing any particular public record is an important one, but some notion of the general employee's fair expectation not to be subjected to absolutely capricious or even malicious investigations in order to contrive grounds for action against them should be in there.  Lawyers can wrangle about whether employers should have something like probable cause or reasonable suspicion to engage in particular investigations on employee behaviour, but I think "I don't like the stuff that guy is saying" shouldn't cover it. 

The law is what it is as it pertains to this particular case, but liberals should keep in mind it doesn't have to be this way and a better balance can be struck.  Academics have strong grounds for additional protections above the norm, but the norm for everyone else doesn't have to be so low either.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, the WI GOP is doing us a favor by reminding us that whatever out differences, most of us are employees are therefore we have a good deal in common. It's easy for that truth to be hidden.

    No doubt this sort of thing is why WI professors are joining unions.

    The Predator State is coming for the bottom 95% or so.