Friday, February 25, 2011

Week 20: Talking Union

Yesterday, I attended my first faculty association meeting at my new school, and my belief in the importance and purpose of these organizations was renewed in a meaningful and significant way.

When I was asked to I would join the faculty association at my new job at the beginning of the year I said yes without hesitation. I didn't do this because I felt pressured to or even because I had to. I knew that even if I didn't join, I would still get the benefits of the contract that was bargained collectively on behalf of all the of the faculty. I joined because I have faith in the power of professional associations, more commonly referred to as unions.

Ever since my first year as a teacher I've been a union member.  I believe that workers benefit from speaking with one voice, and they operate better in a job in which they feel a level of equity and camaraderie with their peers.  I am proud to be part of a tradition that is an expression of democracy and our never-ending struggle to create a more just and fair society.

Last week, Wisconsin Governor Walker, in an effort to balance the state budget, proposed a bill that would adjust the benefits of state employees and take away collective bargaining rights. (Today it passed the state assembly.) In reaction, teachers, other state workers and their supporters have been protesting in Madison. In reaction to this, a national dialogue about the legitimacy of unions has erupted throughout the country.

Teacher unions are not perfect. I've read about unions that are corrupt, stand in the way of educational progress, and have policies that keep unqualified teachers in positions. In some political circumstances, teacher unions hold an unreasonable amount of influence. On an anecdotal level, I've read or heard of illogical and unreasonable requests some groups have made during contract negotiations.

All of these issues are completely valid but they are not reasons to abolish unions and the right to collectively bargain.

It is illogical to get rid of a business practice just because there are people who misuse it. Should we take away peoples’ right to short stocks because some people illegally manipulate this practice (naked shorting) or because others misunderstand this concept and just think it is bad? No, of course not.

You cannot and should not judge a practice on the worst-case situations.

During the industrial revolution, workers were exploited and unions acted as society's conscience. Things have changed a lot since then and there are many great companies who operate without unions and their workers are satisfied and happy.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for all people. Even with the best management, unions need to exist in certain situations to advocate for groups of workers to help management understand different perspectives and needs.

We cannot just get rid of unions as a concept because there are some union organizations that are broken. Instead, we need to work to reform specific unions that need to improve and celebrate the ones that are doing great work. We should not tolerate union practices that misrepresent the needs of workers, and we should be angry at how some organizations have polluted Americans' right to organize and express viewpoints as a group.

After the meeting yesterday I'm really proud of the faculty in the room and our association president who ran the meeting. It was an incredible exchange of ideas, an affirmation of values, and an opportunity to come together—not against the administration, but for each other.

Being in a union is not about the money and benefits. It’s not about being a Democrat and it's not about being adversarial against management. Being a part of a union is about shared values, being part of a larger community, and the powerful and uplifting feeling of being part of a democracy.

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