I write this on September 2, 2013. Labor Day. Facebook is today full of posts about labor unions with platitudes on why unions are important (see below). Meanwhile, union membership is at its lowest level since World War II, conservative governors are rolling back labor’s power in government, and unions seem increasingly irrevelant.
For a five-year period ending in June 2013, I was “chapter chair,” or shop steward, for United Teachers Los Angeles at a large occupational center that at one time had 150 teachers. I might elaborate on that experience in a future post, but here it will suffice to say that those five years were intense and — for the most part — stressful and unpleasant. This is because — for the most part — labor unions see their job as fighting management. They tend to exist on the basis of conflict, opposition, and acrimony. Many people like that sort of thing. I, personally, do not. For that reason, and many others, my school is lucky to be rid of me as its union boss, and I count myself fortunate to have been there, done that, and moved on.
Unions representing teachers — along with nurses, policemen, firefighters, and other government workers — are among the few surviving bastions of organized labor’s power in the USA. And teachers’ unions are currently under attack as never before, especially with the school reform movement, which in most cases equals charter schools — private schools that are funded with government money, and which bypass many laws and regulations, including union representation.
Personally, I can understand why a school administrator might not want his or her teachers to be unionized. Unions bargain for things like tenure (permanent jobs), benefits (health insurance, pension plans, and paid vacations), and teacher input on the management of schools and school districts. These things are good for teachers, but expensive and/or cumbersome for school districts. I started my teaching career at a private school, where I started for $7.00 an hour in 1981. A few years later, I was working for Los Angeles Unified School District for three times that. A few years after that, I had a permanent job and was enjoying three weeks of paid vacation a year, not to mention great health insurance that covered dental, vision, and — yes — even mental health coverage! (Believe me, everybody who works in any educational institution should have mental health coverage.)
I love teaching, and I profoundly appreciate the benefits that I enjoyed because of UTLA’s bargaining on behalf of me and all my colleagues. That is why I agreed to serve at UTLA chair at my school; because I wanted to give back. However many teachers — in fact, many people in this country — do not appreciate at all what UTLA and other unions have done for employees nationwide and worldwide. Therefore, I feel compelled to offer some reasons as to why we need labor unions:
1. Most bosses and business owners don’t really give a flying f*ck about their employees.
In countries without labor unions, factories are often sweatshops where workers toil for pennies per hour, under conditions that are at best extremely unpleasant, and at worst fatal. They have basically no rights. Is this because bosses and business owners are cruel? Well, not all of them are. But if you do a web search for “wealth” and “sociopaths,” you get a lot of hits. Here are a few. The first makes the point that rich people tend to be sociopaths:
This next one says rich people tend to be less ethical:
You get my point. People with money and power are unlikely to share or relinquish their money or their power without some kind of intense pressure, and that’s where labor unions come in.
2. Labor unions don’t just help union members
In many instances, employers of non-union businesses will give their workers better salaries, working conditions, and other benefits as an incentive for their employees NOT to form or join a union. I have heard instances of this at non-union charter schools, and at Toyota factories in the USA, where management offered their non-union employees good wages and benefits to keep them from joining United Auto Workers (UAW).
3. Labor unions often champion progressive political causes
An oft-disregarded fact of the 1963 March on Washington, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is that the UAW was key in helping to organize that march — with financial support, logistical support (protest signs, drinking water, etc.), and organizational know-how. Unions generally tell their members who they should vote for, and those candidates tend to be liberals and/or pro-labor.
Of course, this helps explain why right-wing pundits hate unions in general, and teachers’ unions in particular. More on that in another blog post, perhaps.
4. Labor unions are key in supporting middle class salaries
In my case, my salary went from poverty level (around $600 a month in 1981) to middle-class level (around $3,000 a month in 1987) because I went from a private school without a union to a public school district with a union. At $600 a month, my wife & I could barely keep an apartment, even in 1981. At $3,000 a month, we were able to afford a modest house.
As we go to press (WordPress), workers in fast-food restaurants and WalMart superstores across the USA are agitating for union representation. Even more exciting, labor organizers are trying their luck in China and other countries. I could give them plenty of reasons not to bother. But I could give them plenty more reasons why their struggle is a worthy one — worth, in my case, five years of trouble and strife, but in the case of many labor organizers in history, worth dying for.