‘Union’ is Not a Four Letter Word
I have made history, of a sort. As of this week, I am the very first member to be profiled on the brand new website for the SCEA, my faculty union. I’m honored. Hopefully other profiles will follow, and it won’t be just me hanging out there by myself. In the mean time, here are some thoughts on the predicament of unions today and why I became a union member in the first place.
Several semesters back, one of my students came up during break holding a pay stub from Henry’s. This was her first paycheck from her first ever job, and she wanted to know where all the “missing money” had gone. I can never resist explaining anything to anybody, so I was happy to help. Taxes she understood perfectly well. She had at least heard of Social Security, so that was another easy one. But when I said that the last deduction paid her union dues, she gave me blank look and asked, “What’s a union?”
I will admit to being a little stunned. I remembered learning a great deal about U.S. labor movements and unionism in a junior high school political science class. Yet here was a grown woman, a high school graduate, who didn’t know what a union was. Shocking. After a longish pause, I launched into a very abbreviated explanation of collective bargaining and the good things it has brought us over the decades: the forty hour work week, overtime pay, child labor laws, safety regulations, workman’s compensation, whistle-blower protection. By the time I needed to resume class, I think she understood. Still, I remained befuddled. Part of me just couldn’t believe that it had been necessary to even have that conversation.
These days, I look back at my reaction as naive. With collective bargaining under legislative assault in a number of states and anti-union, anti-public employee rhetoric trotted out by local political hopefuls in every election cycle, I’ve realized that this is a conversation that I–that all union workers–should be having with a lot more people.
Not that I’m in any position to throw stones. When I started working for SWC, I did not join the faculty union. This was back in the days when non-members paid no dues, but got representation anyway, so I saved a few dollars every paycheck. I needed the money, and I didn’t feel any guilt about it. That changed when I needed the union’s help. I had been denied an interview for a full time faculty position despite a clause in our contract that guarantees a first round interview to all adjuncts with three or more semesters under their belts, a clause the SCEA negotiated, by the way. I sent an email to the grievance chair, and a couple days later I was back on the interview list. I didn’t even need to file a formal complaint. At that point, I decided to pay up and support the union that had supported me.
This makes for a good story, but now I can’t help but see my reason for joining as little selfish, a little shortsighted. The union is always working for me, whether or not it is solving a specific problem on my behalf. Recently, the SCEA helped to elect a more labor friendly governing board for my college. Even now, the union is engaged in some very fraught negotiations with the administration over the next faculty contract. These things might not seem like such a big deal, especially to freeway flying adjuncts who work multiple campuses, but all of us will feel the impact soon enough, in our workloads and in our paychecks. I for one am counting on our union officials and negotiators to stand tall.
Why am I pro-union? Why do I belong to the SCEA? Because the least I can do is stand behind them.