Archive for March, 2007

Our union, your vote

March 12, 2007

By Russell Kilday-Hicks

Our union, CSUEU, and the CSU recently bargained and ratified a renewed three-year contract. The ratification process includes approval by union members. To vote — to have your voice heard either for or against the Tentative Agreement (TA) — you must be a union member. I’ve been asked why that is? Why don’t non-members get a vote too because the contract affects all employees in the workplace in the bargaining units we represent?

Many years ago a majority of workers in the CSU voted (by bargaining unit) to have statewide union representation by CSEA. A majority (by bargaining unit) can vote the union out at any time. The limits of union power or effectiveness come in three ways: weaknesses in federal and state labor law itself, weaknesses in the individual volunteers who step forward to do the work (we are all fallible, after all), and the weakness in general that stems from the employees choosing to not be involved at least minimally by becoming a member, or going beyond that by volunteering their time to the union for the good of all. This institution is just like all democratic entities — it’s only as strong or as good as the people involved. Unions come with responsibilities as well as benefits.

Let me draw a parallel. A long time ago our country struggled to become a democracy. Oh, that is what we conveniently call it but it’s really a partially democratic, representative republic (one of my favorite political scientists calls it “democracy for the few”). This means that minimally we elect leaders who then represent us. As a citizen or resident of this country you can chose your level of participation in some ways, but that does not exclude you from the responsibilities of residence or citizenship in other ways. (It’s sad that so many take those responsibilities so lightly — not just because of the struggle to get where we are today and the possibility of losing what we have, but also our country would be so much better if more people participated in its governance — in voting, yes, but so much more than that is desperately needed.) Whether you register to vote or not you still have to follow the laws that the elected representatives make, including paying taxes. You cannot refuse to follow the laws because you don’t believe in our form of government. So why follow laws like driving on the correct side of the street or paying taxes? Well, if you don’t, there are consequences.

Of course at least some of the founders, like Jefferson (and later leaders like Thoreau, Twain, etc.), believed that it is our responsibility to not follow an unjust law, as in civil disobedience. Democracy is sometimes called “the tyranny of the majority” for good reason. Occasionally the majority is indeed wrongheaded. But there are consequences for standing up for what you believe is the right thing to do. That may be how you deal with individual laws, while supporting the overall structure: a government by the people, for the people.

On the other hand, you can opt out, but that doesn’t stop the country from functioning without you. If you choose to not participate in electing our representatives then you will be voluntarily disempowering yourself. That is a political choice, but like the French saying: If you don’t do politics, politics will be done to you — there is no real way out. A friend of mine said the other day that he is so much more political than he used to be. I had to correct him. He may be more informed and involved but being uninformed and uninvolved is just as political. Like the historian Howard Zinn says: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” History will go on with or without you so you may as well participate.

This brings us back to the union. You can choose to work for the CSU system but if you don’t become a member of the union (by actively filling out a membership card) then you are choosing to not participate in the governance of the workplace. However, you still have to pay your taxes (in this case, the “fair share” fees that go to fund bargaining and enforcing the contract that we all work under) and follow the rules laid out in the contract with the CSU. If the elected union leaders decide to do something horrible the remedy is to participate and tell them to change it — or change that leadership. You can say, “I don’t agree with unions so I won’t get involved,” but that really doesn’t change the fact that our workplace is a union environment. Union law developed over many years of struggle, starting in earnest in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of unions in the lives of workers and wrote at the time that anyone who didn’t support unions was a “dangerous fool” and “un-American.” Unions have what is called “exclusive representation” in the workplace, meaning there cannot be competing organizations once a union is voted in. With that comes the “duty of representation,” which means that member or not, if the contract is violated the employee can expect help from the union, if her or she asks for help and is willing to work on his or her own behalf as well. Unionism at its best looks out for the rights of all workers (social justice unionism). At its worst, unionism keeps to “bread and butter” issues, just taking care of its own, even to the extent of competing against other unions (business unionism).

I hope I’ve convinced you that the choice not to participate is a political choice. If you don’t like your government you can work to change it. If you don’t like the union, change it.

Here are some of the common reasons for not joining that I’ve come across:
• Partisan politics: Some are turned off by the union’s partisanship (is there any doubt how we feel about Arnold?). But I, personally, am not a hardcore Democrat. What I am is hardcore worker’s rights and small “d” believer in democracy. If the Republicans woke up tomorrow and decided that the key to the nation’s wealth is labor (“Honest Abe” Lincoln was a Republican) and became the great defender of workers and their families, then I would support that. The reality is the Democrats often fall far short too. On the other hand, Arnold openly says he hates unions. For me, that is like saying you hate democracy. He doesn’t say he hates corporations, but corporate structure and the way they operate are inherently undemocratic. (For more, read “Gangs Of America, the Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy” by Ted Nace. Download it for free at www.gangsofamerica.com.) Before every election there is a debate within the union on who to oppose and support. If you disagree with the choices, make your case and win people over to your side.

• “I’m not a joiner”: That may be, but whether you join or not you are making a statement. If you don’t join, the CSU takes that as saying: “I’m fine with the way things are, with the way the CSU treats me and my coworkers.” Union activists have heard from CSU lawyers and HR directors across the bargaining table for years that more than half of the employees we represent do not belong to the union so do not support our proposals. This is changing, due to the “forced fees” providing the resources to more effectively serve the workers and the recent changes in leadership. This has increased membership across the state significantly. But at just barely 50 percent, we are not anywhere where we should be. Does joining say you agree with everything the union does? Well, does registering to vote say you agree with everything the government does? Hardly. Joining gives you a vote to elect leaders and approve or disapprove proposed contracts. You should come to a statewide meeting some time and watch the disagreements. We try to act with one voice, but it’s real work to get there.

• “I’m against forced unionism, or forced fees”: The National Right To Work Foundation, a group funded by all the major corporations, thinks you are being forced to be in a union and forced to pay fees. But don’t think for a minute they have the worker’s interests in mind. (I call them the National Right To Be Fired Foundation.) There are also groups (also funded by major corporations) who believe that all taxes are evil too and have been effectively working (a.k.a. the “Reagan Revolution”) to lessen their share, even though those corporations benefit from the infrastructure taxes pay for as well (a.k.a. “corporate welfare”). Corporations fund the NRTW because it is in their interests to keep unions weak and wasting resources (as in your dues or fees) in court battles. Individual employees have a hard time fighting for employee rights by themselves. Without a union contract, private-sector employees do not even enjoy permanency. Unions provide a collective voice and protection. But without the money to pay the bills, they can’t do the job. Would we have roads or schools or hospitals if taxes were voluntary? Taxes (and union fees) guarantee that our government (and our union) has the resources to do the job we want them to do for the good of society.

• What does the union do anyway?: One of the problems with unionism is that much of the work is done behind the scenes. If you come to the union with a workplace issue and a trained steward takes your case, that representation is confidential. We also get a bad rap, much like lawyers, because we have to defend everyone. One of the funding principles of this nation is that everyone deserves his or her day in court. Duty of representation means we have a legal obligation to represent anyone who comes forward, whether we like that person or not, whether we think that person is a good employee or not. The union also acts on behalf of CSU employees in Sacramento. Honestly, if we are funded by the state, who in his or her right mind would deny us the ability to lobby on our own behalf? Well, Arnold for one, like he tried to do with a ballot proposition in 2005 (that were defeated by a collective union effort in the state). As we join forces with faculty and students to advocate for the CSU, we are benefiting not only you in the workplace but California as a whole. Every dollar invested in a healthy CSU comes back to California many times over.

This is your organization. Join us!