Politics for unions: A four-letter word?

Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you hate politics? I can’t really blame you. But I want you to realize that whether you love it or would rather leave it, politics is here to stay. The French have a saying: Those who don’t do politics will have politics done to them.

Some would rather not have unions involved in politics. Certainly corporations “feel” that way (contrary to the law, corporations are not people, so they can’t really have feelings) but even some union members (let alone non-member fee payers) tell me that they “don’t like our politics,” as if unions should do something other than fight for working people’s rights wherever they are threatened: in the workplace and in the state house in Sacramento. But I have to tell you what a mistake that would be. We have no choice but to play in the political arena; not doing so automatically concedes defeat. As a state employee union in public higher education, we have no choice but to fight for the CSU and California’s Master Plan for Higher Education—our fates are entwined. Outside of that we have a much bigger fight on our hands. Let me explain.

“Paycheck protection.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want their paycheck protected? “Protection of the secret ballot.” How could you be against that? These are just two of the deceptive measures that might be on the California ballot in November of 2012. Along with them might be multiple attacks on public employee pensions and even whether state employees should be allowed to have unions at all.

The “Stop Special Interest Money Now Act,” a.k.a. the “paycheck protection” initiative is gathering signatures at a campus (or a grocery store or church) near you. If this measure qualifies for the ballot and then gathers a majority of votes it will make it more difficult for unions to fundraise for political action. It messes with the unions’ ability to do payroll deduction for political spending by requiring permission, in writing, from each member each and every year. It doesn’t stop political deductions at all, and oh, by the way, your paycheck is already “protected.” If you don’t want political money taken just tell us, once, and we will not take another cent until you tell us to. (Also, you should know that money for politics is treated differently from dues money. There are two sets of rules that apply to dues verses political donations.)

Unlike its name, however, it hardly stops “special interest” money. Of course, to be “fair,” it also puts the same restrictions on corporations that deduct money from their workers’ paychecks—which would actually apply to no corporation on the planet, let alone in California. Corporations take their money through profit to spend as they will. When a union “takes” your money you have a say in how it is spent. We have a statewide legislative committee that looks at bills and ballot measures and candidates and decides which ones to support using the criteria of: will endorsement hurt or help state employees and the CSU? Any member is welcome to get involved in this work. Yes we want and need your money, but to spend it for our own collective good, some on programs and training and staff to defend your rights and some for issues that will directly affect us all—like whether we can even have a union.

As an aside, in case you didn’t know, “special interest” is code for the evil unions. They never refer to corporations by this name and the money they spend on politics is typically 17 to every one union dollar spent. I like to say in response when I hear unions called this: “We are not a special interest, but we have one: a vibrant CSU.”

Lest we forget, that other attack I mentioned, the “secret ballot” measure, is also a ruse, you can be sure of that. It is an attack on “card check” employer neutrality, when an employer can chose to be neutral and allow union representation of its employees—without holding an election—if enough workers sign a “pledge of intent” that states that if the workplace were unionized he or she would join it. Those who want to “protect” elections for unionization are really protecting their opportunity for all sorts of dirty tricks that elections allow for. “Union avoidance” is a $4 billion business, along with the over 10,000 union organizers who are fired illegally each year. (Where is their protection?)

Politics can be, and often is, a “four letter word,” meaning it is a dirty business, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just that for the most part our politics has become corrupted with backwards priorities and the unequal distribution of resources. As the journalist Greg Pallast says: “We have the best democracy money can buy.”

A politics of millions could change this — but it begins with us. As American citizens it is our right and our duty to “do” politics. As public sector union workers, it is also our right to be politically active unless we allow those corporate forces to strip our Constitutionally given right of association from us. (Oh, sorry, that right isn’t in the Constitution but established in case law. This is why they can take it away from us. But the right of association is still a human right, regardless. Maybe someday we can struggle to actually put it in the Constitution.)

As union leaders, we have a responsibility to our co-workers and to the trust we hold in the union to vigorously defend our rights, and, really, we would be crazy not to. Freedom is a constant struggle. Peace.


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