Yes, I'm a Union Member, But...

I have several broader topics on the "to-do" list for this blog, but this week a colleague's observation reminded me that too many people see issues from stark, all-or-nothing, positions.

Since joining the faculty at a private, non-profit, university, I've been publicly stating that the union isn't starting its negotiations for a new three-year contract from a position of power and authority. That bothers me.

"How can you be in a union? You've detailed union corruption, negative effects on employment, and complained about public employee unions. I thought you hated unions?"

I do not "hate" all unions. I dislike many unions, definitely, primarily because of their leadership. But that does not mean that I am opposed to all unions. If anything, I want to reform unions and help guide change to make them relevant. Unions, as they are, represent the past — a romanticized past that often overlooks the problems of unions.

I am opposed to the romanticization of unions. The truth is, union corruption is a serious problem, even today. According to the National Labor Relations Board, which is clearly pro-union under this White House, "Within the last five years, the NLRB has received more than 150 complaints of union violence."

Union actions remain reckless, damaging public perceptions of workers and the union leaders. In the last week, we've had two stories of unions ignoring courts: longshoremen and teachers, both in Washington state. The longshoremen story is particularly strange, since it is union against union:
Associated Press: September 15
TACOMA, Wash. — A federal judge found a union in contempt of court Thursday, a week after police said hundreds of its members raided a grain terminal in southwestern Washington, smashed windows and menaced security guards.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton said he wants the operator of the Longview grain terminal, EGT, to provide him an accounting of the damage for purposes of gauging how much he should fine the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Locals 4 and 21.
As for the teachers in Washington, the courts are also unhappy with them:
By Debbie Cafazzo, The Tacoma News Tribune: September 16
Striking Tacoma teachers remain off the job despite a court order that told them to report for work, and schools are closed for a fourth straight day as the teachers union and school district prepare for a courtroom faceoff Friday.
Unions have to be careful, especially when they are on the verge of losing public support. In the case of educators and other public employees, restraint and professionalism are more important. Taxpayers support your (our) salaries, directly in the K-12 system and somewhat indirectly for those of us at universities. If taxpayers start to question our motives, we might lose ground.

As I wrote earlier this month, the New York Times, not an anti-union right-leaning publication, calculated it takes as many as 106 households to support one teacher's salary and benefits. This does entitle taxpayers to question the demands of any PEU when it seeks increased funding.

Regular readers know I am a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, am hoping for Writers Guild of America credits, and am represented by an American Federation of Teachers unit at my university. I am not going to embrace counterproductive actions and statements by some unions. Nor am I going to sit silently by if one of my unions starts to embrace poor attitudes, lousy rhetoric, and make other bad decisions.

I take two distinct views of the unions to which I belong. I've written about this before, and it deserves repeating:

Creative writing, especially for film and stage, is not an "essential" role in society. I consider what I do as a writer important. Writers can and do change societies. But, if a play is delayed a week or two the effects are limited. A comedy isn't released to movie houses? No big deal. I'll admit that my creative works are luxuries that are generally embraced by a small, small segment of society.

If people voluntarily buy tickets to a theatrical production, I will fight for a share of the ticket revenues. No writer? No entertainment. But, it is entertainment, for the most part. Without question, I want to improve the world through my words, yet writing pales compared to my other role.

Education is an essential role in this and any society. If I don't show up in the classroom, and no other teacher does, students fall behind their peers in other school districts, colleges, or universities. Being the best teacher I can be is a matter of personal pride. No recognition for writing matches the emotional high of learning a student has found personal success beyond the classroom.

I would not strike, as a teacher. The only way I'd leave a classroom and its student is if I knew beyond any doubt that the room itself was a danger to myself and students. If you want to have informational pickets? That's fine, if you do it before and after classes. Never penalize students, though. Students are first. Everything else is secondary.

Other teachers argue that pay and benefits affect students. Yes, that's true, but you don't enter a classroom with expectations of wealth. Plus, your salary is coming from the parents of these students. To ask more of these parents has its own repercussions. In the case of public schools, some parents will struggle in the face of higher rent and house payments to cover taxes. For universities, higher costs already result in tuition increases higher than overall inflation. We have to consider these families.

As a teacher, I want my union to promote quality teaching practices. I want the union to promote training and mentoring programs. I want the union to stand up and tell administrators that the quality of teachers is what concerns parents and students. If you want a successful school, you want the best teachers.

I want my union to embrace removing bad teachers from the classroom — and not merely moving those men and women to other posts, either. I want the union to help raise standards and qualifications for educators. This does not mean opposing alternative credentials or promoting meaningless continuing education programs. Too often, education unions embrace ideas that do not improve teaching. The best teachers are not necessarily those with long transcripts; other factors are more important.

I want my union to focus on my classroom, the resources available to my students (and me), and increasing the flexibility to teach in alternative ways. I want the union to embrace online and hybrid education. I want the union to encourage members to interact with students outside the classroom, as well.

Our faculty bargaining unit has, at least in public statements, been too concerned with the workplace minimums instead of seeking ways to improve student outcomes. I sat through a thirty minute presentation during which students and their needs were not mentioned once. That's troubling.

Bargain from a position of strength. That strength, in education, comes from the reputation a school has in the community, among other schools, and among employers. If we focus on improving our teaching, we become assets the university wouldn't dare mistreat. If I am the best educator and researcher in my field, I can and will leave one university for another if I'm not content.

If you don't focus on education, you lose students and, eventually, there is no university. It is that simple, at least in higher education. Students, parents, and employers have options; there are a dozen colleges and universities within 20 miles of our campus.

The union has to promote pride in teaching and scholarship. It has to be an active proponent of being the best we can be. When you are confident, you are in a much better position for negotiations. That is why I plan to be an active force for change within the union.

I like where I work. I like the administration. What I'd like to help do is move the union from an old-fashioned perspective to a forward-thinking collaborative role. When student applications to our institution outpace admissions because we're respected, the union will have much more influence than its members might realize. Ideally, we then use that influence to help students receive an even better educational experience.

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