My cousin, a retired labor law professor, never tires of reminding me of the importance of Labor Day. I did not need a reminder, because I’ve learned some of the unbelievably violent and bloody history of the movement. I let him tell me anyway.
I live in a “right to work” state, which limits union activities. I call it a “right to be fired” state. One of the many things a union is supposed to do is protect you, or help you survive, middle managers who impose layoffs to create numbers that might please analysts, stockholders and executives whose pay is tied to such numbers, but weaken the company, reduce the quality and reliability of the products the company makes or services it provides, and, most specifically, leave the human beings who have given their lives, their health and the future of their families to the company, with little or nothing for their contribution.
I support unions even though every time I needed one to back me up, it failed me.
The first time I agreed to teach a semester in the English Department at a community college with a very powerful teachers union. What made the gig appealing was not the union, but the fact that the college was so close to where I lived at the time that I could walk to it.
That, and, from teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers and Temple universities, I knew that community college students really needed help with basic skills that they did not develop adequately in high school. I imagined that I could provide that, as an entirely self-taught novelist and journalist, I could provide that help.
Though I only had a bachelors degree, I offered a copy of my first published novel as proof that I knew something about my subject matter. That my work regularly appealed in Philadelphia newspapers also spoke in my favor.
I was given remedial English classes. I asked to share a faculty office so I could meet privately with students. I wasn’t given that, so I met my students before and after classes in the dining hall.
Teaching is always a two-way street: you learn as much, if not more, from your students as you hope they are learning from you. I’ll never forget the guy who couldn’t stop himself from sleeping in my class. When I asked him why, he told me that he used to be a drug dealer but gave it up after one of his friends was killed. Now, on top of the education he was trying to acquire, he had joined a church, married and was holding down two jobs to make less than half of what he took in illegally.
I told him I was so proud of him for turning his life around, I wouldn’t bother him any more about it. He made a renewed effort to pay attention and ended the class with one of the top grades.
Before that could happen, I was called into the office of an associate dean and accused of teaching without a masters degree. I told the dean I never claimed to have a masters degree and that the English Department had hired me because of my skills. The Dean further accused me of fraud and demanded that I provide a transcript from my Oberlin B.A.
I went to the union and was told of a war going on between administration and the English department that had nothing to do with me. I asked the union rep to intercede between the dean and me. The rep told me she wouldn’t do that and, “just to be on the safe side,” I should get a copy of my transcript.
Thank you very much not doing what a union should do: solve difficulties between labor and management so labor (me) can continue to labor in a way that best meets the needs of the company (the college) and its customers (the students).
I got the transcript and submitted it but the dean still accused me of misrepresenting myself. I decided to end my association with the community college at the end of the semester. Later I heard that the dean had been fired.
When the Philadelphia Inquirer was experiencing one of its periodic strikes, I was approached by a reporter I knew and asked about joining the Newspaper Guild. Up until then, the Guild would not admit freelancers. In truth, freelancers were considered the enemies of staff reporters (all of whom had to be Guild members) because freelancers tended to produce more copy, be more agreeable during editing sessions and more grateful for assignments.
At least, I was.
The idea of being part of the Guild appealed to me, because it would settle the inevitable rivalry between staffers and freelancers. Though rules had been established about how choice assignments were given, the rules were not enforced reliably and equitably.
So I joined the union. I wasn’t charged dues. I was just told not to write for the Inquirer or Daily News while the strike was on. Because I didn’t have any outstanding assignments, and plenty of work from other publications, I had no difficulty complying.
Within a few weeks the strike was settled and I discovered I wasn’t a member of the union. Instead, the union played me, and other freelancers, correspondents and contract contributors, to increased the pressure on the newspaper’s parent company to settle the strike
My third and, I hope, last union disappointment happened when I again thought I would be able to help students with their writing. I went into a high school and, as those who have read this blog know, I did not get along well with the administrators. They forced me to attend humiliating “remedial” teaching meetings, delivered insultingly negative evaluations, and accused me of saying and doing things I did not say or do.
This time I had paid my dues to join the union and I managed to meet with a union advisor outside of the union offices, who told me to “brown nose.”
I didn’t understand.
“Kiss ass. Tell them how much you love working for them and teaching in their school.”
But they’re trying to make me so annoyed that I quit.
“They’re trying to get rid of you. They’re creating a paper trail that will justify whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it.”
I insisted that I had good relations with students and parents, my classes were doing well and–
“They don’t care. They want you out.”
What could the union do to get them to lay off?
Nothing, I was told.
I heard later that the union may have made a case for me, if I was someone they “knew,” or valued in some way. As is typical with human organizations, the group’s resources, which can mean everything from funding or battles worth fighting, are apportioned for reasons other than the mere fact of membership.
It’s possible that some may read this and judge me precisely the kind of person who shouldn’t be anyone’s employee. I like to do things my own way. Instead of following instructions, I improvise to find out what works and what doesn’t in a given setting, then I build on that, learn from that, refine that.
And, from being a journalist, I’m skeptical of those in power. Just because they’re above me in status, influence, salary, duties or perks, does not mean that I will dedicate myself to pleasing them. I’ll try to get along, because it’s the right thing to do in a group setting. I’ll do my best to resolve conflicts and restore harmony.
But the job is more important to me than how it reflects on their opinions of themselves, or their careers. When teaching, the job is much more than the acquisition of knowledge or skills. It’s about helping students discover how they learn, and then giving them every opportunity to learn as much as they can.
So, after so much lousy treatment by unions (as well as a time spent covering a violent Atlantic City strike by the hotel and restaurant workers), you’d think I’d turn my back on organized labor, and join the mob of anti-unionists who believe that workers should be eternally grateful for the management/ownership class for providing work, at whatever pay and conditions management/owners see fit.
I don’t. Labor and management have had plenty of opportunities historically to get along, to create positive environments where everyone prospers. Most of the time, that hasn’t happened. Management has broken strikes for better wages and better working conditions by hiding the forces of legitimate law and order, in the form of police, and state and federal militias, or by hiring armed guards, the infamous Pinkerton detectives among them. Invariably, those weapons go off and workers have died.
Nowadays the managers or owners are trying even harder to eliminate human labor from their companies. They have many reasons, and some of them are worth considering. Some that are not are so-called efficiencies that transfer labor from the company to me, the consumer. When I call up a company, I have to navigate a phone tree, then wait for the “first available” person. When I fly on a commercial carrier, I have to print my own boarding pass or pay a fine.
When I see someone who is employed having a dispute with management, I am grateful that unions exist, because, even if the union ultimately doesn’t do its job, at least the employee has someone to turn to and, when those employees come together to strike, they can make a difference, not just for their jobs, but for many others.