When I first moved to Wisconsin and started teaching in the state technical college system, I didn’t join the union.
Previously, I had seen workers in private unions abuse their contract language: taking breaks at inappropriate times, getting paid for doing nothing because their contracts contained job descriptions so narrow that they couldn’t be asked to work until their specific services were needed.
I had also heard rumors: Incompetent union teachers can’t be fired! Workers are forced to join unions through strong-arm tactics!
So I was reluctant to be associated with a union. I waited for my coworkers to bully me into it.
No one mentioned it.
I eventually learned that my anti-union sentiments were the result of misinformation, misconception, and sadly, some truth.
After taking an active stance to discover the truth behind my union, I discovered that the core of union representation is contract negotiation. Any contract governing union workers is agreed to by both sides: the workers and the administrators. The contract outlines terms for both sides to live by.
In addition, I realized that for every union horror story, there are hundreds of positive union stories that no one ever hears about. Who wants to gossip about a workplace where union workers and managers coexist in peace and productivity?
I also realized that all my workplaces, union or otherwise – from retail to journalism to academia – have had slackers.
But do unions make it harder to fire the slackers?
In most nonunion jobs, a boss can say “You’re fired,” and the employee is gone. The worker can file a lawsuit if he or she thinks the dismissal violated laws regarding discrimination or whistle-blowing and can possibly be reinstated.
Most union contracts specify a longer firing process, so yes, it is harder but clearly not impossible.
Most teachers go through a probation period of several years during which they can be fired at will. It’s up to the administrators to evaluate instructors during this period and weed out the bad ones. In some schools the term tenure is used to show that the instructor has moved into a more protected position.
Once “protected,” teachers can still be fired, but now the employer has to give a reason and follow a process. This process varies wildly from union to union. Here’s the one for my union:
1. The employer must give the instructor written notice of dismissal, including a cause for the firing.
2. The instructor can appear before the school board within thirty-five days and ask the board to reconsider.
3. If the board says, “We still want to fire you,” the instructor has ten days to ask for outside arbitration, which is resolved in five days. The arbiter’s decision is final.
So it’s not an endless or impossible task. True, the administration has to have a good excuse for the firing, a reasonable system that prevents firings based on personality conflicts, political differences, and other circumstances that previously were abused by unethical employers.
Of course, some unions have far more rigorous dismissal requirements. Those are the ones that make the news, like the “rubber rooms” where New York teachers sit and get paid for months and years as they await a hearing.
The most important lesson I learned about unions was that each one – public or private – is different, and each contract is different. And the more I explore the issue, the more I see that most contract language in most union contracts is good and fair. So to judge all unions because of a few bad ones is like blaming all Muslims for 9/11 or all gun sellers for the events at Columbine.
But the ugly union labels stick: Union workers are lazy. Greedy. Overpaid. I’ve heard them all and unfortunately seen examples of each.
However, I’ve also seen how unions give a voice to workers that otherwise would be silenced, give fair wages to workers who otherwise would be underpaid, provide a safer workplace and saner schedule to workers who otherwise would be disregarded.
And so I finally joined my union. It’s not perfect – show me an organization or workplace that is! But my contract guarantees I will be treated fairly – even if I get fired.
Here’s a story about the plan to eliminate New York’s “rubber rooms,” the focus of a documentary, numerous news stories, and countless anti-union commentaries. (It sounds like additional negotiations are needed.)