EduSolidarity solicited postings on “Why You Support Unions.” Of course I am very glad that I have a union to back me up in grievances with my boss and to help negotiate my contracts. Imagine if I had to go mano a mano with my boss each year to beg for health care, sick leave, supplies, smaller class sizes AND a living salary? With collective bargaining, we can negotiate these things once, for everyone, AND harness the power of large numbers of union members to pressure the boss to agree to our demands, rather than begging for his mercy. So on a very practical level, unions are essential for maintaining decent working and living conditions.
The problem is that for unions to be effective at maintaining decent working and living conditions, they must be willing and able to fight for them. This means keeping all their members in a constant state of readiness, through education, organizing and agitating. This means that instead of always fighting defensively to protect the status quo, they need to proactively go after better pay and working conditions. Instead, what we see in most unions are leaders who are more concerned with keeping their Democratic Party buddies in office, than they are with organizing their own members. This is most clearly seen in the enormous amounts of money spent on campaign contributions versus the pittances spent on organizing. This results in a lot of alienated and passive members who are difficult to mobilize. It contributes to a constant backward slide, as politicians grow increasingly more conservative, including unions’ Democratic allies, with increasing attacks on workers’ pay and benefits. It also emboldens the bosses, who see unions as weak and willing to roll over, encouraging them to make greater and greater demands on us.
I support unions, even weak and conciliatory ones, so long as they continue to defend me in grievances and help to negotiate good contracts. Ultimately, though, we need to take our unions back. We need unions that place a premium on organizing and mobilizing members, not on buying fickle and untrustworthy politicians. It is not our job to be a foil to corporate corruption of the political process, nor can we succeed at this game. In 2009-2010, corporations outspent unions by 13 to 1 in Wisconsin. Their purses are bottomless; ours are not. A union’s real strength is NOT in its ability to influence politicians through donations. Our real strength is in our ability to stop business from functioning as usual, to reduce profits, to make life uncomfortable for the bosses. This is the most effective way to achieve our goals AND to raise living standards for all working folks.