Do I need to be in a union?
February 9, 2011 2:16 PM   Subscribe

I've been contacted by a union organizer regarding the potential formation of a union to represent administrative staff at the large public university where I work. What does this mean?

I work at one of the University of California schools in a professional, administrative (non-managerial) capacity. I am not in a union and don't really have strong feelings about unions one way or the other. A union organizer just called me on my work phone because she says I signed a "commitment card" at some event back in November indicating my support for the formation of a union to represent me and others at my university in an administrative role. While I have no recollection of doing that, it's possible that I didn't realize what I was signing so I chatted with the woman for a bit as I'm curious about what being in a union would mean.

She was calling to invite me to an organizing meeting and though I can't attend due to other commitments, I'm curious what attending the meeting would mean and what, if any, consequences there might be (positive and negative) to being either part of the organizing effort or just a member in the union.

As I mentioned, I'm pretty ambivalent about unions in general but I don't really have a clear sense of what one would do for me. Do I need a union?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
(Every worker needs a union.) The con of a union is that management often harasses workers who try to unionize (even though that's illegal). The pro is it's an advocate for you if you ever have a grievance against management. If you want to know any specifics about UC vis-a-vis unions, send me mefi-mail, my partner used to work for the UC teaching assistant union and I can forward any questions to her.
posted by phliar at 2:55 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't really have a clear sense of what one would do for me
One of the things about trade unions is that the benefits are much more to the group than to the individual worker. Yes, if you've got a grievance or a problem, an industrial officer or organiser can follow up your issue through management or whatever industrial courts or arbitration tribunals you have in your State. But the real benefits of having a union is that all of you, as workers, can collectively bargain your conditions and benefits, and get access to things—pay raises, hours of work, penalty/overtime, medical benefits (in the US), leave, and so on—that you wouldn't have a hope of negotiating for as an individual.

The major con to trade unionism is that in countries with anti-union laws and business, you can be harassed, discriminated against, fired or prosecuted for joining. I don't know how much that applies in California.
Every worker needs a union
That's my view too.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:03 PM on February 9, 2011

I have heard that UPTE is circling around UCSF. I have no idea if that's a good thing or not but their website has some information that might be useful.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 3:36 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Where I'm coming from: I used to be in a union, and I was also a union organizer for about six months. I'm not in one now, but that's because my current workplace has not formed a union, not because of any bad experience.)

Thinking about forming a union isn't really as much about whether unions in general are particularly good or bad, but whether you have changes you want to see in your workplace or not. Think about communication between yourself and your managers, think about things like raises, benefits, cost of living increases, think about the way you and your coworkers are treated. If you honestly can't imagine that anything could be better than it is now--well, I would be shocked. I am another of those "every worker needs a union" believers.

If there are things, be they institutional inefficiency, communication, respect, or staffing that you think could be better, then yes, you probably need a union. If you can't make this meeting, try calling the organizer back to see if you two can meet one on one; organizers love to talk to new people and answer questions and they can give you a more concrete idea of how you can make the improvements that you want to see happen happen. The idea behind a union is that together you can do things that you can't do separately (and that extends to managers, too; a lot of big structural changes that management would like to make can't happen without the power of a united workforce).

I would write more but I'm on a break at my non-union workplace (which I still love) so I should get back to it. Please feel free to PM me if you'd like to talk more.
posted by verbyournouns at 3:39 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think that being part of the organising committee is for you, if you're ambivalent about unions.

Speaking as a union member, i pay my annual subs because i realise that the power relationship between the management and the workers is inherently unbalanced. The simplest way to correct this is through collective action. My union manages that on my behalf, negotiating for better conditions and pay. It quite simply works, my employment is a good place to work because of the protective shield of the unions. In fact, unions/labour movements are responsible for the majority of the improvements in workers conditions over the past century, that have benefited everybody (not just members), leading to the rise of the middle class and part of the success of the modern democracy. i would argue that it's easy to show that the reason we're no longer all serfs working twelve hour days six days a week is due to colelctive action, expressed formally trhough unions.

There's power in a union.
posted by wilful at 3:44 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you want to get both sides of the story, I would ask the woman you spoke to about the benefits and detriments of joining her union. Then I would find an organization that is opposed to that union (it won't be hard to find. There are nonprofits and public interest law firms who work with people who have grievances against their unions or are trying to de-certify the unions in their workplaces) and ask them about the specific union that contacted you and about the benefits and detriments of public university unions in general. Then, armed with all of that information and opinion, do your own research.

I don't want to get into a fight here about whether unions are generally a good thing. There are lots of people who have well-informed solid reasons for liking unions, and a lot of people who have equally well-informed, solid reasons for not liking them, or for not liking a specific union, or for not liking unionization in their specific industry. You need to make up your own mind about whether being in this particular union is the right thing for you given your personal circumstances. And that's a decision we can't make for you.
posted by decathecting at 3:48 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been a union member for over six years. Like anything, there's positives and negatives, but in my personal opinion, there's more positives than negatives. At least that's the case in a large industrial operation.

Compensation, benefits, and terms of employment are negotiated between two parties that have some power to bring to the table, and one of these parties works in your interest. Contrast this with simply accepting whatever health plan your employer decided to offer you this year.

Compensation, benefits, etc. agreed upon will remain at the rate set for the length of the contract. The company can't jack up your premiums or cut your bonuses without a renegotiation.

In the event of disciplinary action, you have a right to a representative or representatives that are well versed in labor law and the terms of your contract. You can't be fired or demoted simply because your boss or some other power player doesn't like you. The company must show cause for disciplinary action to avoid entering into a long, drawn-out grievance procedure.

Your grievances must be recognized and investigated by the company and your union representatives. Did you get harassed by a powerful person at work? The company can't ignore it now.

Your job will be clearly defined and significant additions to your duties can't be applied without some sort of adjustment of compensation or pay grade.

As with anything, there can be drawbacks:

The union will be obligated to represent and protect all employees subject to the terms of the contract. Have a worthless coworker? The company will have a harder time getting rid of that coworker.

There is, of course, the potential for strikes and lockouts at contract negotiation time. You can't claim unemployment while striking or locked out.

After initial negotiations, the company may find themselves unwilling to employ as many people at a higher rate of pay. The newest people generally get the axe, and the remaining employees form the union.

Job choice is often decided by a rigid seniority system within a series of classifications. Jumping classifications may require taking a training course, and openings in the training course may require you to submit a bid. Winning bids are distributed in order of seniority. Newer employees get stuck with the lousy jobs, and advancing can take years.*

Even with the promise of advancement, there is generally a ceiling you can hit when you rise to the top classification in the contract. Employees become separated into Union and Company factions, and a rift of mistrust can build between them, making higher-ups reluctant to promote people from the Union side.*

*This isn't always the case. My union contract includes a provision called "Non Traditional Assignment" that allows for union employees to be placed in traditional salary roles while retaining union membership and earning an average of their pay calculated over the previous six months. These employees are interviewed and selected for these positions on merit, regardless of seniority. For example, I'm an engineer at my plant, even though I'm a union employee. I am free to apply to salary positions if I wish, and my experience in the NTA role and my time with the company makes jumping to salary very likely if I wish.

All of this said, I remain steadfastly pro-union and am thankful that I am lucky enough to be among the dwindling number of Americans that enjoy these benefits and protections.
posted by TrialByMedia at 3:51 PM on February 9, 2011

Perhaps you should ask a worker in a "right to work" state. There definitely is another side to this question. Just think "SEIU".... and then decide.
posted by JayRwv at 4:44 PM on February 9, 2011

I don't think that being part of the organising committee is for you, if you're ambivalent about unions.

Bullshit. Most people are ambivalent about unions because they don't know what they are. Its not a special club for fans. Its a way to shift the power from management to the workers.

I'm a former union organizer for several indian casinos in norcal and socal, and can tell you about all sorts of tactics that we use to get in touch with potential union members.

Yeah, that "interest card" may have been BS. Truth be told, they might have just jacked your information from somewhere that your employer should not have put it. Yeah, not cool...but even less cool that your employer has that information out for all to see.

It may just be that being at a public uni, your information is public, and she didn't want to say "hi, i got your info from the web".

I think you should go to the meeting and ask all sorts of hard questions. The most loyal and competent union members I have met were the ones who were the least confident about what unions do.

At the meeting, they will ask you to give your name and contact info. There will be other employees at the meeting who are either supporting the union or wondering what the hell it is. Whatever you do...please do not talk about who was or was not at the meeting to your bosses.

Good luck finding out about something that was almost eradicated by those who wanted to make $20M/year rather than $15M/year.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:12 PM on February 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Every worker deserves a good union. A good union will take your dues money, spend it responsibly and advocate for the workers to be treated fairly.

No one deserves a crappy union. Crappy unions will take your dues money and do nothing. Really crappy unions will take your dues money, spend it irresponsibly and then cause animosity between the workers and management to make it look like they are needed. In my opinion that is worse than having no union at all.

Collective bargaining can be a net good for a group but keep in mind that means that it may not be a net good for every employee. In my job everyone at the same seniority gets paid the exact same wage despite having different responsibilities. I don't find that fair. We all get the same vacation and benefits, which I find very fair.

I don't know that you should seek out an adversary to the union, but I do think talking to people who already work under this union (but are not involved in organizing or committees) to see how they feel would provide a clearer picture for you.
posted by soelo at 5:16 PM on February 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

United, you bargain; divided, you beg.
posted by saucysault at 5:27 PM on February 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

s, I'm curious what attending the meeting would mean and what, if any, consequences there might be (positive and negative) to being either part of the organizing effort

Depending on your workplace, there could be no consequences at all, or it could end up costing your job (in the extreme case). Some workplaces take an exceedingly dim view of union organizing and will do all in their power(and not in their power, legally speaking) to stop it.
On the other hand, often organizing is met with a big "meh" and management just accepts it as the course of events.
Ask yourself how the last union to be organized at your workplace had it, and you're probably pretty close to how it's going to go.

As for "Do I need to be in a union"?
In my opinion, if you need to ask the question, then you likely don't need to be in a union.
Are you in a situation where you negotiate your own compensation? Have you ever felt like you needed outside assistance to deal with a work issue? Do you feel "solidarity" with your coworkers or are you just earning a paycheck? All of these will have some bearing on your decision.
Look at the causes the proposed union supports. Are these your causes? Are you comfortable with your dues being used towards them?

From a personal perspective, I've always found any union I've been in to be more of a benign presence I'm forced to give money to rather than an organization I'm glad to be a member of, but as you can see from the answers above, many folks feel differently.
posted by madajb at 6:07 PM on February 9, 2011

Hi, I'm a union organizer and I also know pretty specifically what's up with your situation at UC! I'm in kind of a rush right now, but long story short...

Obviously I believe that unions are generally and historically a good thing, but specifically at UC right now I believe that the union reaching out to you (which I do not work for, but have dealt with and know members of) is a decent one and already represents other UC workers, who should be able to tell you about their own experiences. It's actually likely that the organizer who called you is a UC worker or was until very recently.

I'm sure you know the crappy situation UC is in financially, what you may or may not know is that they have an ongoing and pretty open plan to make sure workers take as much of the hit from budget issues as possible, while continuing to pay senior managers huge amounts of money, take on new building projects of dubious usefulness etc. Some workers at UC are in unions and some aren't, sometimes the unions work well together and sometimes they don't, but to me it's pretty clear that particularly now at UC being in a union and working through that union with other staff at UC is the best way to protect pensions and benefits as the administration continues to attack them under pressure from the state.

I'd be glad to talk about anything specific or general, about UC, or just about the bizarreness of getting a call like that (I totally get it). Feel free to mail me.

BTW, I'm so heartened by the awesome responses in this thread!
posted by crabintheocean at 6:25 PM on February 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, the "you signed a card" thing may be bogus. I was an active UPTE member until I left UC a few years ago, and we got the names and work locations of everyone on campus in a represented title directly from the university. I don't remember if that was by law or due to a provision in the contract, and if the latter your union (probably CUE?) may not have negotiated the same right, but they probably have.

One drawback to some of the UC unions (like UPTE) is that since that they are run by members, it's difficult to just dip your toe in. There is always tons of work to do, and it tends to fall on the shoulders of the same volunteers time and again. It's not a problem if you are clear with yourself and the organizers what your limits are, but it's easy to get sucked in to a significant time commitment. It's for a great cause but it's easy to burn out on it.

Feel free to Memail me if you want more info.
posted by harkin banks at 8:59 PM on February 9, 2011

I agree with the advice to ask the organizer what the downsides are. If they won't tell you, or say there aren't any, run away.

Everyone here has mentioned the upsides. The biggest downside to me is that the individual worker loses autonomy. The union protects itself, whether that simply means "the group as a whole" or worse, "letting a particular group of workers suffer so as not to mess with the policies and politics of the larger union organization". While fairly anamolous, there are plenty of situations where one worker is the best qualified for a position, and it goes to Lazy Dave because he has "dibs".

Snapshot view: my brother is a member of a union for a large grocery chain. The union newsletter has a "grievances" section. Do you know what the grievances almost always are? "Worker X saw a member of management straightening cans on a shelf. That is a union job." I don't like the idea that a union is telling people what they can't do. I REALLY don't like the idea of "union shops" where the union won't let someone take a job without joining their protection racket.

Another snapshot: in Illinois, the state government started a program to "outsource" the various agency's IT needs to a Central Management Services agency. This is a good idea. However, (and I might be getting the exact union names wrong) part of that reorganization involves transferring staff from the various agencies to the CMS agency. This means that some of these people had to shift unions. People that worked for IDOT, for example, were members of Teamsters. They were shifted to IBEW, and in some cases doubled their pay. Others were transferred from Teamsters to SEIU, and lost pay. Or at least lost potential pay because they went from being in the middle of their pay grade to the top. All for doing the same work. That is not right.

On a more philosophical basis, I hold a great respect for the work unions have done in making various countries' work laws more sane. But that is tempered by the tribalism, me-first attitude and the management sucks attitude. That there are laws that protect or give greater protections to union members than non union members. And in some cases give less protection to union members- basically saying "we cede this authority to the union, if you have one". In this day and age, my own philosophy is that if a worker has an issue that can't be solved on their own, that the more beneficial way to solve the problem is through the courts and legislatures. If something is unfair to the worker at one place, then it is unfair to any other worker in that situation, and should be rectified for all.
posted by gjc at 5:52 AM on February 10, 2011

I work in an industry that is highly unionized, but my particular group wasn't unionized. We suffered some completely unfair firings and general harassment from management, and we finally voted overwhelmingly for a union last year.

It is, hands down, the absolute best thing I have done for me in my profession. It doesn't stop management from fucking with you, but it gives you organization and tools to fight back. Do it.
posted by the dief at 7:48 AM on February 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Yeah, the "you signed a card" thing may be bogus. I was an active UPTE member until I left UC a few years ago, and we got the names and work locations of everyone on campus in a represented title directly from the university. I don't remember if that was by law or due to a provision in the contract, and if the latter your union (probably CUE?) may not have negotiated the same right, but they probably have."

Harkin Banks, Just FYI, I'm pretty sure the OP is what is often called a "99" and doesn't have a union at all right now. CUE members are admin workers but they're in less specialised and more "junior" positions.

Part of even the weakest union contract with an employer is that the employer must let the union know who is in a union position and give some contact info for them, and that would have been the list you had through UPTE. I would bet that the OP did sign something a while back, and that it was a petition or card expressing a vague interest in protecting pensions or making UC a better place to work. That's what folks generally do when they're thinking about organizing, to get a sense of whether people are unhappy with how things are, what issues are the biggest concerns and how to contact them later if there's enough interest.

hal_c_on is totally right that in other situations contact info comes other ways, especially in the private sector where things are way tougher (or at least tough in different ways). I used to help nursing home workers form unions and that's like night and day with the UC, where most workers are in well established unions already and trying to extend that to the 99s has been an open question for a while.
posted by crabintheocean at 11:44 AM on February 10, 2011

This thread has been pretty positive about unions, so I'll throw in a few observations. Unions, for better or worse, favor incumbents. There are a number of union favored policies, like seniority in pay and retention, that make it difficult on younger people. I've seen it quite clearly in the academic setting: tenure track hires are incredibly rare and over half of the classes are taught by part time ("adjuncts") at my last employer. Every union victory extracting another wage increase virtually guarantees the administration will have to balance the budget by replacing another retiree with part time, unorganized labor.

On the other hand, you are an incumbent. States are cash strapped, and if you don't have representation, it's gonna be a bad time. My state recently proposed (but did not pass) a 7 percent cut to all employees. California's in even worse shape. If you aren't going to unionize, you better be prepping your resume and be ready to make good on better personal alternatives to paycuts and furloughs.
posted by pwnguin at 5:43 PM on February 10, 2011

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