Tuesday, July 3, 2018
This ATU Member Stands for Unity
In careers past, I wondered what it would be like to have a union job. Throughout my life, I've wished for a career in which I felt supported by my co-workers. Now that it's a reality, I've come to know how important unions are to blue collar stiffs like me.
I didn't finish college in my 20s when most students do. Instead, I married and started a family, which required me to get a job. For 30 years, I was employed in non-union positions. When I was hired as a bus operator, the responsibility of keeping people safe was balanced by the security of being represented by Amalgamated Transit Union's Local 757. Instead of being "on my own" as a private-sector employee, my local represents me if something bad happens on the job. Simultaneously, it also negotiates with management on behalf of ALL members to secure strong benefit and wage packages.
At first, I was concerned about the initiation fees and monthly dues ATU charged me, but overall it's a good deal. Considering the amount of taxes I've paid over my lifetime with weak representation of my interests competing with lobbyists arguing solely for the business sector that employs them, union membership is a much better deal.
Before becoming a union member, I still benefited from the victories of labor over the past 130-plus years. Weekends, holidays, sick leave, the 40-hour work week, overtime and other benefits are enjoyed by millions of other workers regardless of union membership. Labor movements and millions before me fought hard, had their blood spilled and/or gave their lives so that big money interests were required to follow fair labor practice standards. Otherwise, there would have been no middle class, or the coveted "American Dream." If protective labor laws had not been enacted, our working lives would be drastically different than they are today.
Union membership has declined steadily over the past half-century or more, weakening our ability to ensure fairness for the working class. Losses of good-paying jobs due to offshoring and outsourcing have done much for the corporate big-money interests, simultaneously increasing the number of working poor. Housing costs in Portland have increased substantially in the past decade, sometimes more than 10% each year, while many struggle in jobs where salary increases don't measure up. Service workers today are usually just one paycheck away from the street. This puts more workers nearing retirement in fear of not having enough money to survive after working a lifetime. At this rate, I'll retire into a casket.
Now that the United States Supreme Court has handed down a decision on JANUS vs. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, we fear management's schemes could become even more harsh. SCOTUS's 5-4 decision for Mark Janus, a child support specialist in Illinois, overturned the 1977 case of Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education in which the court ruled that unions could charge fees to union workers to offset costs of collective bargaining, grievance defense and administration of contracts, but could not force some fees upon union members who disagreed with political platforms supported by the union. In the Janus decision, the Supreme Court ruled that not enough emphasis was put on workers' First Amendment rights of freedom of speech. Because of this, workers represented by unions are no longer required to pay any union fees or dues.
Justice Samuel Alito, in the Court's official opinion of the Janus decision, explains that unions advocating for political candidates violates the free speech of members who disagree with such political activity. Therefore, it ruled members should be able to opt out of fees/dues that fund the efforts of unions to negotiate on our collective behalf. While it's true that not everyone shares the same political views, and that a local's decision to support Candidate A while some members prefer B, then a union taking monies from a member to support a candidate that member opposes, is essentially violating their freedom of speech and expression. However, I believe that if a member doesn't support the union's political stance on candidates, he/she should be allowed to have the portion of their dues allotted toward political contributions deducted from their fair share deductions. Not having to pay any dues is an insult to paying members, and to those who fought to improve working conditions over the last century.
Even before this most recent case was ruled upon, nobody was legally required to join a union. However, the Court's latest decision creates a financial disability to chapters that negotiate for all its members. Therefore, those of us who choose to pay dues will foot the bill for those who don't contribute. This might lead to an even more divisive workforce. Justice Alito dispels the notion this decision will split workers into separate bargaining groups or exclude some from the same protections union members pay for.
"It is simply not true that unions will refuse to serve as the exclusive representative of all employees in the unit if they are not given agency fees," Alito wrote in the Opinion of the Court. He argues that it's unconstitutional for an agency to bargain with non-members for an agreement that differs from that which is agreed to by a union. This makes sense, as it would give one group an unfair advantage over another. In our case, this theoretically (and legally) bars the district from agreeing to separate contracts with union workers and non-members. I've already seen divisive discussions among our members who are advocating harsh treatment of "scabs" (those who refuse to pay dues). Once again, we see the age-old concept of divide and conquer rearing its ugly centuries-old head.
One notable politician of that era began his career firmly against unions, but eventually came to understand the working man's plight. His name: Theodore Roosevelt. He eventually came to approve of labor unions, as long as they didn't use violence to further their causes. Although a conservative, Roosevelt understood the need for unions, but at first mistrusted them. In fact, he actually fought against bills (New York State Assemblyman, 1882) to raise salaries of firefighters and policemen and also one to end the convict contract labor systems. He tended to side with employers instead of workers. One notable exception however, caused him to begin to see the "opposition's" argument in a clearer light: tenement cigar factories using women and children in production with little pay working in horrible conditions.
While he regularly condemned violent "mob" actions by unions, Roosevelt came to understand that unions advocated for better working conditions for laborers. As Governor of New York, he pushed for laws that improved working conditions in factories he considered "sweatshops." He toured factories during his term to ensure laws were being adhered to. Even so, he believed in using troops to quell violent labor disputes, which made unions wary of his motives. Legislation passed in his tenure included shortening the work day to eight hours for public employees, and he sought to end child and prison contract labor.
As our 26th President, he continued to press for labor reform. When coal miners went on strike protesting long hours and poor working conditions, Roosevelt threatened to put the mining companies under the direction of the US Army; this compelled the owners to ask for arbitration, which resulted in pay increases, shortened hours and a promise to improve working conditions.
President Harry Truman, when faced with a strike by railroad workers in 1946, also used strong-arm tactics to end strikes. He threatened to draft rail workers into the Army if they didn't come to an agreement. Again in 1950, he considered the railroad vital to the nation's security, and this time he did put the companies under the control of the Army until the strike was settled nearly two years later. He repeated this action when the United Steel Workers union went on strike the following year. While these strikes could have crippled the nation's security interests during the Korean War, the president did what he thought necessary.
A distrust of unions formed as charges of corruption prompted then-Senate counsel Robert F. Kennedy (and again later, as Attorney General in JFK's administration) to accuse labor leader Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters Union with corruption in hearings on Capitol Hill. While Hoffa would eventually be convicted of jury tampering and pension fraud, he was pardoned in 1971 by President Nixon. In spite of Hoffa's misdeeds, unions remained the working man's most-powerful advocate. Labor unions grew in number and strength until President Reagan fired air traffic controllers who went on strike in 1981. Then, approximately 20% of the American work force belonged to a union; by 2016, it had dwindled to 11%.
Over the past several decades, unions have been seen in a negative light. Public opinion swayed toward believing striking union members were "thugs and ruffians." Membership began to decline, and today the numbers remain lower than common sense would dictate in these times of economic uncertainty for the working middle class. However, unions continue to fight for better working conditions and wage/benefit packages.
Rather than losing members, we should be gaining. Several states have recently endorsed "right to work" philosophy, which is basically anti-union and pro-industry. The problem with this is that workers are often denied representation in these states, which discourage union membership. Essentially, "right to work" is political-speak for "unions not welcome here."
Women, children, and even non-members have benefited from union efforts. While I might not always agree with my local, I support its power to bargain as one for the benefit of every member. I also believe that we should all, as transit employees, contribute union dues. By not doing so, some refuse to pay for benefits guaranteed to every non-union employee. The simplest solution is to allow members to "opt out" of a certain percentage of dues allotted to political campaigns. However, unions tend to support politicians who promise to support legislation that benefits working people, regardless of their political affiliation.
We need to vote, in union and local or national elections. Demand that not only all votes be counted, but also that each member receive a ballot and encourage all to exercise their right to choose. Those elected should expect to be held accountable that their time in office be served with noble purpose. If we choose apathy, we're risking our powerfully-collective roar being tamed into a kitten's meow.
We're more divided now than since pre-Civil War days. Republicans and Democrats are so diametrically-opposed there is no more middle ground. Political debates often dissolve into childish name-calling and finger-pointing where there once was intelligent discourse and compromise. Coming together to find commonality and induce progress was first practiced here during the Continental Congress that led to the birth of our nation. Together, we should improve conditions for those who have already made this country great: the working middle class. Either we change this trend of negativity and divisiveness, or we are doomed to destroy that which our Founders so eloquently created.
The ruling wealthy class has achieved success in dividing us. We disagree on many fronts politically, and that's by design. We've been encouraged to fight amongst ourselves about religion, race and a political ideology based on fear. Instead of honoring and accepting our differences, we despise each other for them. The ruling class doesn't care about any of it, as long as they continue to hoard the wealth WE work to secure for them. It's senseless to fight among ourselves when the bigger picture urges us to band together. Union workers have always benefited in the power of numbers. Simply adding new members has come under attack over the last few years. Our management denied new operators the benefit of attending ATU 757 initiation during training, which has until now been a historically-accepted practice.
ATU International President Larry Hanley says transit agencies will continue "a full range of abuse as always from transit management." He also said we can "expect outright attempts to get members to leave the union." Still, Hanley recognizes not all management will follow this lead. "There are some managers who understand the role the union plays sustaining the industry, including their own employment," Hanley told me. "Although a smaller group, they will not abuse this."
The Janus decision also begs a few questions about loyalty versus representation. Should those who opt out of paying dues have the same rights to union representation as those who pay? Will the district somehow favor non-members? I don't know how unions will treat those who don't contribute a share of their salary. What I personally believe is that those who refuse to pay for a service shouldn't be allowed to benefit from it. If you don't pay your electric bill, you're not allowed to use that service until the bill is paid. There will be plenty of debate about this, and other issues that arise.
It is up to us, especially now, to improve our collective strength. We must protect our retirees, secure our future, and build up those who follow. A happy workforce supported by intelligent and supportive management, rather than that of a punitive micro-managing oligarchy, is good for all who use Portland's transit system. Working together in a positive atmosphere of trust and goodwill could once again propel us into prominence once again as the finest transit system in the world.
The benefits for all cannot be realized by the goodwill of a few. It's time to STAND, and by my union and as an American citizen, I do.
In solidarity, I am
Deke N. Blue
ATU 757 and PROUD!