Putting the U in unions: The power in a union is people.

I started this post when I was in a membership meeting for my union local. I’ve been thinking unions a lot since there’s been a lot of energy in the air: The recent AFSCME/UPTE strike across UC, which received support from several other unions. I helped organize a demonstration for my union, which included a march to the Chancellor’s Office. (In case you didn’t know, my union went out of contract in October.)

Last week American Libraries published an article called Unions 101. It starts with my union’s struggle for a new contract and then goes into why libraries need unions. The one quote that really stood out to me was from Aliqae Geraci:

“If you think the local union is bad, if the leadership is incompetent, there’s only one way to change that, and it’s to participate in the democratic process.”

I’ve seen (and participated in) how much work it takes to democratize a union, but it is more or less the same work needed to democratize government. When people talk about “grassroots”, they mean people – the rank and file, your neighbors, citizens, whatever. It’s you. You are the grassroots.

One of the things that’s become painfully clear to me since I got really active in my union is that they are an important mechanism for feedback within your workplace and community. Have concerns about some institutional policy? Unions are a great mechanism to address them in a way that has more traction and influence than an individual. One recent example is when ATU Local 689 workers shutdown the notion of special trains to protect racists at the Unite The Right rally in DC. There’s an established process and relationship between unions and workplaces, which can be effective if members are engaged. I think it’s something that people take for granted or ignore, which is why many unions are faltering. They might be bureaucratic or calcified, which means they need democracy more than ever. (Kind of like the USA…) When people say, “What can the union do? It has no power.” I fight everything in my being not to yell back, “NOT WITH THAT ATTITUDE!”

And unions are just one mechanism for engagement that feeds into others like community groups, religious organizations, professional groups, or political parties. Want to make a change and help canvas, get out the vote, or whatever? Unions are doing that. Don’t like the political stance your union takes? Let them know and get involved in the process making those endorsements. It will carry more weight and influence than a social media post. (I finally joined the Sierra Club just to help push out their weird pro-parking agenda and go for something actually green.) Unions, like the other groups, are part of the whole system and I feel like that’s something that people forget. My union, UC-AFT, cares deeply about higher education and lots of other policies that affect higher education – like housing and taxation.

And in closing, all this union stuff has made me think more about the role of professional associations and what I need or want to get from them. I’ve talked before about my feelings on SLA’s lack of advocacy when it comes to the profession. I’ve kind of cooled my enthusiasm for SLA because of that and because I realize that union activism and agitation can also support and defend the profession. We talk about wanting to make librarianship more diverse, but a concrete action to take for that is fighting for a new contract for 300 librarians that pays enough so that single people with student debt don’t have to work side jobs to be able to afford to work here. Our asking for academic freedom in our contract has demonstrated why this is an issue for all academics, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. (Please sign our petition if you support academic freedom for academic workers!) We talk about the need to advocate for new publishing models, and unions can work together to push legislation like the recent AB2192 to do that. I think worker/union solidarity is a very important part of supporting your institution, particularly the public sector. Again… if you are concerned about the segregation of racial and economic classes in the Bay Area because of the housing crisis, supporting local unions fighting for fare wages and access to housing is an actionable step to that end. Unions, unlike professional associations, are bound to support the individual collectively – the worker. Professional associations never seem to figure out if they are for the individual or for the institution, which can at times be problematic.

There’s definitely room for all groups, but I think some people who are disaffected, frustrated, and want change should really consider getting involved with their union (if they have one – or start one if they don’t) because that’s where change can really start. And of course if you’re in the USA and a citizen, you voted today because that’s one of the most important steps to change. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

We’re all in this together.

Leave a Reply