Sunday, November 4, 2012

#86 Nov. 4, 2012- Election News and Unions

What This Is…
Issue #86- November 4, 2012
In this issue: Last Minute Election News and Unions

Election Updates…
It hardly seems possible, we are only a couple of days away from the November 6th election.  By now many of you have probably already decided who you are voting for, and some may have already voted.  If you haven't cast your ballot yet, be sure to do so on Tuesday.

We know that this election is important nationally, here are a couple of articles about why local elections matter just as much (if not more).

I continue to be amazed at the underhanded and unethical tactics being employed during these campaigns.  I know that there are examples from both sides, but it sure seems like the GOP and there supporters are reaching new lows on a regular basis.

In the end we are seeing extremely contrasting views of what America should look like and the role that government should have in our lives.  I am a firm believer that we need a strong government to protect the interests of all citizens and that government can provide valuable services that the private sector can not.  

Not to mention that the conservative economic strategies don't work for most of us.  

Why I Love My Union…
We are now only a couple of days away from the 2012 presidential election.  By now I'm sure that most of you have become saturated with news from the political front.  I have little new to offer to the discussion so I will take this opportunity to speak my mind about an issue that is of vital importance to me, labor unions. 

This week seems like a good time to discuss this topic because labor unions and worker's rights have, to some large degree, become the "elephant in the room".  This was the case in the recall elections here in Wisconsin as well as during the current campaigns, local and national.  It was Act 10, the law that stripped public employees of many hard won rights, that started the Wisconsin Uprising last spring.  Yet, as the political debate unfolded unions and worker's rights faded into the background for many politicians and voters. 

It is somewhat puzzling as to why politicians have avoided speaking much about collective bargaining and labor unions.  Economic issues are the issues that most voters list as the most important in their minds as they choose a candidate, and what impacts a persons personal economic status more than their job and the wages and benefits they get for doing that job?  We've seen significant historical evidence that labor unions have a positive impact on everyone's wages and benefits, yet voters and politicians frequently chose to ignore this as the recall campaigns unfolded.

In the presidential race and the regularly scheduled elections of 2012, organized labor has been a topic that is rarely addressed.  There are vague references to unions and worker's rights, pledges of support from liberal candidates and accusations of excessive influence of big labor by conservatives.  However, the issue that in many ways "started it all" is strikingly absent from much of our political debate in recent days. 

Yet, these upcoming elections will have a huge impact on workers across America and will, in large measure, shape the landscape for labor in the immediate future.  We have seen that destroying unions is high on the list of priorities for Republicans around the nation.  Wisconsin's public sector unions were not, in any way shape or form, the only labor organizations that have been targeted in recent years.

Here in Wisconsin the fear that many of us have centers around a return of control of the senate to Republicans.  We witnessed first hand the lengths that conservatives in Wisconsin will go to in order to eliminate unions and their ability to represent workers.  None of us want to see a repeat of those events and we are concerned that if the GOP regains full control of our government the attacks will be even more severe.  It is often difficult to see the direct impact of an election on individual's lives, but Wisconsinites learned that elections do matter in early 2011.  The elections of 2012 could have a similar impact. 

The full implementation of the sanctions against workers laid out in Act 10 has been delayed by protests, democratic means and legal action.  If Republicans are able to dominate all branches of government again the results will, in all likelihood, be devastating.  More restrictions on collective bargaining, increased difficulties in the legal arena and the potential for making Wisconsin a Right to Work state all loom ahead if the results from this election favor the GOP. 

Conservatives have done a masterful job of painting unions in a negative light.  Their success has created an environment where many citizens, even those who would benefit from union rights, view unions as an impediment to their success and a threat to our state's fiscal safety.  They point to examples of corruption and find situations where unions have been incorrect or short-sighted in their actions.  Of course we can find negative examples in any organization or group if that is what one chooses to look for.  Portraying unions in a negative light is done, not to benefit workers, but rather to advance a political agenda. 

Over the past couple of years I have increased my involvement in my union, MTI- Madison Teacher's Incorporated, exponentially.  As my involvement has increased so too has my appreciation for what my union has done for me, often without my even knowing it.  I have come to realize how much I value my union and how much more difficult my job would be without union representation. 

MTI has been among the leaders in the resistance to the conservative efforts to eliminate unions in Wisconsin and, because of this fact, has taken both significant "heat" as well as receiving many accolades and tremendous support locally and nationally.  We've become a "lightning rod" that draws attention, attention that is often based on misperceptions as much as reality.  These misperceptions show up in comments after articles about political events, on political talk shows and in other similar places on a regular basis.  People in our community really don't understand what unions do, and why they are important. 

A union is many things to many people.  Unfortunately, in the current political debate we have simplified the discussion to…"Unions are evil" and "Unions are good".  The reality is somewhere in between, but this fact doesn't justify the elimination of an entire group of people's right to organize.  Eliminating unions undermines democracy and is wrong for America.   

Here's what my union means to me (not necessarily listed in order of importance).

Wages, Benefits and Working Conditions- The ability of unionized employees to negotiate for these is the cornerstone of the union movement.  Looking back through history it is clear that workers have rallied around the efforts to organize around these issues and the unfair treatment that labor often receives without formal representation.  The positive impact that unions have had on the overall labor picture has been well documented in recent times, and we have seen the decline of the middle and working class as the membership and influence of organized labor is reduced.  Organized labor isn't just good for workers, union membership in America peaked during some of our nation's most productive economic times (the period following WWII). 

Of course, the ability of unions to negotiate contracts that are good for workers hasn't gone unnoticed by the economic elite.  This group looks to maximize their profits, no matter the cost to employees, consumers, or the welfare of the entire nation.  Without unions, employees' ability to influence decisions about wages, benefits and/or working conditions is reduced and employers are able to exercise their power in setting the levels of compensation and expectations for employees virtually unilaterally.  These wealthiest of Americans have focused their attention on destroying unions and have put their economic and political capital behind efforts to undermine the credibility of organized labor with the general public. 

Management and ownership has used their influence to make the strength of a union, its ability to improve the economic conditions of its members, a liability.  Their primary weapons have been their ability to influence legislation and policy to make organizing more difficult for workers as well as their use of propaganda to create division within labor.  Their political power has been wielded in many ways with the latest, and most blatant being the wave of anti-labor legislation that struck places like Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan during the past year. 

The "divide and conquer" approach to destroying unions has been an effective tool for anti-worker forces to gain (and maintain) power so that they can implement their agenda more effectively.  Essentially this means that conservatives, corporate leadership and other anti-labor activists use their political and economic clout to spout anti-union rhetoric.  They use whatever means possible to make unions look like the enemy, when the exact opposite is usually true.  They portray unionized workers as lazy, incompetent and anti-American while trying to make it seem that being controlled and manipulated by management is somehow preferable to having a voice in the workplace. 

I have enjoyed significant benefits as a member of a public sector union (Madison Teachers Inc.) in a city (Madison, WI) that heavily supports collective bargaining rights for workers.  I benefit from a set salary schedule, good benefits and a collective bargaining agreement that goes a long way towards protecting me from arbitrary decisions from administrators and ever changing policies imposed from outside forces.  Should this make me the envy of other workers in education and even employees in other fields?  I don't believe so.  Shouldn't my union and the representation it provides be a model for all workers?  Instead of trying to pull educators and other public workers down, shouldn't all workers be uniting to try and improve their wages, benefits and working conditions?

Conservatives would have the public believe that educators and other public workers have been running Wisconsin's budget into the ground with our "outlandish" wages and benefits.  They want people to think that our unions are negotiating working conditions that benefit no one, except for lazy educators.  What they ignore is the fact that our wages and benefits packages have been restricted by legislation imposed decades ago (under the watch of everyone's previous favorite governor, Tommy Thompson).  The also don't see how we have had to fight to maintain parts of our contracts, like planning time, that help make us more effective educators.

The results of the conservative attacks are far reaching and destructive.  We have not yet seen the full impacts that the legislative assault on education of 2011 will have, but the initial results are disturbing enough.    

A labor union's primary job is to represent the best interests of the employees they serve and this usually involves negotiating for wages, benefits and working conditions.  Without organized labor, employees are at the mercy of management, and has few (if any) allies in their efforts to receive fair compensation and working conditions for their labor.  As we face an uncertain future, I know that my union will be standing with my fellow educators and me as we try to defend our rights in the workplace.  Whether in the courts, in negotiations, at the ballot box, on the streets or anywhere else the struggle takes us we are united in our efforts.

A Voice- It is pretty obvious that one worker, standing alone, has little ability to be heard and to influence their overall status.  This is a contrast to management or ownership's power in the workplace, where a single individual wields much more influence.  This imbalance of power exists in virtually all workplaces, even ones where highly specialized skills are employed.  Because of the inequities in power and resources, workers find themselves relying on finding support in numbers.  A union provides a way to organize and focus the power of employees so that they can work towards improving their wages, benefits and working conditions.

This ability to have a voice in the workplace goes beyond the "basics" and also allows workers to have an impact beyond their immediate job sites.  This is especially true in professions like education where educators are often a voice, not only for themselves, but also for their "customers", the families and students we serve.  As more and more "reforms" are imposed on public schools and funding for education is cut from budgets, we find educators on the front lines working to defend a public resource that provides valuable services that are open to all families regardless of race, income, etc.

Without union protection, individual educators would be vulnerable to sanctions imposed if they didn't "toe the line" and embrace all "reforms" that political leaders and distant administrators would inflict on the schools.  Public educator unions are among the leaders in the fight against excessive testing and using test results to evaluate educators and schools.  While conservatives argue that this is to avoid accountability for educators, the reality is that for most of us we recognize the damage that excessive, punitive, standardized testing does to education and students.  Other "reforms" offered in recent years are equally harmful to all who work and learn in public schools.    


We also know that in local politics, small special interest groups can have a big influence on public policy and local politicians.  Members of public educator unions are another voice in the argument and often stand up for the disenfranchised.  While it may not be the official "job" of the union to do this, remember the union's first priority is its membership, the protections that union membership offers allow its members to speak their minds about important issues in education and in the community.  As a faculty representative for my union I find myself fielding almost as many questions about community involvement and ways to help our students/families as I do contract issues.  Unfortunately, we are often opposed by groups who are focused on a single issue or who support "reforms" that don't work.    

A union is a democratic institution and I'm proud of the way that my union conducts business.  Our meetings are open and we make every effort to have all opinions heard in discussions.  This often means that our meetings run a little longer, or that progress towards a goal may be slowed by discussion, but in the end it is the process and the open participation that results in movement in positive directions. 

This also means that our organizations are evolving and changing as our membership changes and the needs of our members and communities change.  In any discussion this means that the union's position may not move far enough in one direction or another, or may not change fast enough in some people's minds.  We know that there are important issues of equity and fairness that must be addressed in public education (and society as a whole) and that all of us can be a part of the problem at times, as well as part of the solutions.  Through discussion, debate and active memberships unions work to try and navigate through the maze of information and improve the quality of their service as well as improve public education in general.  All this while at the same time remembering that "An Injury to One, Is an Injury to All" and working to protect all member's rights.   

There are times when a union's advocacy for its membership makes it unpopular with the general public.  Public educator unions have been blamed for the Achievement Gaps, failing schools, the Wisconsin budget deficit and countless other problems.  What people often forget is that unions represent people who work directly with students and that the working conditions and morale of these workers mirror the working conditions and morale of the students in schools.  By protecting the educators, unions also work to protect students and families. 

Individually each educator's voice is just a whisper, but united in a union those voices become exponentially louder.  Public educator union members will continue to use their voices to defend public education, our students and ourselves in any manner possible (and even some that seem impossible).  

A Safety Net- When I think of my union and what it provides me I get a sense of safety and security.  Not in the broader sense that we often think of a safety net in our society, but rather in the sense of a group that truly "has my back".  The image of a safety net is accurate because I know that I am able to take risks and will be protected and supported by my union.  This can be in a formal, legal sense, or it can be more informal and personal.  Over the years I have seen how a union helps members in many ways.

Unions also are able to provide expertise and defend its members in ways that individual members never would be able to.  Just knowing that there are union personnel out there working to defend us and advance our cause gives members a sense of security and renewed confidence that the system can work for everyone.   

Of course there are also the more immediate ways that a union provides a safety net for its members.  For example, MTI has a "Solidarity Fund" that members can donate to, and receive loans from as their ability or need requires.  Union leadership is always looking for ways to help membership and to provide support for us in our professional and personal lives.     

Cooperation and Community- Along with the concrete and visible support a union provides comes the sense of community and caring that being a member of a positive group brings.  This becomes more apparent during times of crisis, like our current situation.  The challenges that we have faced over the past months have brought educators together in ways that have helped all of us keep motivated in our efforts to protect our own rights and the rights of those who rely on our services. 

Along the way we have become more aware of the needs of all educators and school employees while becoming a more tightly knit community.  Examples of solidarity between bargaining units and different "subgroups" of educators are easy to find and help cement us together as a collective whole.  We are more thoughtful of each other and are sensitive to the different needs that different "specialties" in our profession have. 

That sense of Solidarity, or togetherness creates positive feelings and allows for educators to retain their optimism, even in the face of the all-out assault on our profession and our public schools.  The community of committed professionals that make up our unions give us strength to face the challenges that being an educator in modern America bring.  A statement that I hear frequently from my fellow MTI members is, "I can't imagine what I would do without my union".      

Hope- In the end, this single word can sum up what a union provides its members.  Without hope we would lose our focus and will to speak out in defense of what we know is best for our students.  As in the tale of "Pandora's Box", the lid has come off and the negative policies and emotions have been loosed on the world of public education, but unions represent the hope that allows us to continue the fight.  A hopeful group of committed educators is a powerful force in the struggle to determine the future of public education in America, and unions are the backbone of that effort.


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