“My union representative told me I’m rude.” So spoke the checker at the grocery store I usually shop at. She also told me that she hasn’t seen that rep in the store in a long, long time. But I recalled the time, a few years ago, when that same checker had told me about having a conflict with management and that same union rep came in, spent 45 minutes conferring with the manager, and then told the worker she was in the wrong. I raised that maybe that was the reason she wasn’t so friendly with that union rep. (She’s always very friendly with me, though.) She nodded in agreement.
Right before going shopping, I’d gone to the Oakland public library to find out what had happened with their contract. Back in December they’d gone on strike for a decent contract. After four or five days out, their leadership sent them back to work. The librarian I talked with told me that they were just now voting on a contract. It included a 4% raise the first year and a 1% raise each of the following years… if the city’s finances can “allow” it. This comes after years of working with no raise at all, while rents in Oakland skyrocket. Meanwhile, the Oakland cops have gotten a contract with a 10% raise per year for two years.
This librarian, an older worker, had been convinced by her union leadership that there’s no way to get anything better. A younger librarian who was listening in wasn’t convinced, though. She was against it.
These two conversations – two little snapshots of the state of affairs in the unions – should be taken into account when we think about the upcoming US Supreme Court ruling against the public sector unions. The Court is going to rule that public sector unions cannot charge non-members a fee to represent them. That’s despite the fact that the unions are legally obligated to represent these non-members. The ruling will be another nail in the coffin of the unions as we now know them. The coffin’s not sealed and buried yet, but it’s on the way there.
Power is what counts
All the rational arguments, all the appeals to legality and justice are irrelevant. Power is what counts. Power, and power alone. The unions will only get that power by first and foremost mobilizing their own members, and then linking that up with the growing movements we are seeing develop. But they cannot mobilize their own members as long as those members don’t see the unions really fighting for them. Nor as long as the members are convinced that the union cannot win real gains for them.
That’s why fighting to oppose the coming Court ruling should be linked with the struggle to change the unions. It should be linked with the difficult task to organizing opposition caucuses inside the unions to fight for better contracts and better contract enforcement.
Update: Since writing this article, I talked with the “rude” union member. She told me why her union rep called her “rude”. She said what had happened was that she had contacted the rep to ask about a first step hearing she was having with management. The rep didn’t even respond. But the rep did appear at the hearing, due to having been contacted by management. The rep had replied to that communication. So the union member asked the rep why they didn’t reply to her but did reply to management. The rep simply replied, “you are being very rude.”