The Underbelly of the Anti-Union Movement
Not much ink has been utilized regarding the recent Supreme Court decision regarding unions. Specifically, what happens to union members who pay dues, earn contract benefits, and who work with those who opt out but get to keep the benefits that union members have worked for?
This takes me back to 1976, when I was the president of the Lake Washington Education Association. For those who are younger, which would include virtually everyone reading this, 1976 was the first year in Washington state that teachers were given the legal right to bargain for what was termed a master contract. Prior to that time most teachers did work under some contract, but it was always at the convenience of the school district. Part of the reason that I’d been elected president at the youngish age of 29 was that the seasoned veterans who out me up to it saw the storm clouds coming, and reasoned that they would need a young person with a lot of energy and a healthy dose of naiveté to face the storms ahead. They knew me better than I did.
My enthusiasm for unions did not come from home. My parents were both mechanical engineers and conservative Republicans, back when that political label had a justifiable basis. When I was first elected, as probably the youngest president in local association history, I called my father to tell him the good news. His response was “Why would you want to do that?” He was not impressed.
I’d first been filled with union zeal at a school board meeting three or four years earlier. Association representatives were there to present proposals for wages and so forth for the coming year. The school board at that time was comprised of local attorneys and business owners, and I was shocked by their behavior. They literally sneered at the presenters, veteran teachers who’d worked in the district for years. The disrespect was palpable, and disgusting. One remarked, referring to the crowd in the room, “You always bring the zealots to these things.” I had certainly not been a zealot before that sentence, but was transformed into one immediately.
I became a “building rep,” which was easy as nobody wanted to be one, and later a member of the Executive Board of the Association, which was also a job few wanted.
As I spoke with fellow teachers, I became more and more disenchanted with those who chose not to belong to the association. They usually passed off their stance with high-flown phrases along the lines of “I am a professional, not a union member,” or “I can take care of myself.”
Their arrogance was astonishing, coupled with the fact that I never met one of them who turned down the salary and benefit increases, or improvements in class size that had been achieved through negotiations they had nothing to do with. They were merely freeloaders. There were a few who could not belong for religious reasons, and I gave them a pass.
I took office on July 5th, but had already been hard at it for months on my own. Negotiations had already begun. The contract proposed was lengthy and complex, and agreement was not reached until the day before the school year was to begin, and that only after the first successful strike vote in district history.
My first official self-assigned task was to read every bit of correspondence to or from the president for the preceding few years. This was a mammoth undertaking, but so educational it was well worth the time.
I went to one negotiations session and quickly concluded that was not for me. The association president leaping over the table and assaulting the district bargainer would not end well. Fortunately, I had been gifted a large and experienced team of negotiations experts, all but one of them teacher volunteers who spent hundreds of hours on a grinding and draining process. It should be noted that at that far away time, the association represented only the teachers.
Everyone has their priorities, but mine was agency shop. Under this, those people covered by the master contract would pay union dues whether they chose to belong to the union or not. Those who had legitimate religious concerns could donate the dues amount to a charitable cause agreed to by the teacher and the association. This portion of the contract would not cost the school district a penny.
I remember the day when the negotiations team reported that agreement had been reached on agency shop. I’d been dealing with a teacher who wanted to take a year off. After twenty years of teaching junior high, he needed an emotional and intellectual rest. He’d applied for a one year sabbatical with no pay, and the district had turned him down. He called for help, and I had no idea what to do. I called the state association, and the WEA representative had astounding advice. He asked me to find out how many days of sick leave the teacher has coming, and ask him to get a note from a doctor recommending he have time to recover from the rigors of teaching junior high. It turned out the teacher had far more than 185 days of sick leave accrued, so with the doctor’s note he was able to get the entire year off he had desired. With pay.
As you can imagine, he was extremely grateful. As a part-time sign maker, he made a couple of gorgeous wooden “Lake Washington Education Association” signs as a gift, one for the stairs leading up to the office, and one for the roof. We were up on the roof installing the sign when my secretary called up with the news that agency shop had been agreed to. I was ecstatic, and probably fortunate I did not fall of the roof in my exultation. What was left was a long list of items relating to wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. I stumped for them with all of my efforts, but personally I was done.
Once the contract was settled, agency shop quickly became the norm, and was soon not even thought of or referred to. A couple of the teachers who had exemptions came to see me to decide on a worthy charity, and I agreed to whatever they suggested.
One thing to keep in mind is that in most unions, there are people who enjoy their job but due to marital or family situations, do not really need the money. Their positions tend to be a little different from others. One teacher came to me the month after I had returned to the classroom two years later. By now we had endured the first strike vote (1976), the first strike (1977), and the second strike (1978), which took place as I was leaving the presidency to return to the classroom. She came to me and asked when the raises we had won would become effective. “Well,” I replied, “We settled before the 10th of the month, so everything should be in place for the difference to show up in your September paycheck. (Teachers are paid once a month on the last working day of that month).
“Oh goody!” she replied.
“Nordstrom’s?” I asked.
“Yes!” And off she went to the new BMW her husband had given her for her birthday. She was a fine person and a good teacher, but we lived in different worlds.
So what happens now? With the Supreme Court decision, as I understand it, provisions for agency shop will probably come under attack in many states that have had such provisions for years.
In my experience, most “right to work” legislation is written for the purpose of allowing rich people to retain even a larger share of the pie than they already get.
Some will cry out “But some unions are corrupt.” That is probably true, but which do you think is a larger problem for society – corrupt unions or corrupt businesses?
What happens on the job site if agency shop is crippled or eliminated? How “collegial” do you wish to be with someone who works with you and eagerly laps up the benefits gained by union support while contributing nada in finances or effort toward that end? How important is it for a company or school district to have a work force that works together? If a strike does take place, will non-members cross or attempt to cross a picket line and become scabs? How will they be received when the strike is over? What will happen to them if they choose to stay away?
It ain’t going to be pretty.
David Preston Copyright 2018