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Union benefits are many — yet they’re under attack

Thank you to University of Minnesota union supporters. Your fight to organize faculty – part-time and full-time – against shortsighted efforts to cheapen the work of higher education is honorable. As a Winona State University Faculty Association president and member of the Inter Faculty Association, I welcome you to the challenge.

Darrell Downs
Darrell Downs

The benefits of a union are many. Union workplaces are more welcoming to women and minorities and, in nearly all cases, better compensated than in nonunion occupations. Collective bargaining provides more affordable health insurance than in “right to work” states, and it has moved the nation forward to provide equitable benefits for all employees regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity. 

And yet unions are under attack. 

Extreme conservative think tanks and other organizations funded by the wealthiest 1 percent of 1 percent – like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – are leaders in the anti-union movement. For instance, ALEC promotes a model bill that would eviscerate unions by effectively removing the “collective” from collective bargaining. Under the guise of their proposed, Public Employee Choice Act, public employees would be free to opt out of any collective bargaining agreement, and negotiate their own salary, benefits, and employee rights. Indeed, workers would be free – entirely unfettered by livable wages, affordable health insurance, and free to look for a different job after their employer arbitrarily eliminates their position, or replaces them with someone willing to work for less.

The U.S. Supreme Court is now a forum for similar anti-union rhetoric. 

In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (2016), a public school teacher, Rebecca Friedrichs, claimed that her First Amendment free speech freedom was infringed by having to pay an agency fee. In Minnesota, we more commonly label this a “fair share” fee, which is a smaller fee an employee pays in lieu of member dues because he/she does not want to join the union. The employee receives the same contractual protections, benefits, etc., as anyone else, and is only paying for those services. The employee pays nothing toward noncontractual or political activities. So as an employee, if you think the union takes political positions contrary to your own, you’re not compelled to pay member dues. 

Friedrichs and her advocates pursue a tactical enlargement of the First Amendment’s constitutional footprint, and like ALEC’s model bill, it is wrapped in a phony shroud of freedom. This tactic is not new. Recall a similar expansion of the First Amendment in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) that used freedom of speech to bar limits on campaign contributions, and more recently the Citizens United v. FEC (2010) case, which limited restraints on corporate and nonprofit campaign contributions. As an ALEC member and Minnesota legislator Rep. Cindy Pugh (R) echoed, “teachers shouldn’t have to leave their First Amendment rights at the door.” So true, but they don’t leave their rights at the door, and for ALEC and Friedrichs to pretend that their unions are compelling speech by an agency fee is a grotesque exaggeration.  

Maybe we should all take a more basic lesson from the U of M union organizers. Bucking against the wind of anti-union sentiment that exploits part-time faculty to pay for already underfunded college and university systems, the U of M unionists are taking a brave path. They are not speculating on the summer decision in Friedrichs or on ALEC’s shenanigans; they are conveying to their potential members what they can gain by organizing, and what they will lose in the future if they don’t.

All of our public unions should do the same. Firefighters, teachers, nurses, law enforcement, professors, maintenance workers, social workers, counselors, and a host of other local government employees are commonly unionized public servants. We negotiate contracts for salaries, benefits, and worker rights protections, we push back against arbitrary and capricious actions by employers, and we don’t compel anyone’s speech by that service.

If the Supreme Court decides otherwise, there will be less service and less freedom to go around. Regardless of the decision in Friedrichs, we must always remember a basic truth that lies beyond the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction – that working peoples’ voice and well-being in our society is founded on organizing.

Thank you for your work. 

Darrell Downs, Ph.D., is the president of the WSU Faculty Association and a professor in political science and public administration at Winona State University.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/09/2016 - 11:54 am.

    Information please….

    Who is your union endorsing in the Presidential election – Bernie or Hilary?

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/09/2016 - 12:46 pm.

    The political spending is a thorny issue

    Although not one raised here. I think it may be possible with technology at this point to actually ask members who they’d want campaign contributions to go to, and then apportion contributions accordingly. As for endorsements, those as well could be influenced by member votes rather than top down proclamations.

  3. Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 02/09/2016 - 01:42 pm.

    union democracy

    The decisions about political contributions and endorsements are done democratically in most unions, and that is certainly the case in the IFO. Union bosses do proclaim, rather elected representatives from within the union deliberate and then decide. It’s what we call a representative democracy.

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/09/2016 - 03:09 pm.

    Union Political Funds

    Are voluntary contributions. Typically these are disbursed by a Committee On Political Education (COPE). While individual member influence on political spending is often indirect, the monetary contribution is completely voluntary.

    “Union bosses”? I’m a little surprised Minn Post allows a pejorative like that, especially given much more benign posts of mine that have not been published. But Minn Post mods are rarely accused of consistency. My boss is someone I answer to at work, and I have no say in who he or she is. I elect the leaders of my local union.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/09/2016 - 05:41 pm.

    When will the ….

    Freedom of speech logic twist reach it’s illogical conclusion ? Friedriches does not want to pay union dues so that fact that she does is loss of freedom of speech ? No ! The union dues are paid for an entirely different purpose. They are paid in behalf of the discussion to gain benefits for all members. Therefore the term collective bargaining. We are not speaking of no pun intended collective speech. The Union negotiates for benefits with the agency or business that the employees are engaged in! The employee is not prevented from uttering in public whatever they wish to speak. On the other hand that right to speak may be attempted to be affected by the employer. Employers attempted to abrige speech all the time. This action is the reason there are whistleblower laws. Friedriches should be standing up to her employer not her Union. But in these twisted days, well, you know the rest !

  6. Submitted by Jim Greg on 02/10/2016 - 06:34 pm.

    But why tenure-track and tenured profs?

    I don’t understand why a tenured professor would want to be saddled with union dues and the constraints of a union contract? Particularly in the sciences and engineering where freedom to pursue their own path is the fundamental feature of tenure. I can see it for contingent faculty whose jobs/pay is on a whim. As someone who supports the goals of unions for certain professions, it’s clear the unions are over-reaching here.

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