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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  against shortsighted efforts to cheapen the work of higher education is honorable.

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. 

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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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