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February 2019


Ask not what your union can do for you: Be union worthy
Susan Rubenstein DeMasi


  Ask not what your union can do for you
It's as simple as ABC to understanding that our union is only as strong as its members make it.

When I was in kindergarten, an alphabet chart ran along the wall over the chalkboard, helping us all remember how to how to write each letter, upper and lower case. Alongside that was a poster with an inspirational quote that proved a little more difficult for a five-year old to understand: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

No matter your political leanings, it's hard to read this quote from President John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech and not feel some stirrings for civic engagement, for contributing to the greater good.

That quote comes back to me as I think about individuals who have made contributions and sacrifices over the last century that made unions a force for workers, bringing meaningful progress and the promise of better lives to lower and middle class families. And since last year's Janus Supreme Court decision, which was meant to weaken unions, it also brings to mind the theme of staying "union strong."

The Janus decision, in brief, allows for public sector workers who choose to be non-members to no longer have to pay agency fees in lieu of union dues, yet still receive many of the benefits gained under collective bargaining.

Sure, ask what unions have done and continue to do, not just for you, but for society.

Did unions help usher in an era of security to millions of workers and their families during the 20th century, raising the living standards for all workers? History says yes.  Have teachers, specifically, benefitted? Without question. Salaries were notoriously low (and still are in many parts of the country) and only with strong unions did teaching become a career that allowed, in some states, for financial security.

Take a look at the teacher unions across the nation that, over the last few months, have fought for and won fair compensation for teachers and support staff, plus more funding for textbooks and other resources. Others are still fighting for reform in other areas, such as pensions. Teacher activism is alive and well, and as I write this, educators in Denver (and their supporters, who include students) are freezing on picket lines, educating the public about their unpredictable salary structure and other issues. 

To drill down even more specifically to SCCC, please note that the benefits we have are not all as standard as you may imagine: family sick days; regular step increases; excellent adjunct salaries; adjunct paid absences; step relationships for bereavement; support for ongoing professional development; longevity pay. None of the aforementioned came about because the powers that be wanted to be nice to us. It came from negotiations and from collective—the key word here being collective—bargaining.

As we head into contract negotiations this year, please consider this: Ask not what your union has done for you. What can you do for your union?

The first, most basic thing is to pledge to remain a member, which 100 percent of our full-time and nearly 90 percent of our adjunct members have already done.

Most of us believe in the value of unions and would not feel right accepting the pay raises and other benefits negotiated by our union while not contributing via dues to the process.  Most of us would not feel right working alongside our colleagues who continue to help fund the union work necessary to maintaining those benefits.

It reminds me of the recent increase in measles cases across the nation and around the world. Sure, we can all opt out. And then the herd immunity that has protected so many children and the medically frail from severe, now preventable illnesses (measles, polio) and death will disappear. Like a vaccine, a union protects the individual as well as society at large. There's not much of a market for iron lungs just yet, thankfully.

If you want to look at it a bit more selfishly, what do you lose if you opt out?  You keep all contractual benefits and still receive protection and representation from the union for any contractual issues. But the union does not have to provide support for your promotion process and peer representation during your observation. When you retire, if you haven't been a member for ten years, you can't buy into the FA Benefit Fund, something that retirees find essential.

Have an issue with an administrator? Or have you been called in for a disciplinary matter? Has someone made a Title IX complaint against you? Unless there is a specific violation of the contract, the union won't intervene or provide representation.

Getting back to President Kennedy's inaugural speech, perhaps you are interested in giving back to the union not just with your to stick-to-the-union pledge but in more demonstrable ways. Whether it's participating in one of the many union-sponsored events (i.e., Jones Beach Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk), making calls for the phone banks, supporting VOTE/COPE and candidates who advocate for union values, or participating in the FA's community outreach programs, you can be the change.

You can be union worthy. It's as essential and as straightforward as the ABCs.