You can’t have your union cake and eat it too

One of the most poorly-understood aspects of unions in the workplace is the closed shop versus open shop dynamic. This is not coincidental — unionbusters very much want to sow the seeds of confusion here. In a closed shop, all employees must be members of the union, joining within a certain amount of time when they’re employed. In open shops, which are far more common, new employees can opt to join the union, paying fees and receiving benefits that include voting in union elections, but the union engages in collective bargaining on behalf of all employees.

In other words, if the union negotiates $25/hour and two weeks of paid sick leave annually, everyone in the workplace receives these terms, not just the members of the union. Open shops don’t create two tiers for employees; union members do, however, have access to certain union-centred benefits that non-members do not. For example, special insurance rates offered through the union are not available. Non-members can’t vote, either, and thus cannot take a role in deciding who should serve in stewardship roles and which other officers should be elected.

The advantage to working in an open shop is that you can benefit from the strength of the union even if you’re not a member, though you won’t have full rights and privileges. Unionbusters are big fans of trying to suggest that all unionised workplaces are closed shops, and that they’ll force everyone to join — this tactic is used to overturn votes to unionise, in the hopes that workers will fear losing control over their role in the workplace. A union workplace is usually safer, and employees are happier, healthier, and, yes, better-paid. Everyone wins when a workplace is unionised.

These facts are so well established that in an absolutely flabbergasting case in Los Angeles, a teacher who didn’t want to pay full union dues freely admitted them — while also being unwilling to give up her union membership. She’s arguing that while she enjoys the benefits of union membership, she doesn’t support the political causes her union is involved with, and thus that she shouldn’t have to pay for funds used to support given campaigns, assist with lobbying in Sacramento, and engage in related activities. Effectively, she wants a la carte union membership, akin to someone who goes to a gym and wants a discount because she doesn’t use the treadmill.

This case is extremely frustrating because it highlights ridiculous anti-union attitudes, and because it could potentially set an extremely dangerous precedent. Already, unionbusting groups are licking their chops over it, and people who are opposed to unions because they don’t really understand how they work are squirming with delight over the possibilities. Perhaps appropriately, the case is needless to say backed by unionbusting funds, as it could prove an ideal test case for promoting further erosion of public sector unions — teachers have historically been among the most powerful block in organised labour thanks to concerted efforts to unionise schools and protect teachers with strong negotiations at the district and sometimes state level. ‘Won’t someone think of the children’ can be, it turns out, an extremely compelling argument.

So and thus. She’s effectively arguing that her dues should be sliced up pie-chart style so she can retain the right to vote in elections — an important and powerful right, as union officers can have an important influence on how the union negotiates, long-term goals and aims, and how it deals with challenges in the workplace. She also wants to retain access to benefits like discounts on insurance and other perks for union members that would be difficult or impossible to afford independently (even with the money she’d save on not paying union dues). Moreover, she freely admits that she likes the security of a union in the workplace, appreciating the sense of having someone at her back to assist when she gets backed into a corner.

One thing she does not want, however, is for her funds to be used to promote the union’s interests in the political sphere. On the surface, not wanting to pay for political speech might seem reasonable, but it can’t be separated out so easily. Unions are highly politically engaged because they have to be — they need the political support of pro-labour politicians, they need to fight ballot propositions and legislation that could potentially harm labour, and they need to engage in political activities that will ultimately defend workers. If they can’t accomplish those goals because members pick and choose how their funds will be applied, they will be fundamentally weakened, which is precisely what anti-union elements want to see.

She has the option of not being a member of the union. She’ll receive the same negotiated workplace benefits that everyone else does, including fair pay, vacation and sick leave, employer-covered insurance, and anything else United Los Angeles Teachers has pushed for on behalf of teachers across the district. If she doesn’t like what the union does as a collective entity, that’s precisely what she should be doing; no one is twisting her arm and forcing her to join, taking her behind the bleachers and beating her up for her lunch money, or insisting that she fall into lockstep with union politics. However, the union is utilising member funds as an incredibly powerful collective block for creating a political climate that’s less hostile to unions — and that’s something very important given the rise of ‘right to work’ laws and other troubling developments in employment and workplace regulations.

Take it or leave it, but don’t try to take it without paying for it.

Image: Teachers rally, Caelie_Frampton, Flickr