Karen Magee: The Value Of Union Membership

Jul 24, 2015

Driving on the Thruway recently, I saw a bumper sticker that made me smile.

The bumper sticker read:  Labor Unions:  The folks who brought you the weekend, child labor laws, overtime, minimum wage, pension security … and more.

The point of that bumper sticker is to remind us that strong unions helped secure many of the rights we take for granted.  The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance and other cornerstones of the middle class all bear the union label.

Statistics bear out the benefits of union membership.  Where unions are flourishing, workers’ salaries are higher; more workers have health insurance; and more benefit from stable, traditional pension plans.

In addition to the many economic benefits, belonging to a union gives workers a voice on the job.  Collectively, they can bargain for better and safer working conditions, and speak out — without fear of retribution — against unfairness and injustice in the workplace.

In public education, for example, teachers — and teachers unions — have been the leading voice for fair and equitable school funding and against the tyranny of over-testing.

And, of course, we shouldn’t forget that unions, throughout history, have always been at the forefront of social change.  Unions marched with Doctor Martin Luther King in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s.  Today, unions are a leading voice for marriage equality, voting rights and, in the “Fight for 15” — fair wages for fast-food workers and others in our service economy.

Despite all this good, union rights are under attack like never before.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case — Friedrichs versus the California Teachers Association — in which some individuals insist they are entitled to the benefits of a unionized workplace without having to pay their fair share for those benefits.

In Friedrichs, the plaintiffs argue that California school districts are violating the First Amendment rights of teachers by agreeing that all teachers who are represented by the union must pay their “fair share” costs.  The plaintiffs say the First Amendment gives them the right not to belong to a union, and not to pay anything to a union they oppose even though, by law, the union must represent them.

This would require the Supreme Court to overturn established law.

For decades, the Court has supported this principle of “fair share.”  It means that since unions are obligated to represent all the workers in a unionized workplace, it’s reasonable that all the workers should share in the costs of union representation, such as collective bargaining and contract administration.

The Court has allowed one exception:  Those who oppose a union’s political speech — perhaps its endorsement of candidates or money that goes to election campaigns — can declare themselves “fee-payers.”  That means they pay the union “fair share” fees for the cost of union representation, but are not required to contribute money for political activities.

In other words … a compromise.

When the Supreme Court ultimately rules, probably sometime next year, I am hopeful the majority affirms that “fair share” remains the best compromise between the duty of unions to represent all workers and the First Amendment rights of those who oppose unions in their workplace.

I’m even more confident, however, that, no matter what the ruling, workers will continue to see the value in belonging to a union.  In this era of income inequality and outsized CEO salaries, working people increasingly see that unions give them a voice in the workplace and, over the years, have helped win many of the rights they enjoy today.

They understand that, without strong unions in our polarized political environment, those rights listed on the bumper sticker — like the weekend, and overtime pay, and the 40-hour work week — can vanish in a flash.

Karen Magee, a former elementary and special education teacher in Harrison, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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