This post was supposed to be titled “Union Lucky & Union Proud” when I started it last week, BEFORE the unfortunate Supreme Court decision regarding labor unions. In short, the 5-4 decision strikes down the ability of unions to collect “fair share fees” from the people who currently choose to only pay the portion of the union dues that cover the costs of collective bargaining, but not full membership. Because of this decision, my content has certainly changed, as the face of unions is likely to be changing quickly.
This is scary. Today, I am still “Union Proud” but I don’t know how long I’ll feel “lucky”.
Supreme Court Ruling in Janus Case
Last week ’s headlines all read something like this one from NBC: Supreme court ruling deals major blow to public worker unions. This ruling is a slippery slope because there are likely to be fair-share union members out there now who will opt out of paying any dues at all to the union, though they will still reap the union benefit of contract bargaining. This means unions will have to do more with less in order to continue to fight for fair, safe, and equitable treatment and competitive salaries for union members all over the country. According to NBC, “a recent nonpartisan study predicted that a Supreme Court defeat would eventually cause public employee unions to lose 726,000 members, a significant blow in one of organized labor’s remaining strongholds”. With union membership numbers at an all-time low in both the private and public sectors already, this is most definitely a “major blow”. Currently, there are 23 states (including mine, Minnesota), with collective bargaining and fair-share policies. I don’t know of too many people in my bargaining group who are only “fair share” (I only know of one out of about 180), but I’m concerned that we could lose current full members if they choose to just get the bargaining without the cost of dues.
Corporate America and public misperceptions have changed the way unions are viewed in recent years. Rather than be looked at as the movement that once fought for and changed the face of the American workforce in the labor world and earned us things like holidays, eight-hour work days, safety, mandated breaks, overtime, vacation, other leaves, and collective bargaining, Americans have been told by those at “the top” that unions are just left-wing political lobbyists with all sorts of money and job protections. This propaganda fuels fires and jealousy of union workers because, yes, being in a union has great benefits.
I have been a member of the NEA/AFT, Education Minnesota, and my local’s teacher unions since I started my first job teaching English in 1997. I didn’t know everything I was signing up for when I started, but in my prior year as a student teacher and substitute teacher before my full-time hiring, I learned a lot about the purpose and the need for teachers to have this group. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t join and pay my dues, though I knew there were people who chose not to be full members and just pay their “fair share”. Veteran teachers in my district believed in the union and that we needed it; that it was the backbone of our keeping decent working conditions at a time when our district was beginning face big changes in state & federal (ha!) funding, demographics, upper administration, and teacher turnover.
In 1997, my starting salary was $23,546, and I supplemented that with summer work and coaching. Even so, I knew that if I stayed around, kept educating myself, and proved my worth in my district, I’d end up making a good living one day and would have a job that would be great for raising a family. I knew I had a union behind me that would always work to keep our salaries competitive and our insurance costs reasonable.
The Importance of Negotiation and Compromise
After my second year of teaching was completed, our union voted to strike, after over a year of contentious negotiations and completing a number of activities like “work to rule” and heavy attendance at school board meetings and the like. It was incredibly scary to take that vote, but we knew the district wasn’t being even remotely fair (we could see the books, after all), and as a group, we said, loudly and clearly, that that was NOT okay. We eventually came to an agreement (didn’t actually have to strike- thank goodness), resolved some important contract language, and compressed the salary schedule and eliminated some steps at the beginning to make our district more attractive to new teachers. We didn’t get everything we wanted, and neither did the district. That’s how “bargaining” works. No one was exactly “happy”, but I think we were all happy it was over–until a year later when negotiations started again.
As a teacher, who is paid on a salary grid, I knew that if I decided to stay in the district for very long, I might be “stuck” because it’s pretty hard to switch school districts mid-career without a sizeable pay cut. The market was still saturated with teachers then, so who would want to hire someone who costs $45-50k when you could get someone fresh out of college for less than $30k? After 14 years in my district, I had earned a master’s degree and then an additional licensure to be a media specialist. I was pretty high on the district pay scale when a job opened up in my new field in a neighboring district. I struggled with the decision to leave, because it cost me about $10,000 in annual salary, longevity pay possibilities, and a lot of built up personal and sick leave when I did it. I had to make the leap by believing one day I would “catch up”, and even if I didn’t, I might be happier and it would be worth it.
I was lucky. I entered a field that is in “shortage”, so my new district started me at Step 10 on their salary grid instead of making me go back to the beginning, and they gave me credit for all my post-bachelors education. The cut ended up only being about 7k in salary after some other things were figured out, and it’s likely I’ll need to work one more year than I originally planned to, but that’s a small price to pay.
Salary Increases Take a Long Time!
I’m about to start my 8th year at my current job, and my upcoming salary will be more than three times what it was back in 1997. That seems pretty huge, but it has been 21 years, and I have spent thousands of dollars and hours on my education to get me here, so I feel my salary is acceptable. It’s not awesome, but I didn’t go into teaching for the money and I can live a good life on what I make.
On top of salary, I get a lot of time off (not three months in the summer, like people commonly believe, but still….quite a bit). I have a fair amount of sick time and personal leave available to me. I have fully covered family insurance, and although it is a “high deductible” plan, my district puts enough in an HSA each year for me to cover the deductible. I have 50k in life insurance and a fair amount of job security because even if my current position gets cut, my license as an English teacher would keep me employed and back in the classroom.
I have what I have at my job because past union members fought for good health insurance, fair salaries, and safe working conditions. I have what I have because the labor movement created it for me and I AM lucky. For now. I’ve taken it for granted all these years, and I’m frightened for what last week’s decision could mean for my future and that of my family.