A4E member Steve Piazza is a writer and poet living in Athens, Georgia with his wife and cat. He is a retired educator who advocates for education, workers’ rights and global welfare. Interested in writing for our blog? Get in touch!
Much has been written about how unions have taken on management and won concessions for their members. These concessions have come in many forms: wage increases, improved benefits, better working conditions, etc. But what happens behind the headlines? The perspective of the rank and file on what the working environment is like after a successful negotiation is as vital as the agreement itself. Put another way, one of the main advantages of a union is not in its victories, but in how transformative it can be for workers in the workplace as a whole.
You or someone you know, may have had thoughts like this:
“I don’t have anybody to talk to about my issue.”
“If I join a union, I might lose my job.”
“I might be ostracized if my boss knows I’m a union member.”
“As a union member, I don’t want to destroy the work relationships I have.”
These statements are based on legitimate concerns, but if all employees had comprehensible resources that advised them of their rights to air grievances or where they can legally get the support they need, imagine what that could mean for the overall health and stability of their organization.
Here’s an example.The United Campus Workers Of Georgia Local 3265 (UCWGA) at the University of Georgia grew out of employees’ frustrations with a suspension for bookkeeping purposes of half a month’s wages following a federal mandate that prohibits employees covered by Federal Labor Standards Act protections from being forced to work overtime without pay. Outraged by this decision to withhold salaries, which took place just weeks before the holiday season, employees organized this chapter of the UCWGA, an affiliate of the 700,000 strong Communication Workers of America, itself associated with the larger American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
After receiving excellent, timely state support that resulted in purposeful action and effective negotiation, the university suspended the decision, truly a win for numerous campus workers.
This positive outcome remains only one part of the story. There’s more work to do because so many employees continue to feel disenfranchised and powerless in employment concerns. The need for this collective body on campus still exists because people need to learn how to become active participants in the decision-making process on matters that impact their working lives.
A group like UCWGA serves that purpose, according to Joe Fu, University of Georgia professor of mathematics and one of UCWGA’s founders. He believes that all employees, from those in entry-level positions to the president, ought to share the same basic rights in the workplace. This inclusive, big-picture philosophy goes beyond the us vs. them mentality.
“The purpose of the UCWGA is to transform the culture,” Fu says. “Focusing on all employees, particularly those commonly underrepresented, can improve the university.”
In other words, if the climate of the organization changes, the organization itself improves. Having state and national organizations as partners allows efforts can be more focused and fruitful. “Expertise helps,” says Professor Fu.
UCWGA created the Campus Bill of Rights, which states, “We see our higher education system as important community and statewide institutions that should model the best democratic values and provide powerful education to all those who want it for the betterment of our communities and our state.”
The document goes on to promote elements related to employee-specific rights
- living wages and just compensation
- job protection
- the right to organize
- due process procedures
- non-discrimination protections
- guaranteed adequate benefits
- safe workplace
- representation on governing bodies
- universal inclusion
The ongoing activities of the chapter focus on these and other important aspects of work life such as parking fees, and, according to Professor FU, the most pressing monetary issue: getting all employment levels raised to $15 an hour. But when he speaks of the struggle for fair wages, he adds, “when you take care of what people need, the rest follows.”
Other recent activities bear this out. In Los Angeles, for example, in addition to striking teachers making major monetary demands, they also made agreements that involve the addition of greenspace to school grounds and legal support for immigrant families.
Professor Fu also finds inspiration for this big picture view on unions in the recent success of the teachers union in West Virginia. Their actions, he says, serve as a model for the entire country because they were done with honor, and they achieved their goals not just for teachers, but for system workers of all classifications.
Still, many people remain anxious about getting involved. Though some people believe labor unions are necessary to preserve democracy, having helped make the United States grow and prosper while fostering the dignity and safety of workers, others see them as a destructive force to the nation and a threat to basic capitalist principles.
The persuasive rhetoric supporting the latter view seems to have had a major negative impact on union participation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of U.S. workers with union membership dropped from 20.1 percent (17.7 million workers) in 1983, the first year such data was collected, to 10.5 percent in 2018 (14.5 million workers). The state of Georgia is way below the rest of the country, with only 4.5 percent union membership in 2018 (although it actually increased 0.5 percent over the previous year).
One of the common concerns of unionizing is how participation might affect relationships on the job. For those workers who may feel they need support on the job, the thought of speaking out or talking about organizing is too threatening. Although nobody in Georgia can be fired for joining a union, many are unaware of this fact.
Professor Fu claims that he hasn’t seen any backlash for union involvement at UGA. Even though chapter guidelines discourage political speech (on electoral politics and party matters), this doesn’t mean that political theory and current affairs aren’t discussed in the appropriate context. “Those ought to be protected,” he says. Reprimands for promoting a political candidate and/or party can and have happened, but Professor Fu states that in instances where people talk about labor or union issues appropriately, school officials know that ”any retaliation would be a gift to us. Free speech is protected by the Constitution.”
It helps when employees and managers can stay on the same page, and administrators also join UCWGA. Some join because they support workers’ rights and believe it’s the right thing to do. UCWGA is, according to Professor Fu “a wall to wall union.” This means that “unlike more developed organizations in other states that may have different unions spread all over a single campus, anybody from any position at UGA can join the chapter.” This allows the union to influence the climate on campus and to promote integrity and diversity, not discord.
It also helps if the process for expressing job-related concerns is clear and not intimidating. Professor Fu explains that people with an issue commonly take the problem to a monthly meeting of officers, members, paid organizers (there to offer guidance and expertise), and local officials. They may also simply mention it to another UCWGA member. If it’s an urgent matter, the issue may find itself passed all the way up to the state steering committee for immediate action. The idea is to allow for the system of support to work as the issue finds the appropriate local and/or state leadership for sound advice. The emphasis stays on the issue and the process, not on the individual.
Critics of unions talk about the problems unions create for employers. Problems such as increased labor costs, strike threats, increased regulation and loss of cntrol over termination resonate with owners. The wealthy have played up the idea that corruption exists in schools, according to Professor Fu. Schools are unique and “corruption happens,” he says. But corruption in schools is highlighted because “other organizations like churches don’t experience corruption the same way since they have no real class enemies.”
It’s up to a union to work with all stakeholders and create an environment that is free from such negativity. Fu says that one way a union can improve existing negative attitudes is to stay true to its mission and “identify clear injustice and mistreatments” while promoting a “culture of clear discussion that gives a voice to all.”
This is why it is imperative to take into account the workers’ perspective. Many workers (in general, not just at UGA) feel grossly underpaid and work in unsafe environments without job security or leverage to register complaints. In effect, there is a sense that many employees, a large percentage who are living at or below the poverty level, don’t have a voice when it comes to wages and benefits.
The odds are against them. The authors of a 2018 MIT study state that most workers won’t have the opportunity to join a union. Only 1 percent of workers ever become involved in a vote for representation, and only 10 percent actually form a union if employers resist. They conclude that workers will not succeed in having their voices heard until U.S. labor laws change.
Although he’s not on UCWGA’s leadership team anymore, Professor Fu is nonetheless just as optimistic about the future. UCWGA is now on nine different campuses across the state and growing. He also thinks that what happens elsewhere can make an impact here. He believes that Governor Brian Kemp’s recent $3,000 raise for public school teachers occurred in part because of what happened in West Virginia.
For more information on the UCWGA, please visit ucwga.com.by