When you were hired to work in the Bristol Public Schools, among the many documents you were asked to sign was a union membership card. For some of you that was just a few months ago. For other, it was decades. These cards were then placed in your file at Central Office, where they remain. However, this week, the BFT (at the urging of our parent organization AFT) is asking all teachers to sign “Recommit Cards.” These cards would essentially replace the originals and would then remain in the possession of the BFT. There are several reasons for undertaking this effort. Firstly, the original cards would need to be located in each personnel file and removed. That creates a burden for HR. Second, its very possible that over many years some of these have been lost or damaged. Third, the cards changed format over the decades, and may contain some outdated terms or language. Lastly, we are trying to protect the union from several anticipated challenges to collective bargaining. Hence, we are asking all teachers to sign and return the “Recommit Cards” this Wednesday, June 7 following the last staff meeting of the year.
Many members view their union like a soda machine—members put in their money expecting the product they want to fall at their feet. Sometimes they don’t get what they want from the soda machine, and they end up kicking it because they feel powerless. Buying an ice-cold soda also doesn’t require them to do much; they simply put the money in the machine and expect it to deliver.
A more accurate analogy of how a union works though, would be a gym membership. Gym members pay a monthly fee, but results are only possible if they actually get out of bed, hit the gym and exercise. Walking on the treadmill and lifting weights in the midst of a community of fellow fitness-seekers helps with motivation. Together, everyone gets to celebrate the results they’ve accomplished.
But what if membership dues to the gym were optional, yet use of the gym was open to everyone? How long would people willingly pay toward maintaining the facilities, and how long would it be able to function with overuse, abuse, and little resources to maintain it?
That is the danger unions face as a number of court cases, solicited and funded by anti-labor groups, make their way to the Supreme Court.
The crux of each case centers on the union’s right to charge what is referred to as an “agency fee.” No public employee can be forced to join a union. However, since all the employees (union member and non-union member) reap the benefits of the wages, benefits, and contract protections attained through the union’s collective bargaining efforts, those individuals that don’t sign up as union members must pay an “agency fee.” That is an amount (often more than 90%) of the full union membership, minus political activity like campaign contributions and lobbying (usually less than 10%). The cases making their way up toward the Supreme Court argue that there is no line between political and non-political for public employees and that “agency fees” are unconstitutional.
This scenario was expected to reach its apex last year, with the Friedrichs case, which was predicted to end with a 5-4 decision against the union position. However, the death of Justice Scalia resulted in a split 4-4 decision. Now, this year we have the Janus case, essentially a replay of the Friedrich scenario. If it goes against unions, and teachers opt out of being dues paying union members, their won’t be a union left to give a voice to teachers or fight for wages and benefits. If you think things are bad now, imagine what it will be like without the union.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has tracked data for the past 17 years on wages of union and non-union employees, and consistently found those (of the same profession) who belonged to a union earned 27% more than non-union workers. Those funding the anti-union effort want to stifle the voice of public employees, and reduce salary and benefit costs, essentially balancing state and local budgets on the backs of employees. Your back.
Of the 640 teachers in Bristol, there are only 6 who are agency fee. One downside for these non-members is that they are not entitled to legal representation from the union when facing termination, when being investigated by DCF, or in Worker’s Comp cases. They are not eligible to hold office in the union, or vote in elections or ratify contracts. To me, that is a lonely road to walk. So while I appreciate and respect differing views, in the end the advantages of being in the union far outweigh the disadvantages. Hopefully you’ll agree and we can all fight the battle ahead together (and the one after that, and the one after that…).
P.S. Union reps will have the cards in their possession Tuesday morning. If you anticipate being absent Wednesday afternoon, please talk with a union rep and they can help you sign up. For those unexpectedly absent Wednesday, or on long term leave, we will be in touch soon.