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The Concept of 'Union' As I Knew and Know It

Republican political literature and rhetoric seems to have a strong anti-union emphasis. My career was as a union representative. Here are some thoughts.

It doesn’t take close attention to notice that a prime Republican narrative in this election is anti-union, particularly public sector unions.

Union hating is in. What are the Republicans afraid of?

I spent most of my career — 27 years — representing teachers as an employee of the teacher’s union, first Minnesota Education Association (MEA), now called Education Minnesota.

Before that I was a junior high school teacher and teacher union member and, immediately pre-staff, a local union leader. Before that I was in the Army.

I know a bit about that word “union”.

The first contract under Minnesota’s Public Employment Relations Act (PELRA) coincided with my first year on MEA staff 40 years ago, 1972. Best as I recall, PELRA passed because it was jointly supported by Republican and Democrat leaders of the time. In those quaint old days there was a healthy mix of cooperation and competition. People worked to get the peoples business done in a healthy way.

My last union staff assignment included the teachers of South Washington County Distrct #833. I retired from Union work in January 2000, and since October of 2000 I have lived in the same house in Woodbury.

The propagandists in the GOP have long identified the very word, “Union”, as evil, something to be stamped out.

Employees banding together must be fearsome and dangerous, or so it is made to seem. We must have mythical powers to control others.

The argument is absurd, but apparently is thought to be salable to working people who, ironically, owe much of their status as members of the middle class to unions, even if they never belonged to one of the unions which negotiated the wages and benefits people take for granted, and are now losing.

It doesn’t take long to learn that unions are collections of people of differing opinions and concerns. Union members and leaders know this.

Union staff people like myself were and are constantly in a position of having to help people of different minds come to some semblance of agreement. This might be between labor and management; often it is person to person within the union.

Once in my time with #833 there was a very close call on a threatened teacher strike. It was a very cold January night in the mid-1990s, with pickets set to go up the next morning. Very late at night another union staff member and myself had to take the lead to get some very reluctant members to reach a tentative agreement with school district management. Tempers were high for some time; but the resulting proposed contract was easily ratified. The bargaining process had worked.

I don’t recall hearing of a strike in South Washington County #833 in 40 years of collective bargaining; for certain, there were none on my watch, and there have been none since I’ve lived here.

In the early years, when we neophytes in bargaining were learning, there were more strikes. But most of those were clustered in a single year, over 30 years ago.

Union members, like management, learn it is preferable to negotiate and settle differences.

Some do not like the idea of employees being able to negotiate. Public Workers, it seems in particular, are supposed to be Public Servants. My parents were career public school teachers. I know what “Public Servant” means….

My proudest accomplishment in this district, at the very end of my career, was to help organize a Union sponsored and financed Community Conversation About Public Schools in 1999. With the cooperation of the School District, and volunteers like current candidate for legislature JoAnn Ward, a 23 member committee helped community members engage in civil conversations about public education in this community.

Financing for the pilot project came from the National Education Association and Education Minnesota.

The model worked well, but unfortunately was not continued.

I still have the file from 1999, and the 12 page participants guide from the final conversation.

It could/should be resurrected.

Like any institution, public or private, unions are not perfect. They are, after all, made up of people.

I dislike the Republican Party and assorted “Independent Expenditure” groups targeting Unions as the problem when, in fact, they are as they have always been, an important part of the solution.

Unions are positive society assets not liabilities. The Democratic Party realizes that.

What does the union look like? Included with this post is a recent picture of one union member, now a 12-years retired Senior Citizen, me.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Frederick Hess October 31, 2012 at 10:05 PM
Dick-- Thanks for taking the time write a thoughtful and personal perspective on the role of unions in our society. Image what our society as a whole would be like without the advancements to labor laws pushed by our unions. We all have benefits from better working conditions, hours, wages and medical coverage advanced by union members. Thanks for point out that unions are not perfect but the do serve a vital role in our communities. The union bashing as done by those "independent expenditure groups" does nothing to help move our conversations forward toward cooperative solutions to the challenges faced in the workplace.
Jennifer Burke November 06, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Thank You for the article and for all that you have done , The Struggles continue. I am a Woodbury Resident and A Union Representative as well I always thought that people coming together for mutual aid and protection to make their workplace better and to help one another was a positive thing.How did regular working folks become the focus of such scrutiny? Keep up the good work!

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