Saturday, October 06, 2007

How I Became Union

I became Union roughly the same way I became Christian: I was lucky - I stumbled into it accidentally, not knowing what I was getting myself into.

This past week, at a meeting of regional ministers, a book was mentioned as being available from Amazon.com, and I gave a passing shout-out for Powells.com - a union run bookstore (headquartered in our very own Portland, no less). Afterwards, another minister came up to me and asked how I became a union supporter, since he thought it was pretty rare for someone my age (young, he meant) to even be aware of labor unions, let alone be an outspoken supporter of them. My answer got side-tracked by arguing that unions advance zionic conditions (better health care and working conditions, fairer wages and vacation policies, empowerment of people, and so on). I felt bad that I never got to answer him as to how I became a union supporter. To be honest, though, I hadn't thought of it before.

So this post is for Carman - and for the curious.

I left my previous job (2006) as a member of my union's Executive Board, a Shop Steward and work-site coordinator, a member of the contract negotiating team, a volunteer organizer and political activist. When I applied for a job with the church, most of my resume listed labor movement experience, and I still feel that heritage informing much of my ministerial outlook.

I first became a member of Service Employees International Union, Local 925, when I was hired as a mail-room clerk at the University of Washington in 2003. The University is largely closed-shop, so it was a legal obligation to join the union - I had no choice, and really didn't know what I was doing. I didn't think about it other than signing the membership card (under penalty of losing my job if I didn't). If anything, I was against compulsory membership in the union. I thought of it like Homeowners' Associations: vaguely fascist and dictatorial, and serving the powerful, rather than the powerless. (I may be retrojecting this concern for the underprivileged into my thinking then... I may honestly have been more concerned about the 1.5% taken out of my paycheck.)

For a year or so, the union was invisible to me. I didn't know it then, but my department was historically, notoriously anti-union - and few representatives of the union ever set foot inside there (and even fewer pro-union employees spoke up in the lunchroom about it). It wasn't until the union was doing an opinion poll in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations that I even realized what the union was. I filled out my little card and walked across the street to deliver it to the union representative (and later my friend) waiting in a room off the cafeteria. She introduced herself and said that if I had a few minutes to listen to what the union had in mind for the contract negotiations, she'd give me a tee-shirt for my time.

A free tee-shirt for listening to a five-minute spiel?! The union had me hooked. (This is an inside joke for anyone who's active in a union. A tee-shirt or button or hat or tote-bag for every action, and pretty soon one's wardrobe is overflowing with the union color and logo. And at that point, you just start going to the actions because you believe in it - and wearing your old tee-shirt to avoid being given a new one.)

Of course, the point of the spiel is to get you emotionally involved, at best even outraged at the offenses of the employer, in order to motivate you to become active in the contract campaign, and into the larger life of the union. It worked, and I slowly increased my activity with the union through the course of that contract campaign and the following political electoral season.

As I got more involved, I eventually became the "shop steward" for my building, and started organizing my co-workers. But it was the work as "steward" that most affected my class consciousness.

For me personally, the union was only so helpful. I had sympathetic and supportive supervisors, and administration above them that generally worked hard to be fair and helpful to the workers. My wages and benefits, however, were negotiated far above even my dean or director - and those administrators were much less likely to be sympathetic or helpful, to say the least.

It was in the course of a year or so of representing workers who were being disciplined or fired or something of that sort - and it was part of the job of a steward to help the worker understand what was going on and also support them in (if need be) objecting to the discipline and articulating why. (It did happen more than once that the worker recognized some poor performance and reacted positively to their supervisors' discipline, but that was all-in-all relatively rare.) About half of the time, it felt to me like I was helping defend workers against unfair discipline or working conditions. It only took a few ardent and seemingly vengeful bosses to make me a lifelong union supporter. (In the coming years, of course, it would take struggling to defend a couple wacky and irresponsible workers to temper my ardent one-sided-ness on the issues.)

I, myself, was never the subject of disciplinary action, or the victim of unfair working conditions. (It could be said that I was the victim of uncharitable and unfair conditions by virtue of the University's wage or vacation schedule, but after a lot of struggle the union did a pretty good job of keeping the University administration in check. The pic above is me arguing with the Public Relations Director of the University during a demonstration in the midst of 2007 contract negotiations.) It was as I witnessed what the union did for people who spoke English as a second (or third) language, and for women, and for folks who aren't white, and janitors or basement administrative assistants, that I became a union man. Supporting the union wasn't so much beneficial to me individually - except in the sense that what benefits all people benefits me. Supporting the union became an act of solidarity with and support of all workers, especially those who are least able to defend themselves and are therefore most in need of my solidarity.

Why I'm talking about this on a religio-personal blog is this: Jesus' life and ministry demonstrates to me the essential need to identify with and empower marginalized populations. That means my "class consciousness" has to align itself with "classes" "below" me (och, I struggle with that language, but indulge me), to identify their interests as my own, to work for their welfare as part of my work generally. I think it would be in most everyone's interest to be in a union - but as a Christian I don't want people to be in a union because it is in their interest. I want people to join unions because of the interest of others that it serves.

As a minister, when I left employment at the University and therefore faced giving up membership in my union, I signed up as an associate member - a status of virtually no benefit to myself, but an act of solidarity with my sisters and brothers still negotiating with hardened bosses for a fair living. And my wife joined the union with me.

Now, three years after I begrudged the union forcing me to join even though it directly benefited me to do so, I now join eagerly even though it benefits me directly hardly at all. I've been born again. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see. Praise God, indeed.

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2 Comments:

  • Christian,

    Thank you for your insightful reflections. Your very well written article was certainly interesting and did serve to answer the question I asked just over a week ago. Here are a few thoughts of my own.

    I think your pending experience in Europe will be very good for you. I hope you will get some sense of why as you read further.

    In our conversation, neither of us defined what we mean when we use the terms "Zion" or "Zionic". I will not attempt to define what we mean here either, trusting that we have at least some common understanding based on history and heritage. Incidentally, Zion is a term I try to avoid as much as possible due to its unfortunate association with oppression in the minds and experience of so many people in our world. Our reference has nothing to do with Zionism, but most people in the world do not know that. I therefore choose to find other words to express the concept. Someday, if we have opportunity, I will share the personal experience which makes me uneasy with the term.

    In some ways, at least some European countries are much more caring and compassionate towards the rest of humanity than I find much of America to be. Please note that I said "In some ways." No country is perfect or has a spotless record of compassionate attitudes, however the Netherlands and most Scandinavian countries in particular have a pretty good record of tolerance toward diversity. They also have the highest level of foreign aid of all the countries in the world! In those ways at least, these countries could be said to be more ______ (insert the Z word if you must!)

    I do not know what the level of unionization would be in those countries. Given their more socialistic attitudes, I suspect it would be fairly high. If so, that begs the question of whether they are more compassionate because they are unionized, or more unionized because of their more compassionate and socialistic attitudes. I have no experience in this area, but if I had to guess, I would suspect it would be the later. The same question could be asked concerning their levels of productivity. Again, I would not assume that higher productivity was the result of unionization. In fact, I would probably be somewhat skeptical of such a claim.

    As I said during our conversation, I am not anti-union. I think labour unions (Canadian spelling) have contributed much to the well-being of workers, especially in the 19th and early 20th century when working conditions were appalling, and wages abysmal. American, Canadian, and probably European workers are much better off as a result of unionization. Having said that, not all results of labour unions are positive. I will not take the time or space to detail what I see as the negative effects of unionization that sometimes occur, but I trust you can recognize the truthfulness of that statement.

    Let me conclude by saying the following. I am glad your experience with the union was a positive one. It has certainly had a dramatic effect on your world view, and that is probably a very good thing. I remain unconvinced, however, that unions are in any way the savior of society, despite the fact that they are often necessary.

    I sincerely hope you enjoy your experience in Europe! Perhaps we can revisit this conversation after you've been there for a few years, or at least months. I will look forward to seeing how your views may have changed!

    Blessings on all your days,
    Carman

    By Anonymous Carman, at 8:39 PM  

  • thanks for this educational post Christian!

    btw....the Public Relations Director looks like Wolf Blitzer.

    By Blogger Sean Langdon, at 2:08 AM  

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