Bill Barry on Staff Unions

Bill Barry is an AUD volunteer, retired Labor Studies professor and author of several books on labor history and rights within unions.

The existence of staff unions, described by Joseph Riedel [ed. note: article on page one], demonstrates that union workers are, in fact, workers with the same rights and concerns as other workers. At the same time, a union is not—or should not be—just another employer. Unionism is a movement, a cause, which many of us joined long before we got a paid staff job and it’s a cause whose very existence is being threatened. Responding to attacks, union officers are making some hard decisions that can seriously affect union staff workers.

The most recent example was a decision by the officers of a public employee district in Maryland to notify their staff, in a meeting with officers of their staff union, that half of the servicing representatives would be converted to organizers. The decision was prodded by someone in the union hierarchy, and maybe at the highest international level, with concerns over an imminent Supreme Court decision in the Harris v. Quinn case. Named for lead plaintiff Pamela Harris, a home health care worker in Illinois who provides in-home assistance to her 25 year-old son with disabilities, this case will determine whether these essential people are “employees,” but more importantly—and this is why the case was brought by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation against the state of Illinois, SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, SEIU Local 73 and AFSCME Council 31—whether requiring these “employees” to pay an agency fee, or “fair share,” to the union is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Legislation in Maryland passed in 2011 created the Fair Share, so that non-members covered by public employee collective bargaining agreements are required to pay fees, although they do not become full members. While there was an immediate financial improvement for the public sector unions, the percentage of membership is still relatively low so a negative verdict in the Harris v. Quinn case could cut off these revenues.

Unions like AFSCME have seen the intensified attack on public sector unions, especially in “union” states. After decades of well-funded anti-union movements in the private sector, officials like Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, tried to break the public sector unions in a well-publicized, and hotly opposed, campaign in 2011, by taking away bargaining rights that had existed in that state since 1959. According to The New York Times (February 22, 2014), membership in the AFSCME state council “has fallen 60 percent and its annual budget has plunged to $2 million from $6 million.” Officers of the union, “hard up for cash, may be forced to sell [their headquarters]. The building is underused anyway, as staff reductions have left many offices empty.”

The officers in Maryland were prepared to bargain with the staff but the changes for individual staff members could be unsettling: not only does organizing require a different set of skills, it also involves a wildly unpredictable work schedule, as any organizer can tell you. Site meetings at an employer like the state of Maryland that is 7/24/365, can be any time so the phrase “regular schedule” disappears from an organizer’s vocabulary.

While we can debate the strategy of having a separate “organizing” strategy—which looks like simple dues-collection and not union activity–the decision, in my opinion, was a positive one, representing the long overdue shift to an Organizing Model of Unionism.

Union servicing staff in public sector unions across the country are now confronting the challenge experienced in the private sector for decades: what do we do when our employers want to wipe us out completely? We can simply keep on, while membership drops and staff positions are eliminated or we can change in a way that affects our work assignments, our strategies and, of course, our personal lives. A staff union can demand to bargain and can oppose these changes but what about the future of the union? If changes are not carried out, the unions will be pushed down and then the staff won’t have to worry about negotiations because the jobs will, of necessity, be eliminated. It’s like the old ad: pay me now or pay me later. As an example of how complicated your loyalties can be, I remember an episode in 1989 when I was a Regional Organizing Director for ACTWU and the national staff union, which represented the organizers, was going into negotiations and had a proposal that would have allowed an individual staff person to turn down an assignment “due to personal responsibilities.” At this time, our organizing strategy almost always involved NLRB elections, so that there were clearly periods of enormous pressure, a one-and-done Super Bowl moment that would affect hundreds of workers (not to mention thousands of union dues dollars). In discussing the negotiations with the ACTWU VP, I told him that this was a demand that we should take a strike over—I stated that if I had a campaign, and an NLRB election date, I didn’t want to hear about some organizer’s Little League games or first communion. I needed the organizer there. The difficulties of mixing a “normal” personal life with the demands of organizing are a broader and perpetual topic, but it clearly can be an issue in staff union negotiations.

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