When a crowd was asked to say words that come to mind when thinking of unions the results were: Protest, power, strike, and solidarity.
On April 13, in Syre Student Center Room 104, I attended “What’s in it for me: Union 101.”
The event was co-sponsored by Student Life and the Whatcom Community College Federation of Teachers.
“Reaching out to students, faculty, and staff interested in collective power,” the event flyer read.
The event had a panel of guest speakers including Bernal Baca, an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) lobbyist who represents professors at Whatcom; Rosalinda Guillen, a farmworker justice activist; and Steve Garey, a past president of United Steelworkers Local 12-591.
Alongside them was, Marc Hobbs, an Intensive English Program Instructor at Pierce College, and Richard Burton, an AFT organizer who’s affiliated with faculty at Whatcom.
Professor Mary Haberman of Whatcom gave a brief background, history, and development of unions before the guest speakers began discussing and answering questions.
Haberman gave multiple examples of what the workplace was like in the early 20th century.
In 1907-1910, one-fourth of workers at the U.S. Steel factory in Pittsburgh were injured or killed, because of the workplace conditions.
In 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Factory in New York City a fire killed 145 workers. The fire was deadly, because workers were locked in the factory on the top three floors of the building from the outside, regulations for fires were scarce and still overlooked, fire escapes were inoperable, and the fire hose in the factory was broken.
At the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 there were 3 million workers participating in unions, by at the end of the Depression in 1939, there were 11 million union workers, Haberman said.
Union organizations have many goals, but they primarily assure that people get paid for the work they do and that the skill-to-pay ratio is fair. Other crucial aspects unions fight are to have fair and safe workplace conditions, benefits, and anti-discrimination practices.
Panelist Steve Garey, is an oil refinery union representative and was once president of United Steel Workers Local 12-591.
“Unions are struggling against organized money and the only way to fight it is through worker organization,” he said.
Unions create a democratic representation of negotiation between workers and the workplace to ensure that everyone gets their money’s worth, the speakers said.
In recent times, there has been a decline in workers participating in unions, because protection for workers has been vastly improved, changing jobs and workplace laws, practices that hurt unions, and negative perceptions and politics surrounding unions, Haberman said.
However, a Pew Research poll shows that 60 percent of the general population approves of unions, but for those ages 18-29 it was 76 percent.
Even if someone is not in the union, the union is still obligated to represent any worker, if they’ve been wronged as per the union’s standards and rules pertaining to workers’ rights, panelists said.
“The best bargaining tool a union has is the power of ‘we’ versus the power of ‘me,’” Garey said.
For example, the walkout at Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington, was a three-day strike last May was called by the Green River United Faculty Coalition.
The strikers were protesting because there had been a vote of no-confidence of the college president by the Green River College faculty that had passed three times but nothing was done.
However, when students joined their teachers, the strike effectively led to the president resigning.
People sometimes disapprove of unions, because the thought of workers with power is intimidating, Garey said.
The instilled mentality of work to “earn yours” in the U.S. versus the union ideal of joining to better those around you, sometimes doesn’t mesh, the speakers said.
The 95 percent of workers in the private sector are working “at will,” which means that an employee can be fired for any reason without warning or just cause.
One student in the crowd said she was fired from her job for refusing to sign an anti-union contract.
Another student said his union at Safeway seemed inefficient and could be more accommodating to its members, to which one of the panelists responded, “not all unions are good.”
When the audience was asked what the most useful thing learned at the seminar was, responses ranged from “how powerful we are,” “how we have the same concerns,” and “self education and self motivation can be some of the most powerful tools that we all have.”
“You can’t work in a system working against you,” Garey said.
As students training for the workforce and as many of us are already members of that workforce, learning about the options, outlets, and rights we workers have is crucial to our future.