Strength in numbers, unions in the work place

By Monique Everett

A union 101 event called: “What’s In It For Me?” invited panelists and speakers to educate community members about union history and its importance on Oct. 30 in Syre 104.

In the meeting, collective power of workers and its ability to create change in the workplace was discussed.

The event was cohosted by Associated Students of Whatcom Community College and the Faculty union of Whatcom, and included panelists Mike Massey, Steve Garey, Sam Keller, Jason Holland, and Karen Strickland.

            Tran Phung, Science Department Chair and President of the faculty union at Whatcom said a lot of the work unions do goes unnoticed.

“If you poll the community, people support unions, but they don’t really know what we do,” Phung said.

Unions fight for worker’s rights, help to inform workers of what those rights are, and support workers in negotiating agreements with their employers, Phung said.

Anna Booker, history faculty, spoke about a significant historical tragedy called the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire which took place in New York City in 1911.

Around 146 workers, most of which were young women, died because the doors were locked by the factory owners in order to prevent workers from stealing fabric scraps.

            Ian Stacy, history faculty, presented a PowerPoint with information on union history.

In the 1970s a steady decline of union membership resulted in middle-class incomes shrinking, Stacy said. A major factor of this was industrialization during World War II.

Although there was almost zero percent unemployment, new faces were entering the workforce such as women without experience working, or who’d never been a part of a union, Stacy said.

Panelists spoke and answered questions about their involvement with unions through, a question asking app that allows audience members to vote on the most interesting questions.

The panel was moderated by ASWCC President, Lauren Besthoff.

A union is when people get together to represent an interest at an organization, panelist Mike Massey said.

Massey is a teacher and member of the faculty union at Bellingham Technical College who chose not to cross the picket line as a way of supporting the staff that were striking.

“We’re pretty unified, and so the faculty has a big influence on what happens on campus,” Massey said. “We have a fairly strong bargaining position because of it.”

Panelist Sam Keller, who fielded a question about the government, said labor laws exclude certain groups.

Keller is the Program Director at Fair Works Center, a nonprofit located in Seattle that helps workers to understand their rights and navigate labor laws.

“There is this negotiation always with legislating that some people have to get left out, and those who get left out are always people of color, and women,” Keller said.

Panelist Jason Holland, the Contract Negotiator for Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farm union representing the workers at Sakuma Brothers, said agricultural workers are usually left out of the conversation.

“Workers in the private sector have the National Labor Relations Act but agricultural workers are specifically exempted from that act,” Holland said. “We can go to the employer with 100 percent of employees saying that they want a union and that employer can say no, we’re not going to do it, we don’t have to.”

There are tactics around this, Holland said, citing secondary boycotts as a way to gain bargaining power. By boycotting a company that does business with their employer, workers try to influence the actions of that employer who is now at risk of losing a major buyer or supplier.

Farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers carried out a secondary boycott targeting Driscols, Sakuma Brothers dominant buyer.

            “We signed our first union contract in June, and we’re wrapping up our first season under union contract,” Holland said.

Furthermore, unions typically support all workers, even those that do not pay dues, panelist Steve Garey said.

Garey is a retired machinist and volunteer for the BlueGreen Alliance of Washington, an organization working to solve environmental challenges and maintain quality jobs for workers.

“If companies can convince any significant number of workers to quit the organization, but still receive the benefit that the organization provides they can begin to undermine the whole organization,” Garey said.

He said closed shop, a system where employers agree to hire anyone as long as they become union members, helps to keep unions going since worker’s pay automatic dues. Open shop however, does not require employees to be union members creating a lack of funding.

“The corporate forces we face want to get rid of closed shop,” Garey said.

            Panelist Karen Strickland, President of the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, said some non-union jobs are at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving bonuses.

“If you were part of a union then you’d weigh in on what are the appropriate criteria for determining whether or not you get a bonus,” Strickland said. “It’d be collectively determined.”

After the event, Brock Sehman, a Whatcom student who works at Fred Meyer, said he was having issues with a manager keeping him past closing hours.

“They would keep me until midnight an hour after I was supposed to go home. I talked to a union rep about it who said they’re not supposed to do that,” Sehman said.

            At first Sehman said he didn’t like paying dues but he is glad to be a part of the union now that he knows what they do.

“When something happens to you or another coworker it’s nice to be like, ‘no you can’t do that,’” Sehman said.

Union achievements often go unrecognized by a generation of people benefiting from labor laws, and who may be unaware of what harsh working conditions were once like said Besthoff who was the moderator of the event.

“Unions are sort of like vaccinations,” Phung said, President of the Faculty Union at Whatcom.

“We’ve done such a good job of vaccinating people you don’t really see smallpox or polio. Nowadays people don’t even think about unions because we’ve done so well to get us so many rights.”

Phung said the more people who become a part of the union the more likely workers’ needs will be listened to by employers.

“Unions are always strength in numbers,” Phung said.

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