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Davis, California

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Column: Useless unions

“What’s your column about?” my wife asked me the other day.

“Unions,” I replied.

“Eww,” she said.

Given that I am a student-teacher in a public school, it might seem curious for me to think poorly of unions when teachers are under intense fire in some quarters. But it makes more sense when you realize that, if I were to end up a union member with a paid position in the fall, I’d be forced to pay dues and support the political agenda of the organization.

Since California is not a “right to work” state, if I want the job in most districts, I must play (and pay) by their rules or forfeit the employment. They don’t call ’em union bosses for nothing.

“Well of course, Rob, your membership in the union has to be mandatory,” you might say. “Otherwise the bargaining power of only a few people won’t be enough, and terrible working conditions and low pay will result. Weren’t you paying attention in history class when they talked about the 19th century??”

Yes, as a lover of history I was paying attention, and no, we wouldn’t be headed back in time if we had to negotiate our own salary and benefits.

Prior to my teaching career, I worked in two careers: politics and law enforcement. In politics, I worked on three congressional campaigns, and each time, even fresh out of college, I negotiated my own pay and benefits. Twice it ended up well. Once, not so well, but I learned a lot from it.

This is not to say that I am uniquely amazing at leveraging my strength in the free market. I think I actually did a mediocre job of bargaining. But things worked out just fine because I was a hard worker and dedicated to the success of the campaign. On two campaigns, I actually received extra compensation beyond what I negotiated: a campaign car for one and a 15 percent pay raise in the other. The agreement at the time of hiring need not last forever.

So when someone comes along and effectively tells me that I am incapable of negotiating with potential employers, and without them I’d be at a loss, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to take umbrage.

In my second career, as an affiliated (meaning hired) recruit in a sheriff’s academy, I had to join a union and pay up out of my salary as an employee of the sheriff’s office. And yet, the union never did anything for me. I handled the toughest part on my own in just getting hired despite a bad economy.

I was reminded of the children’s story of The Little Red Hen. I passed physical and written tests, went through a lie detector test and a psych exam, a medical checkup and two grueling rounds of interviews and was one of only nine people hired of hundreds who applied. Then I received notice that my union dues would be automatically removed from my check, since I received … Wait, what did I get for that money?

In my time in the “real world,” with multiple jobs and different professions, unions never did anything for me.

Now, I would never argue that unionizing in the private sector should be illegal. That would, of course, swing the pendulum way too far in the other direction. At the risk of sounding downright socialist, I’d argue if we don’t give workers the right to unionize in the private sector, the business managers and the owners of capital would gain too much power and we really would set our society back. But just because people must have the option to unionize in the private sector doesn’t mean private sector employees should ever be required to join the union to hold a position, which it often is.

On the other hand, the public sector should be in a separate category. The state of Wisconsin is in the news lately for the dramatic showdown between Gov. Scott Walker and public sector unions over bargaining powers and benefits. Union members rallied Tuesday in Sacramento in support of their Badger State brethren. Protesters were getting fired up after hearing that California State Rep. Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) introduced AB 961 recently, which would end collective bargaining with the state for pension benefits.

“I stand in solidarity with the courageous legislators in the Midwest who are taking brave steps to do the right thing for all of their citizens; not just public employee union campaign contributors,” Mansoor said. “We need to recognize that although union members and their families are hardworking taxpayers, we represent the will of all Californians, not just public employee unions.”

It’s too bad, but he’s right. Next week I’ll discuss why his bill will likely go nowhere, and why public sector unions should be outright illegal.

Don’t wait for Part II to angrily e-mail ROB OLSON at rwolson@ucdavis.edu.

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