Pro/con: After Wisconsin, are Public unions still relevant? YesYes: Public better served with agreement between employees and employers
By: Alan Netland, for the Duluth News Tribune
Public-sector union members find themselves in a position not many of them ever expected. That is, discussing whether their unions should be allowed to exist. After the tragedy of Wisconsin, the right-wingers are swooping in to attempt to spread their gospel of eliminating our unions in many states, including Minnesota.
Let’s look back on how we came to be and our continuing value in today’s society.
I served 28 years as president of AFSCME Local 66, the biggest AFSCME local in Minnesota; we represent 2,500 local-government employees, which is down from more than 3,000 a few years ago. Our local was formed in 1919 by city of Duluth workers who were fed up with nepotism and unfairness at work. They worked together to come to agreements with their employers to improve working conditions for more than 50 years before collective bargaining was granted to public employees in Minnesota in 1971. While they had no legal standing to negotiate contracts, their collective actions, including sit-down strikes in the 1960s right here in Duluth, helped ensure their demands received attention and action.
Today, public-sector unions continue to be about bringing democracy to the workplace. For fire and police unions, it means having a collective voice to work for improved safety and adequate staffing. For teachers, it means trying to maintain or reduce class sizes so our youth can be properly taught. Other public unions work hard to come to agreements that help ensure services are delivered to the public effectively and with a work force that is focused on doing its job and not distracted by bad working conditions or incompetent managers.
My experiences suggested that, overall in our area, decent managers supervise decent employees. However, there were exceptions. In those exceptions is where the value of public-sector unions becomes clear, both to workers and employers and to the general public. Our unions ensure that employees who are experiencing difficulties are disciplined according to management’s own agreed-to rules. Also, when managers are incompetent or bullies, then our unions can step in to challenge employers to respond to obvious liability issues.
The public is better-served when employees and employers understand a working agreement between them ensures better services for everyone.
Right-wingers don’t like public-sector unions because we are the backstop for the middle class. They want to get rid of unions altogether and are starting with us. While private-sector unions’ numbers have decreased, public-sector unions have increased.
We also are involved in broader social movements the right fringe opposes. We bring democracy to our workplaces and then work for broader democratic involvement in our society as a whole. So when they propose voter ID and other voting restrictions, or when they propose limiting the right to marriage, we say restrictions to anyone’s rights are the beginnings of restrictions on the rights of all of us. We understand workers’ rights and civil rights and human rights are all interrelated. We have been treated like second-class citizens in the past and have no plans to revisit those times.
That is why the right-wingers want to get rid of us. We are too big, we are too involved and we are too outspoken. We will not go quietly. As a current song says, “We will die with our arms unbound.” Bring on the fight.
Alan Netland is president of the Northeast Area Labor Council, which represents 40,000 union members in the seven-county Arrowhead region of Minnesota.
Were public-sector unions made weaker by Wisconsin? Are they more important than ever? Are they antiquated drains on limited public resources?
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