After Friedrichs, Will Unions Hit the Snooze Button?

March 21, 2016

After Friedrichs, Will Unions Hit the Snooze Button? On the pages of the Murphy Institute blog Allison Porter delivers the latest in a long history of wake-up calls that pro-labor professionals have issued on the state of unions. The spur this time is the likely reprieve from an adverse decision in the Friedrichs agency fee case. Ms. Porter is worried that unions will return to status quo operations and thinking. Since many of her observations seem like they could have appeared in the EIA Communiqué, I decided to put them in the EIA Communiqué.

What the fair share burning platform laid bare was an ugly truth: unions are out of touch with the overwhelming majority of their members. Union membership is seen as an obligation, a term of employment, and not a conscious act of joining and belonging to an organization. In spite of years of effort to shift the operating model, most unions still spend the majority of their time talking to 5% of their members who get in trouble or serve as shop stewards. Union staff see their role as doing things “for” members, and members are passive in the process.

…As preferable as they are, mandatory union fees are an anesthetic that dulls the demand for change. Without the economic incentive, there is less of an incentive to listen to what members who are disaffected think or feel. Union members elect their leaders and even the most visionary leader needs to hold the loyalty of his or her followers. So they tend to listen most to the complainers and the supporters, and let the other 90% alone. When there is no immediate negative consequence to being out of touch, the pressure to change feels theoretical and therefore moves slowly.

Welcome to the Dark Side, Ms. Porter. We have cookies.

Provider of services for fees or organizer of mass movements? Unions want the benefits of both roles but not the consequences. As Porter indicates, one problem common to both roles is how to deal with dissent. What if I don’t want your services? What if I don’t want to join your crusade? Telling me to make the best of it, as if I were a shanghaied sailor, may lead to acquiescence, but not to solidarity.

This goes beyond ideology. Sure, many conservatives are alienated from their unions, but you could add to their ranks with Sanders supporters, BAMN people, opt-out advocates, Common Core opponents, African-American members in Alabama and Memphis, charter school teachers, millennials… the list goes on and on.

You can’t accommodate everyone. But if you don’t allow the “unaccommodated” to go elsewhere, you get what the unions currently have: a lot of discontented members and a lot more apathetic ones.

For union officers to admit to these kinds of problems is tantamount to heresy. Porter noted that “Holding information tightly has been a cultural norm for most unions.” Don’t I know it.

Recent Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics March 15-21:

* For NEA/AFT, All’s Well If It Ends Well. As long as your team wins, does your individual performance matter?

Education Minnesota’s Finances. Doing well, but not so great with discretionary investments.

* Mississippi Association of Educators’ Finances. Total dependency.

Missouri NEA’s Finances. Middle of the country, middle of the pack.

(Montana) MEA-MFT’s Finances. Merger benefits.

Quote of the Week. “My fear is that ‘educated’ people from our own community are not using their positions to advance learning and liberation as much as they’re acting as agents of the state, attempting to keep us on an academic plantation that pays them, profits from us, and keeps us roughly in the same vulnerable state of exploitation that we have been in for years.” – Chris Stewart, director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post. (March 16 Citizen Ed)