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The power of unity
Unions protect members and boost communities

4/15/14

Instructional assistant Elisa Rutherford didn’t realize the importance of having a union until she needed CSEA’s help.

Rutherford was on the brink of getting fired but the leadership of Redwood City Chapter 5 informed her of the right to dispute her employer’s claim and receive union representation. With the assistance of her labor relations representative, she not only kept her job but actually found a better position within the school district.

“I was being accused of something that didn’t happen,” she said. “If I didn’t have the union and hadn’t found the right person to help me, I wouldn’t be working right now. I wouldn’t have a job. If I didn’t have that support I would have just accepted what was happening.”

Having received assistance from CSEA showed Rutherford the importance of belonging to a union and motivated her to become involved.

“I had never been involved with the union because I didn’t know how important it was,” she said. “Now I feel like I have to give something back to let them know that I really appreciate what they did for me. I want to pass on the word about the importance of my union to my coworkers because they need to know their rights.”

Advocating on behalf of employees like Rutherford is just one example of how CSEA stands up for its members. CSEA helps employees fight for equitable treatment every day. Each year, hundreds of chapter leaders receive training from CSEA on leadership,  how to negotiate fair contracts, and how to stand up for one another and for themselves.

“As CSEA members, we can be proud of our history,” Area D Director Rameldia Mark said. “The members who came before us fought for fair wages, health benefits and retirement. We still fight the fight and we are a force to be reckoned with when we stand united.”

During its 87-year history, CSEA has also been remarkably politically active. CSEA’s governmental relations staff works day in and day out at the state Capitol to protect and expand the rights of classified employees through the legislative process. CSEA members are quick to mobilize when ballot measures threaten education or the rights of classified school employees.

“Our union has worked to provide a safe working environment, set work schedules, holidays, vacation pay, sick pay and, most importantly, retirement security,” Association Secretary Kerry Woods said.

For decades, union activism has protected workers and kept the power of corporate money in check. Unions like CSEA have been instrumental in the creation of a minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, child labor laws and overtime pay.

Corporations and the anti-worker politicians they fund are threatened by the power workers have through unity. They realize unions give workers the strength to stand up for their rights. Now, anti-labor forces are ramping up their attacks and forcing unions to fight for survival.

Union numbers declining
The rate of union membership has decreased steadily since its peak of 30 percent of all American workers in the 1960s. The union membership rate was 11.3 percent in 2013 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The numbers show that even though unions made slight gains in the private sector last year, the decrease of union membership in the public sector offset any gains.

“The decline in union membership over the last few decades has contributed to more working families struggling to get by,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Tomas Perez said. “When workers have a seat at the table, they are better able to bargain for their fair share of the value they helped create; and that leads to greater economic security and economic mobility for everyone.”

The four-decade trend of decreasing union membership is due in part to the dwindling American manufacturing sector—traditionally a bastion of unions—but it’s also due to concerted attacks by major corporate lobbies and their political friends.

According to the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute, 15 states have recently passed laws restricting public employees’ collective bargaining rights or the ability of unions to collect “fair share” fees through payroll deductions. In the last three years, 19 states have introduced “right to work” legislation, which prohibits union shops.

California’s workers have been able to fend off direct attacks on organized labor so far. The most recent example was Proposition 32 in 2012, which aimed to take away unions’ right to gather funds for political purposes through payroll deductions. The proposition failed because unions were able to organize and inform voters about the true intent of this measure.

“Corporate America wouldn’t be spending billions to take away your rights if they weren’t going to benefit from it,” Association First Vice President Ben Valdepeña said. “I always tell people to follow the money.”

The erosion of worker rights
The corporate shills who stand against unions claim to be supporters of the non-union workers who earn paltry salaries and don’t receive any benefits from their employers. They claim labor laws have made unions irrelevant and unnecessary.

Meanwhile, anti-worker politicians slowly eat away at the safeguards that unions fought for decades to earn. For example, New Hampshire’s Legislature repealed the state minimum wage. Four states have lifted restrictions on child labor, including Idaho which passed a law allowing kids as young as 12 to work up to 10 hours per week cleaning and performing manual labor at their school. Wisconsin’s Legislature recently passed a law restricting municipalities from establishing any sick leave standards.

“The goal of billionaire corporations and the politicians that take their money is obvious,” Association President Michael Bilbrey said. “First, they turn public opinion against labor to get rid of the unions that give workers a voice. Then they start to break down the laws that protect workers. Fewer rights for workers mean more money in the pockets of corporations, their CEOs and shareholders.”

Even before doing away with labor laws, the weakening of unions puts workers at a disadvantage since they seldom know how to enforce labor laws or how to fight unfair treatment. It’s unlikely that a single worker will have the knowledge or the means to win a dispute against their employer. Besides, state and federal labor laws don’t protect workers from all potential workplace injustices.

“Labor laws don’t go with you to help you defend yourself,” Karrie Hebert, a health aide and member of Byron Union Chapter 884 said. “Labor laws don’t protect you as far as making sure your job description is being followed. Labor laws don’t protect seniority. They can’t guarantee you will take your scheduled breaks and your lunches. Labor laws do the big things but unions handle a lot of the things that employers try to take advantage of.”

Unions as a counterbalance
Astrid Cante, a Bilingual Administrative Clerk II and president of Palmdale Chapter 296, made the case for unions by saying that they create a balance of power in the workplace.

“The unions are the ones that enforce the laws,” she said. “People aren’t savvy about laws or how to interpret them. They need the union to come in and represent them.”

Cante added that having a contract they negotiated outlining their rights, their pay and their benefits give union workers an advantage.

“Having a contract protects workers,” she said. “We’re trying to educate members about their contracts so that they know what article the employer is violating in order to allow them to become more knowledgeable about the complaint and grievance process.”

If an employer is unfair to a worker, violates the contract or fails to bargain with their employees in good faith, unions have the ability to fight back. Union members can rally, file grievances and even strike to make sure that their voices are heard.

“With a union we have the ability to take concerted actions in the workplace to make sure we have a contract,” said Carol Meligan, an elementary school office manager and president and job steward of Bennett Valley Chapter 156. “We can fight to make sure that the employer follows the law.”

Aside from having expert representation available to them and having all of their rights and benefits outlined in a contract along with the ability to enforce that contract, union members enjoy other advantages that elude non-union workers.

“You can see the power of unity and collective bargaining by looking at how employers treat union workers and how they treat non-union workers,” Bilbrey said. “Employers sometimes want to think of workers as little more than a means to an end. Those of us who have unions make sure our employers treat us with the respect and dignity that everyone deserves.”

The union advantage can be quantified. A 2012 study by the Economic Policy Institute shows union workers earn on average 13.6 percent more than non-union workers. Collective bargaining agreements secure health care benefits preventing employers from unilaterally cutting or eliminating coverage. Union members enjoy better retirement benefits with 81 percent having access to defined-benefit pensions compared to 20 percent of non-union workers.

“We have protections above and beyond those of non-unionized workers,” Valdepeña said. “Read the Education Code and your contract.

The Education Code is full of laws written because of your union’s involvement in the political process. I have many friends in non-union jobs that have no healthcare, no sick leave, no vacation and no eight-hour work day.”

Additional advantages of union membership
Union membership has many other benefits besides good representation in the workplace. Businesses understand that unions provide large pools of potential customers so many of them offer discounts specifically to union members. CSEA’s Member Benefits department is wildly popular because it offers reduced prices on theme park tickets and consumer products. Members can also apply for scholarships and other financial assistance through Member Benefits.

CSEA offers its members job-specific training programs such as the OSHA 10 course and the Paraeducator Conference so classified employees can meet the latest safety requirements and know the most up-to-date information to perform their jobs at optimum level.

Members can also sign up for leadership training that can help them succeed in many aspects of their lives. Those who aspire to hold public office may receive the coaching and support from CSEA they need to achieve their goal.

“The dues are so minimal and the level of benefits you get for what you pay is tremendous,” Hebert said.

Union members also share a sense of community that eludes non-union workers. CSEA members are constantly working together toward a common cause within their own chapters and with members throughout the state as well. Activists get to know their coworkers on a one-on-one basis because they are constantly reaching out to share information and encourage involvement.

“Aside from all of the legal benefits of being in a union, we also have a sense of camaraderie because we participate in union activities,” Cante said. “I get to go to the different schools and get to know all of the custodians and the cafeteria staff. I have built friendships within CSEA.”

Unions benefit their communities
Those who oppose organized labor use the sense of camaraderie, the ability to fight back and the fair benefits and salaries enjoyed by union members to instill a sense of resentment in their non-union counterparts. They say public-sector unions and their members are a burden to taxpayers in an effort to turn workers against one another. Yet all workers benefit from the local presence of organized labor.

Communities and industries with high union membership rates enjoy better wages and benefits overall because the union jobs set the standards that employers must follow if they want to attract and retain workers. All workers benefit when unions lobby for legislation to establish safety regulations or to increase employee rights since these laws will likely apply to everyone if they are implemented.

Classified employees are some of the biggest advocates for schools. CSEA often endorses legislation that deals with education so all of California’s public school students benefit from CSEA’s activism.

“CSEA focuses on the broader aspects of education,” Meligan said. “And CSEA doesn’t just work on behalf of education but on behalf of all labor in general. We always connect with other organizations in the education and labor fields.”

By being involved with CSEA, members learn the importance of helping one another. That’s why joining community service organizations or volunteering their time to help out in the community is common among classified school employees.

“We are out there serving the community,” Hebert said. “Last Christmas, our chapter helped with buying gifts for children who wouldn’t have gotten presents otherwise. We also help out at the kitchen of one of our local churches during Thanksgiving. People see us as family since we are out there serving in the community.”

Getting involved in union activism
Member involvement in union activities, including community service, is the best way to maintain a strong labor presence. CSEA provides top-notch representation, training and other professional services but it’s up to members to lead, engage others and work locally to keep their union strong.

“Members don’t have to be chapter presidents or job stewards to be activists,” Bilbrey said. “Activism can start with something as simple as attending a chapter meeting, returning the bargaining survey or reading the contract.”

Rutherford said it’s important for members to get involved before they ever need their union’s help.

“We have jobs and get paychecks because the members of the union work hard to make sure we keep them,” she said. “The chapter is working to take back the furlough days. They fight to get raises for us. If you are paying your dues, you have to go to the chapter meetings. If you want something, you have to put in your part.”