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Union or association?

Are we a Union or an Employees Association? By

Robin Nahin, Association Staff

 Many employees are surprised to hear that legally, there is no difference between a union and an employees association. They are both unions. A public employees’ labor union in California is mandated under the Government Code to perform two functions: first, to “collectively bargain” a Labor Contract (also called your MOU) second, to enforce members’ rights under that Contract.

Your Association also has all the legal rights and obligations of any union: the right to conduct daily business with the City on behalf of its members (including the right to file grievances and/or PERB claims) to collect dues, retain legal staff, to hold meetings, to use City facilities to conduct normal business, etc. Although many employee organizations started out as social clubs, often even including top management as members, most made the transition to Labor Union during the last two decades, as financial crisis hit many public agencies.

By the early 1990’s, many city employees groups were not only fighting tough battles to block layoffs and protect their benefits, but they became the beneficiaries of a whole generation of labor and employment laws. By 2004, city employees were covered by FMLA (family leave,) the FLSA (overtime,) COBRA (medical benefits,) MMBA (bargaining law), ERISA (retirement,) USERRA (military service,), ADA (Disability law) Skelly (disciplinary appeals rights,) Weingarten (right to representation,) discrimination and harassment laws PERS Law, etc.

All of these laws, and the Court decisions surrounding them, are enforceable by your employees association. Clearly, legally, whether it wanted to or not, your Association has, now, become real Labor Union.  

So…  What is the difference between YOUR (local, independent) Union and an international Union, such as the Teamsters? Although there is no difference in the eyes of the law, from your member’s point of view – and a functional point of view -- there are several large differences:

1. International unions are governed by an international constitution and run from an international headquarters.  They are huge, wealthy organizations that, on the international level, can wield a great deal of power. Over the years, the big unions have been the crucial force in pushing Congress to establish Unemployment Insurance, the Social Security system, OSHA (safety laws) the FLSA (wage & hours laws) Child Labor laws and Workers Compensation. In California, the big unions lobbied to bring us additional family leave laws, the State Disability system, and Agency Shop. As the bumper sticker says, Unions really have brought us “The Weekend.”

Employees in most Cities and Water Districts, however, have chosen not to be represented by International Unions.  This is because they prefer NOT to belong to a large organization over which they have little control and to which they are not very important. They prefer to belong to small, local unions where they elect their own officers, decide their own bargaining proposals, control their own money and conduct their own legal work. It’s a matter of democracy and local control.

2. International unions decide how your representation will be conducted and who will be sent to do it.  Your dues rate is decided at an international convention.  If you are not satisfied with the representation, you may appeal, under the International Constitution.

The big unions are generally not able to “tailor” their programs to the needs of individual cities. They use a pre-established “grid” for contract negotiations, and rely a great deal on the “steward system.”  A steward is an elected leader at your workplace, who is supposed to assist you with workplace problems. Before there were viable labor laws, the “steward” was crucial in helping you protect your rights or defend yourself against unfair discipline. Today, however, the workplace has become so litigious, that most employees would prefer to be represented by a professional. (Further, a steward who fails to handle a case properly can be held liable.)  The international unions do not do an effective job at training representatives in the intricacies of each state or local jurisdiction.

3. The California labor law (the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act) vests most control over YOUR job with YOUR local City Council. In most cases, the “power” of the big union does not translate into influence over your Council members or commissioners. Their influence is a matter of lobbying on behalf of very large groups of employees: state or county bargaining units or large industrial sites. There is no doubt that big unions have helped the American working class as a whole, but they rarely change the balance of power in smaller political arenas.

Small unions don’t necessarily have control over the local City Council either, but you have more hope of accomplishing this. This is because you and your members often work in direct contact with the Council, are in touch with the residents and often live in the community, themselves. You have every right to become involved in local politics, even to support candidates for office.

4. The International Unions are more expensive than local unions, and do not necessarily spend their resources on YOU.  The Internationals have an international structure that must be supported. Thus, their dues are usually more than twice a local union’s dues.  Like taxes, this might be OK with most members, if they got to decide how the money was spent. But they don’t.

Most unions spend the bulk of their money on lobbying (not always for the issues you support) and on organizing. “Organizing” is another word for membership recruitment. Big unions are always losing members and always trying to bring in new ones. They spend a small portion of dues money on direct member services, and avoid the cost of hiring professional reps by relying on the no-cost steward system.

In an independent union, the members establish their own dues rate, and your money stays in your own bank account. It is used largely to pay for direct legal services. After that, if a lot of it piles up, than the members can decide how to spend it: a nice holiday party?  A year-end rebate?  A members’ only scholarship program?  A Political Action Committee? (Some local Associations DO use money to lobby and this is perfectly legal.)

5. There is a great deal of difference between “democracy” on the international level and true member control over the union’s resources and policies.  For example, in a local union, the members elect their own officers and decide who will be on their own bargaining team. A new MOU cannot be ratified without a vote of the membership. The elected leaders retain and oversee the Association’s professional staff. If the members are not happy with their leaders or their staff, they can change these.  If an International represents you, it is the union, not the local members, which has the relationship with your City Management. Your negotiator is paid by the International, and is not accountable to your elected leadership. The Contract may or may not reflect the issues that are important to you, and you may or may not have the opportunity to vote on it.

Small, local organizations are far from perfect. They are subject to pitfalls, such as favoritism and in fighting among people who represent different factions of members. But, like any large “family,” most groups manage to overcome these flaws in order to accomplish their long-term goals. The theory behind unions is that advantages of being a “collective bargaining agent,” outweigh the difficulties of trying to negotiate with the City by you.

Large collective bargaining organizations work well for large settings, but ignore the needs of employees in small and middle-sized agencies. Small organizations have the advantage of enabling members to understand and control their own policies and resources, which allow for considerable direct democracy and individual member participation. Ultimately, a high level of control and participation will translate into your best likelihood for a contract that protects jobs and incomes. Even the biggest, baddest unions will grudgingly admit this…

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