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History is on our side – CCA refuses to let Supreme Court decision erode faculty rights

As we move into a new phase in the history of unionism following the Supreme Court decision eliminating our ability to charge non-members for the work we do for them, let us reflect on why we have unions in the first place.

Most of us did not study the emergence of unions in our American history classes. From the women in the garment industry in the East to the Pullman porters on the trains, to the Woolworth workers who did a sit-down strike in the 1930s, union members have fought and died so that we could have the protections we have today.  Unions provided us the 40-hour work week for full-time workers and overtime for those who work more than 40 hours. Unions are the reason we have weekends. Unions are why we have the right to grieve an unfair supervisor. We would not have academic freedom – the ability to present material in our classes in our own way without the power of the union.

We know that faculty represented by unions, all over the U.S., have much higher salaries and better benefits than non-union faculty.  And we raise the bar for the institutions that do not allow unions to represent their employees.

And yet, there are powerful forces at work in our country which would like to get rid of unions altogether.

First and foremost, they resent the power of unions to work for justice in the political arena.  They see this work as a threat to their power.  But there’s a difference.  Their power is based on personal gain – more profit for their companies and higher compensation for them as individuals.  Union power is used to defend students and faculty from the rampant moves toward privatization and profit in the education system.

Witness the recent elimination of the protections for students in regard to the for-profit institutions of higher education.  Before those protections went into place, we heard verified stories of one Orange County for-profit college picking up people who were homeless and signing them up for classes and loans to meet their need for profit.  We heard of non-disclosure to students that they were obligating themselves to high-interest private student loans.  We heard of colleges receiving 99% of their income from Federal grants and loans and students being kicked out of their programs before they finished so that they didn’t damage the institution’s statistics.  And that was after they had signed up for $50,000 to $100,000 in loans!

So, what do unions have to do with this?  In fact, CCA, CTA and NEA, along with other unions, lobbied hard for the protections that went into place during the Obama administration.  I remember specifically one joint NEA-AFT Higher Education Conference where the late Senator Edward Kennedy came and spoke about his commitment to rein in the for-profit institutions.  And why is this important?  Because we care about our students. They are lured by shiny promises on TV about how quickly they will finish their programs without “months of boring classes.”  We know that we can provide low-cost, high-quality education for them and we are committed to them as people, not to profit.

And unions work for us, the members, too.  The forces that oppose unions would love to get their hands on our retirement dollars, and that’s why they constantly sponsor “pension reform” measures.  CalSTRS and CalPERS are our bulwark against the poverty-stricken old age that workers experienced before unions.  In those days, people died of hunger, cold, and illness.  Our pensions protect us against these dire consequences.  Our pension systems are among the largest institutional investors in the world and their commitment to both serving their members and keeping corporations honest are a threat to some of the corporations in the country.  They monitor and influence the financial practices of private industry, pro-actively intervening if they see actions which might threaten the solvency of the company.  This is not appreciated by some corporations.

And most important of all, our monthly contributions to our pensions are not going into 401ks, and are therefore not accessible to investment companies which would make millions of dollars on fees from us.  One of CTA’s priorities, and something that a lot of our dues dollars go to, is the preservation of CalSTRS as a solvent pension fund.  That benefits all of us.  Sometimes we forget all of this work behind the scenes.  We also work on legislation and the state budget, lobbying against measures which would harm students or faculty.  I will focus on those accomplishments in my next column.

At this point in our history we can look both back and forward – to the sacrifices our forebearers made so that we can enjoy the protections we have today and to the greater strength and relevance we have in the future as the defenders of justice and the protectors of the weak.  That is what unions are about.  Together we are stronger!  Thus, CCA’s motto – “Strength in Unity!”