Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Life as a Union President

Unions have been getting a bad rap.  I keep reading articles about problems with unions and union officials.  While there are always bad actors in any occupation or national organization, including unions, what gets lost in all the chatter is that unions are employee-based groups.    These are the folks who go to bat for you in employment disputes, represent your interests, and negotiate your benefits.  

I didn’t grow up in a union family but have been a union member, though not always the same union, for almost 20 years.  In recent years I’ve taken a more active role.  A few years ago I was elected to a one year term as the president of our local.  This is a volunteer position that most people hold for just one or two terms, though the cast of characters does get recycled.  There is paid union staff at the next largest  organization level and part of my job was doing triage – answering what questions I could from those I represented, and talking to the staff about who I should refer the most complicated matters to. 

Union presidents are usually portrayed as burly men in logoed  jackets.  I didn’t fit the stereotype.  We don’t have jackets.  I did get a notebook with policies, a copy of the current contract, and other assorted paperwork in it.

During my year as president I fielded about one question a month, mc’ed meetings, and sent out letters to potential new members.  The questions fell into two main categories.  One was contract interpretation.  I would get a call or email asking me what the contract said about a particular topic.  In the case of a phone call fairly often I could call up the contract on the internet and the other person would, too, and we would talk through their question.  Parking was a big issue.  If we couldn’t come to a confident and shared conclusion then I would call the regional staff and ask them for their interpretation.    Mostly I was a sounding board.

The second category was job actions.  People would come to my office angry (primarily male) or in tears (primarily female).  Someone approached me about filing a grievance.  While I agreed with their view, their argument was not supported by the contract so I discouraged them.  I commiserated with someone feeling alienated in their work group.  I helped steer someone through the process of deciding to take a severance offer because it was clear an exit strategy was best for everyone.   Again, I was primarily a sounding board.

No one offered me money or a bribe of any kind.  I didn’t try to bribe anyone.  I did start keeping a box of tissues in my office but paid for that out of pocket.  There was no slush fund, no shadowy deals, no threats or violence.   It was extra work on top of my regular job.

Unions serve a valuable service to both employees and employers.  HR is easily viewed as taking the side of the employer.  My role was to represent the interests of the employees as a group.  Just as both parties in a mortgage closing or a pre-nup will have their own lawyers, employees should be able to ask for representation in disputes with an employer.  I was pleased and honored to serve in that role for a year.    

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