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Dues check-off, on the campus and in the workplace

Angus Johnston over at StudentActivism has some great analysis and background to Ray Glass' essay on student government I posted not too long ago. Check it out.

I'd like to push back a bit on his dues discussion in particular though (so go read it if you haven't yet).

When Ray wrote that dues "have probably done more to facilitate their entrenchment, removal from rank and file, and conservative policies" I found that rather spot-on. I don't think he meant "entrenchment" in the sense of union density in the economy, which at this point is probably the furthest from "entrenched" without being snuffed out entirely. I believe he meant entrenched in the sense that the union bureaucracy was immovable, even by its own rank-and-file. (For example, it's very hard to disaffiliate with a union federation that can fight back with a pile of your own dues money.)

Looking through history, organizers doing the actual work of building the labor movement and winning victories weren't the ones advocating for dues check-off (or even standing contracts). They were almost always imposed from above, at the very highest levels. The IWW actually still holds dues check-off opposition as one of its core rules. Tom Wetzel, writing on the rise of the union ("closed") shop (which in many cases arose in direct opposition to what the workers wanted) notes:

The "open shop" situation of the CIO unions in the late '30s meant that local union officials and activists were in the position of having to justify support for the union every day if they wanted to maintain rank-and-file support and dues income. Thus, "grievance battles were the order of the day," writes Lichtenstein(3), "and local officers went about their jobs in an aggressive and energetic manner. Although all SWOC contracts formally prohibited strikes for the duration of the contract, a form of guerrilla warfare nevertheless continued in the mills." 

Wetzel goes on to explain how a combination of the Red Scare and Roosevelt's demand for wartime labor discipline gave union bigwigs the opportunity to drastically undercut the labor movement's fighting spirit.

While dues check-off certainly a way to increase a union's coffers, and that allows it to more easily get things done, it's absolutely a conservatizing force that allows the establishment of a labor aristocracy in the first place. The kind of conservative business unionism that has particularly characterized the national labor movement over the past 2-3 decades, best personified in Andy Stern's rule at SEIU, would have been impossible without a guaranteed, no-strings-attached flow of funds upward. So we end up with SEIU bureaucrats publicly lobbying for single payer healthcare and EFCA, but internally squashing insurgent locals and ignoring the wishes, requests, and demands of actual workers on the ground. That's the kind of conservative tendency that Glass warns us about.

And so we see that when an organization's bureaucracy has become calcified and disconnected from its members over the years, thanks to guaranteed revenue, removal of that guarantee can be a death sentence. Grassroots, direct democracy is like a muscle — when a union all of a sudden faces Right-to-Work, or when a student association has its dues frozen by administrators, we see that muscle has atrophied so much that the organizations often collapse under their own weight.

As labor historian Staughton Lynd put it,

The usual understanding, favored by U.S. labor policy, is that when a union is recognized it becomes the exclusive representative of workers in that bargaining unit. Such recognition puts the union in a position to have management automatically deduct dues from the workers’ paychecks, the so-called “dues check-off.” Workers interviewed in the 1960s and early 1970s who had experienced the self-organization of workers in the 1930s mentioned this most frequently as the reason that “your [watch]dog don’t bark no more.”

Like most unions, student governments are handed a large pot of money at the beginning of the year without necessarily having done anything to actually earn it — regardless of whether the last election had 90% turnout or 2%. Every campus and university system is different, and we shouldn't necessarily take a purist approach to dues collection (Ray Glass himself, as Angus points out, was rather pragmatic on this issue in practice). That being said, understanding the conservative and bureaucratic tendencies that automatic dues can engender is crucial to avoiding the pitfalls that so many fighting organizations inadvertently run headlong into.

BREAKING: American University's adjunct faculty vote to unionize!

I just received an email that was sent from American University's Provost Scott A. Bass to the AU community. This is amazing news -- not only because of the vote itself, but the fact that it was successful, and most amazingly is not being challenged by AU's Administration. I'll post more as it arrives, but here's the contents of the memo: 

American University


February 16, 2012

TO: American University Community
FROM: Scott A. Bass, Provost

RE: Results of the Union Election

Today, the ballots were counted to determine whether adjunct faculty will be represented by the Service Employees International Union, Local 500. I would like to thank the adjunct faculty who voted in the election for expressing their choice in this important matter.

Of the 1,672 eligible votes, 379 were cast in favor of union representation and 284 were cast in opposition. The university respects the choice of its adjunct faculty to have union representation and, therefore, will not file any legal challenges to the election’s results. Instead, we look forward to beginning the collective bargaining process and engaging in a constructive dialogue with the union regarding issues related to adjunct faculty employment.

The Washington Post blog offers a bit more context:

Adjunct faculty at American University voted to unionize Thursday, following the lead of their peers at George Washington University and Montgomery College.

Adjuncts are the temps of higher education. They make up more than half of all college faculty nationwide, but most work part-time “for very low wages with no benefits, job security, administrative support or academic rights,” the labor union SEIU said in a release. (I should note that those characterizations are for adjuncts everywhere, not just at AU.)

Adjuncts are typically paid by the class and are considered relatively cheap labor. At AU, according to the union, an adjunct with a doctorate teaching three classes a semester could make as little as $18,000 in a year.

More from Washington City Paper:

At AU and elsewhere, many adjuncts complain about inadequate wages, poor job security, and a lack of respect on campus; some see unionization as a way to address their grievances.

“Universities recruit adjuncts to cut costs, even as admissions are up, tuition is up, administrative overhead is way up, building construction is up, everything is up except pay for instructors,” says Mark Plane, a part-time anthropology professor at AU and a supporter of SEIU. “This is a moment in which people are saying ‘enough is enough.’”

Also worth checking out is SEIU 500's release, in which it mentions having 10,000 adjunct faculty members in its union. Impressive.

But let's be clear: as anyone at all interested in workplace democracy will tell you, SEIU is not a good union. It's incredibly top-heavy and autocratic, undemocratic, and is willing to spend tens of millions of their members' dollars to squash internal dissent, like they did with California nurses a few years ago.

I'm glad that more adjunct professors are unionizing, and hopefully this trend will continue. But more than that, I hope once professors get their first contract, they'll vote to affiliate with a better union.

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