The burdens of voluntary association
Since the passage of the public employee union reforms in Wisconsin the past year, things have changed for the public unions. They have to recertify by member vote every year, and they can no longer collect dues directly from members’ paychecks. The response of one union has now been to decertify itself, as reported by Inside Higher Ed.
The Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin at Madison dates to 1966. In 1970, following a four-week strike, the graduate students at Madison became the first T.A. union to win a contract. Over the years, the union — affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers — has been a leader in the drive to promote collective bargaining for graduate student workers.
Last week, after hours of debate, the union’s members voted not to seek state certification to continue to act as a collective bargaining agent…
Union leaders said that they couldn’t function well if they had to effectively be in a perpetual organizing drive for the annual union votes, and also if they had to pay annual fees to be certified…
Seeking certification year after year, [Adrienne Pagac, co-president of the union,] said, "would have meant diverting resources and neglecting all of the other things we do for members – representing them at the work site, being advocates for them, engaging our community." Pagac added that "being a union member is not just about sitting across the table from management and hammering out a contract. It’s about democracy in the workplace.”
…The union faces challenges as it adjusts to the limits imposed by the state law. Under the old contract, union dues were automatically deducted from the paychecks of the 2,700-2,800 graduate teaching assistants at Madison. Now the Teaching Assistants’ Association must seek dues from members by itself.
Quite apart from the idea that the workplace is a fairly inopportune place for "democracy"—at least if the cold wind echoing hollowly through the empty streets of Detroit is any indication—it clearly isn’t about democracy. If it was about democracy, then an annual recertification vote would be viewed as a plus, not an obstacle. I mean, regular elections are something we associate with democracy, as I understand it. The practice in the past was to have the certification vote taken once, after which the union is perpetually certified. That’s nothing more than a version of "one man, one vote, one time" that we associate with various "democratic" revolutions in the Third World. But for this union, at least, having democracy in the workplace by holding a certification vote every year is too much of a burden.
No, this has almost nothing to do about democracy in the workplace and everything about the gravy train pulling into the station at the end of the line. It was a great gig while it lasted. As soon as you could get a majority of employees to certify your organization, you were certified forever. The state collected your dues money without fail every paycheck, and if any of the employees ever got dissatisfied, you had the resources to slap them down.
Now, all of the sudden, you have to convince the rank and file to send you their dues payments voluntarily. And every year, you have to convince them to voluntarily recertify you. The rank and file now have both purse power and democratic power to punish you, rather than the reverse. It seems that a voluntary association is inconvenient. You have to make members happy. Listen to them. Perhaps, even, respond to their concerns in a timely and effective manner. Voluntary association imposes a web of mutual obligation, unlike a top-down command system.
Now, the union just isn’t as fun. And it isn’t certified any more, either.