Free Markets, Free People

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.

~
Dale Franks
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25 Responses to The burdens of voluntary association

  • “Now, the union just isn’t as fun. And it isn’t certified any more, either.”
     
    Well!  I guess that’ll show the people of Wisconsin! Take that!
     
    It makes one wonder what about the invaluable service provided ” representing them at the work site, being advocates for them, engaging our community.”  Who will engage the community?  Who will represent them, advocate for them?  Will the union stewards have to go back to being mere employees of the evil corporation..that…uh…what?  they work for a university?  But I thought universities were manned by generous free thinking individuals who valued the rights of others and believed in a fair wage and a level playing field and all that…I mean, does the university make these assistants climb power poles, or work with heavy equipment or sew linens all day or…you know, something laborishy?   No? What was it the union did for them again, i mean, besides drawing money from their paychecks?

  • I mean, regular elections are something we associate with democracy, as I understand it.

    And modern unions are great examples of protected monopolies.
    Free association is a “what you chose to do today” kind of deal.  It isn’t a “well, I chose that 20 years ago, and now I’m stuck” deal.
    Where there is an open market for union membership or NOT, they HAVE to show their potential and existing consumers that they are worth joining.  Their numbers in those markets are not impressive.

  • INvoluntary associations are like, ‘ya know, arranged marriages (cue “Prince ‘Erbert” scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”). :-)

  • Now compare this to what is going on in Vallejo, CA.
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-08-22/prostitutes-flood-vallejo-after-bankrupt-city-slashes-police-33-.html
    They’re coming out of bankruptcy without having learned a damned thing.  Their best businesses are pot dispensaries. So they want to slap a 10% tax on them.  Can you say, “Where is the city line?”

  • “I mean, regular elections are something we associate with democracy, as I understand it.”
    Maybe, but you’d be hard pressed to find any political office that runs for re-election every single year.  There is a reason the Congress has a minimum of two year terms, it’s so they can get work done in the outyear.  Instead the Union is basically spending all of it’s time keeping itself certified and collecting back dues.  A two or four year term would be more reasonable.
    More of an issue to me is the idea that democracy belongs in the workplace.  Maybe for the public sector where everything is a shared asset (in theory), but in the private sector someone owns that business.  Those resources the union is squabbling over are the proprietors or stockholders.  If you want to be represented at the corporate level, then you ought to buy in.  Not threaten a tantrum if you don’t get treated the way you want.

    • “There is a reason the Congress has a minimum of two year terms, it’s so they can get work done in the outyear. ”
       
      where’s the work part?  Is there a work part?  In either organization?

    • Congress runs an entire nation. The union does not have anywhere near those duties.
      Hell, I have to pay taxes every quarter, pay car registration once a year, pay insurance twice a year, vote in elections most every year, service the car once a year…and I am only one person.

  • Those resources the union is squabbling over are the proprietors or stockholders.

    No.  They are bargaining over their labor (time, talent, skill and effort).

  • 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.

    Unions had nothing to do with the situation in Detroit.  Wishful projection by people who hate unions and see Detroit as a convenient prop.  Detroit City was like it is when employment was still at its peak in the area, 30+ years ago. 

    The number one reason was/is Welfare.  A close second was a blind rush to elect the first Black Mayor who turned out to be corrupt and a force against development and prosperity far beyond that corruption (sound familiar?). 

    He was there forever and you couldn’t get him out of office with dynamite (the FBI tried).  To a degree this was a reflection on a degree of complicity by the remaining electorate.  So its no surprise Most the mayors since have been in the same vane with Kwame coming the closest but still not very close. 

  • I think annual re-certification votes are a bit too frequent, but certainly once every 4 years, or maybe at the midpoint & end of any contract.
    Totally for the whole, “Union must collect it’s own dues”, instead of the company doing it for them.

  • AHHH
     
    The poor babies dont have the govt collecting money for them anymore. What a shame. Damn when you have to act like a business and please the folks who give you money for services it is so hard when you are used to the govt doing everything for you. Maybe htere is a lesson to be learned here for all the dmeocrat moochers of society.
     

  • SPOT ON POST.
    If the services the union gave were so very, very vital, they’d have found a way to keep going.

  • I’m sorry, but a graduate student’s union???  WTF???  Unless being a grad student in the U of Wisconsin system is much more laborious and dangerous than it is in the U of North Carolina system, I really don’t see the point.  Being a grad student is (or SHOULD be) the ultimate temp job*; what do they need a union for?

    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.”

    Again, WTF?  Hammering out contracts (i.e. specifiying working conditions, salaries and hours) is pretty much EXACTLY what a union is about.  Oh, that and seeing to it that even the most lazy, incompetent, and even malicious employee keeps his job.

    Pagac also had this to say:

    “Investing resources in this process [i.e. that whole messy “democracy in the workplace thing” – dj505] would divert resources from other forms of activism…”

    Oh, I’ll just bet it would!

    And this is, IMO, why unions are increasingly unpopular with rank-and-file American workers: they are less about representing the worker and getting the best deal for him and more about “activism”, which is to say, taking his dues and spending it on things that AT BEST don’t directly affect him and perhaps are even repugnant to him:

    —- “Why is my union spending money to support gay marriage?  That has nothing to do with my job or workplace?”

    —- “I’m a good Catholic, but my union is spending money to elect people who support abortion.”

    —- “Um… I’m a Republican, but the union is spending my dues to elect democrats”.

    ———

    (*) At least, it should be.  I checked on this Adrienne Pagac: she’s been a grad student in (you’ll never guess!) sociology for five flippin’ years.  I’d be a little embarrassed…

  • Why would they need to be on a perpetual organizing drive to recertify every year? All it requires is a vote from the members to approve recertification. If they’re doing the “job” properly then the benefits should be clear and the “campaigning” minimal… they’ve been around since 1970 for heaven’s sake.

    And there lies the real problem I suspect. They know that if they have to open up this to membership voting then most members are going to vote “no” the first chance the get since they are well aware of what the money goes towards, the “causes” they involunatarily support, probably the bad service they get etc.

    And the people who actually run these organizations are always budding career politicians and the last thing they want on their resumés is “failed to organize a vote to keep the student union together”. Better to throw a tantrum and pre-empt any voting to avoid any nasty blotch on the record like that. Democracy is a bitch when you have to, you know, actually convince people of something rather than just enjoy the free money collected by someone else and given to you to do 101 things except make sure you keep the members happy enough to remain in the organization.

    Even yearly voting should be no big drag. Since the membership turns over very regularly with students coming and going it can’t be anything other than yearly otherwise a large number would never get to vote on wanting to be members. Not very democratic. Grad students aren’t even involved in teaching for a large fraction of the year, it isn’t like their isn’t time to organize a regular postal ballot and present it at the AGM.

    (Oh how this brings back memories of g*d-d***ed useless student politicians earning their cred to join the party youth wings and inflicting all sorts of idiot crap on members who had no choice but to be members.)

  • The type of union that WAS in Wisconsin’s public sector was very like the unions under the Fascists.  Remember, there are classically three players in the fascist corporatist collective…BIG BUSINESS, BIG LABOR, AND BIG GOVERNMENT in control.
    Membership was compulsory, as were dues payments, as was conformity.

    • Funny how social democracy converges on bascially fascist ideals isn’t it? Minus the sporty jodhpurs and panzers of course.

      • Human nature seems to sweep us into only a set number of currents.  We can create variations on themes, but the themes are still recognizable.

  • Next they should get rid of the ‘Student Government’ scam.

  • http://www.pjtv.com/?cmd=mpg&mpid=146
    An on-point discussion between Andrew Klavin (compulsory union member) and Bill Whittle.

  • I agree with everything you say here, Dale.  You are wrong, in this case, but I agree with your basic sentiments.

    You are wrong because you are assuming everything else is remaining equal and the only thing changing is the rules for re-certification.  That isn’t the only thing that changed. The new rules do not allow the union to actually do much of anything (such as bargin about pay or hours, etc.)  Given that this particular union’s raison d’etre was to bargin over pay what logical/rational self-interested reason could a TA have to pay dues for an organization that cannot legally do anything for them?

    Were we to change the system so that the member of Congress for the district you live in wasn’t allowed to vote for or craft any laws or regulations in Washington, I think you’d find very few people bothering to vote for them.  Actually, it would be irrational to do so in such a case.  Why would this be any different?

    • So the Union cannot bargain locally at all, or it cannot continue to bargain at the statewide level?
       
      If it goes out on strike, does it only take the TA’s at University of Wisconsin at Madison, or TA’s at colleges across the state?
       
      My understanding was they removed the union’s ability to bargain at the state level, not at the local level.
       
      If as you say, they can no longer bargain, even locally, then yes, it makes sense they dissolve as they serve no useful purpose.
       

  • Here are a couple possible scenarios;
    1.  The rest of the “democratic” public employees decide that regardless of the Union not wanting to play the annual recertifrication game, decide to campaign to keep the union going, and in the process, consume all of the operating fundage, and run them into the ground like the unions have basically done to the state for all these years.
    2.  Now the formerly union represented public employees start getting all those formerly state confiscated dollars (union dues) back into their paycheck. Either A: They aren’t gonig to be able to justify a pay raise for some time, or B: the government (representing We the People) goes in for a round of pay cuts. It’s only fair after all, since they werent’ used to getting the money in the first place, and we should not have been paying their union does for them in the first place.
      The irony is getting pretty thick now, so I’ll leave it at that for now,,,,,,