Union blues

Under discussion last night at my union meeting was a motion to reduce the monthly stipend for union officers, as a show of solidarity for the rest of the membership. And I was struck by how contentious this was, considering how progressive and supportive the membership had been recently. Were there really people arguing forcefully to keep $7 a month in their own pockets, when that money saved could be used to help another laid-off member down the road buy groceries or keep their health benefits? Was a few dollars going to make that much of a difference for them?

Earlier this month, AFSCME Local 88 had proposed a one-year wage freeze for its membership, as a cost-cutting measure to save some union jobs. To the best of my knowledge, none of the other County unions have proposed a similar measure, so I am very proud of my union leadership for being ahead of the curve on this.

We not only proposed it, we voted on it and decided, together, overwhelmingly, that it was a good idea. It passed, and that means that the layoffs will be fewer (though not entirely eliminated), and the Board of County Commissioners has agreed to a number of concessions in light of our agreement. First, that the money saved (which is estimated to be around $6-7 million) will be used specifically for Local 88 jobs, that management will provide an accounting of both the money saved and the jobs saved (gotta love some accountability), and that, since in some areas of the county the management to represented ratios are so out of whack, any cuts will address the inequity (in other words, please layoff those managers who supervise only a handful of people before cutting line workers who actually get shit done).

Back to the motion under consideration. My local pays a small stipend to its leadership and stewards. In years past, it was enough to recoup the dues we paid, but it was only paid to active stewards; you had to attend the meetings, minimum. And most stewards did more than that; they served as information conduits, they answered questions about the contract, they dealt with grievances and challenged management on different issues, they volunteered and put in extra time not just to help the local and the membership but the community at large. For stewards, the stipend was reduced last year to $32 a month.

I am a steward, but I haven’t gotten the stipend in years. I am still active but it’s difficult for me to get to the meeting place. The money wasn’t ever that important to me. But because of the looming layoffs and financial crunch, last night I decided to attend. And I’m glad I did.

Because there was a level of hostility and resentment in the room during discussion of this motion that I clearly did not understand. The idea was to show the membership that, yes, we’ve asked them to tighten their belts, and now, so shall we. It seemed like a slam dunk to me.

Until one of my union brothers stood up and explained that he was one of the lowest-paid members, that he was the main source of income for his family, and that he did not like the idea that the more highly paid members were taking more money from his pocket for a symbolic gesture.

What was class envy doing here?

Local 88, like all the other AFSCME unions, has already put into place a proportional system of dues; it’s a percentage of your income. You make more, you pay more dues. There’s a cap, though, and upper limit to how much you can pay. And my union brother was arguing that caps are all well and good, but why isn’t there a floor, too.

I’m in the upper half of the pay scale, since I’m in IT. I don’t consider myself very highly paid, but if I had to support a family on my income things would be very tight. I’ve made decisions not to subject anyone else to my financial management skills (or mis-management skills) but I also understand that not everyone makes the same decisions I make. Life happens and you’ve got to deal with what comes up; a spouse, kids, medical bills, car accidents. Situations, if you’re speaking passively. A shitstorm, if you’re speaking like a person.

I wanted to get up and speak in favor of the motion. I wanted to explain that I’ve been a steward and I haven’t gotten any stipend, that I do it because I want to help my brothers and sisters and bring a little democracy to the workplace.

But I realized that even if I deliberately handed back my stipend, it wouldn’t help the lowest-paid members directly. I realized that I would be seen as… what? An elitist?

My union brother outlined all the dollars he would not see because he would not get a step increase next year, nor a cost of living adjustment. He was counting dollars he did not have and holding that against the rest of us. That did not feel, to me, like he particularly cared for helping out the rest of the union. It sounded like he was grabbing for every single dollar he could get.

I did not get a chance to speak before the question was called and it was put to a vote. By a counted show of hands, the vote was 2 to 1 against the motion, meaning we would not be reducing the stipend this year.

The disconnect between the recent vote to implement a pay freeze, and the contentious arguments last night over seven bucks a month shocked me. But then I remembered that the tally on the pay freeze vote was closer than I expected: 63% yes, and 37% no. More than a third of my brothers and sisters needed that money in their pocket and prioritized that over helping anyone else keep their jobs and their benefits during this horrible Great Recession. And now, at our general membership meeting, I was seeing that same attitude.

On this night, however, that attitude prevailed, to my shame.

I do not know what message that will send to the membership at large, but I want it clear that I voted to reduce the potential money in my pocket, and that I will be attending the meetings but not taking the stipend for the coming year out of principle.