Your Job Negotiated Every Day
When I first started working as a part-timer, the job with its duties, working arrangements, and responsibilities felt natural. I figured people smarter and more experienced than I am had figured out an equitable working arrangement for everyone, and things—meaning specifically, my hoped-for middle-class existence—would work out over time. When the middle-class existence year after year failed to materialize, I started to take a harder look at the working arrangements I had agreed to. And I began to realize that rather than being etched in stone during the Reagan years, our job description, our duties, responsibilities, and compensation are all being negotiated every day. And this is what got me interested in my union because of course the union is the one negotiating.
And the fact that every year my union is re-negotiating my pay, working conditions, benefits, and responsibilities got me interested in the question of how my interests were being represented.
Understanding Representation: Your Interests
The question of representation is an open one such that one critique of unions of late has been that rather than actually representing workers for whom they are responsible, they manage them. Put another way, the critique goes that unions have simply taken on the job of HR managers for administrators, while—to keep up appearances—doing their best to look like defenders of workers when some problem presents itself. The union can defend the worker in the individual case while at the same time in the collective agreeing to working arrangements that favor the interests of the managers or of a privileged class within the union. If this critique is accurate, then one has to admit it’s a pretty good snow job.
But what’s the difference between being managed as opposed to represented? Well, as working human beings we all have rights, interests, and responsibilities. To represent means to understand what the rights, interests, and responsibilities for a group of workers are and advocate for them. To be managed, on the other hand, suggests that when contracts are negotiated some other group’s interests are fore fronted.
I first heard this critique listening to the Union Edge podcast after the workers for Volkswagen in Tennessee decided not to unionize in 2014. The discussion on the Union Edge was about why the workers didn’t want an independent body to represent their interests. That’s when the idea of managed versus represented came up. In the case of autoworkers, some unions in Detroit had agreed to multiple tiers for their workers, with each successive tier agreeing to lower pay and poorer working arrangements than the previous one. According to the Union Edge analysis, the Volkswagen workers figured they were better off dealing directly with management instead of settling for tiers.
But what are tiers? Under this arrangement, the later you are hired, the less your interests have been represented—the lower your pay and smaller your benefits. This is also what happened at my local Safeway in La Mesa (now Vons). In Wikipedia, the event is referred to as the “Southern California Supermarket strike of 2003-2004.” As the article points out, both sides “claimed victory,” but in fact, the union agreed to tiers, signaling the shift from represented to managed.
Health Care Illustration
To illustrate the case for managed vs. represented, I offer as an example negotiations that occurred this summer (2015) at my community college.
In the case of Southwestern College, the faculty union represents both full-timers and part-timers. With regard to health care, the arrangements for the two groups are different.
Part-timers are provided with the percentage of health care coverage of monthly dues that corresponds with the percentage that they teach. For instance, if one teaches fifty percent of a full course load, the district pays fifty percent of the health care insurance cost and the part-timer pays the rest. This is typically an additional cost the part-timer pays out-of-pocket somewhere around $350.00/month. The college provides no funds for family members.
Full-timers have a different arrangement. For full-timers, individuals are covered for all insurance payments. In the case of full-timers with families, the district covers their health insurance under a sliding scale, depending on whether it’s just one other person or two or more people. Under the worst arrangement—a family of three people—a full-timer currently has to pay $712.00/month (as a percentage 53% of the cost of insurance). Significantly, the same arrangement applies to full-time classified staff and administrators.
So what happened this summer in negotiations? The union decided it wanted to improve the benefits for full-timers now on the hook for $712.00/month. From 57% coverage, it would go to 80% coverage. To do this would require 1.2 million dollars—conveniently the same amount as the Cost of Living Adjustment expected to be provided by the state. In the past, the COLA money has been used to slightly increase everyone’s benefits or wages. This year, however, COLA went almost entirely to the benefits package of full-timers, classified, and administrators.
To make the part-timers feel better about their lot, the negotiators threw $25,000 into an account to help lower the amount an individual part-timer would have to pay for his or her medical benefits. As a percentage, this works out to 2% of the COLA money. In contrast to this, the full-timers, classified, and administrators reserved the other $1,175,000 for themselves. Those who have families will enjoy a benefit worth about $350 a month. There is some logic to the idea that had the money been distributed equitably, it would not have had much effect on part-timers, who would have only seen an increase of the same $350, but once a year rather than once a month. (As George Orwell puts it, “some animals are more equal than others.”)
Union members did not get to vote on the arrangement because the leadership codified the deal as a Memorandum of Understanding rather than a Tentative Agreement. To pass the MOU, union representatives voted during a summer meeting. It was not on the agenda as a voting item at that meeting. At the same time members were told they had to vote in order to meet a deadline, and as far as I know, there were no dissenters not even from the part-timers. So they voted without consulting or informing their constituents. The governing board has since approved the deal.
An email from the union secretary went out to everyone on August 20th, the week before classes began and when part-timers are focused on getting their classes ready, some of them last-minute assignments. The email itself made no mention of COLA money, just that important information regarding H&W (meaning medical benefits) was attached should one be diligent enough to open it.
The attachment begins by discussing medical benefits in general terms. It talks about changing the “paradigm” and “disorganized money pit,” and then immediately starts focusing in on the full-time employees and their current benefit package. It concludes with the writer stating valiantly, “We wanted to develop a system that would remove the uncertainty of annual out-of-pocket costs, provide a consistent system, and reduce out-of-pocket costs (significantly). . . . After much discussion and analysis of the numbers, we came up with a plan that satisfies the criteria noted above.” This sounds great until one realizes that it’s for about a fifth of the people the union represents. The other four-fifths, the part-timers are not part of this arrangement.
The only mention of the part-timers comes from the third paragraph from the bottom of a three-page single-spaced letter, and is directly quoting the MOU. It reads as follows: “In addition to the above contribution, the District will increase the Part-Time Faculty Health and Welfare fund from $25,000 per year to $50,000 per year.”
When I questioned the union leadership about the deal, they argued that they had done a lot for part-timers the previous year. This is true. They had negotiated better vesting language for part-timers. They put two part-timers on the negotiating team. They shared COLA funds on an equal percentage basis. And they had also negotiated a potential total of eight hours paid office hours and the same for staff development hours. But from the previous year’s negotiations, apart from splitting up the COLA on an even percentage basis, the additional funds were no skin off the full-timers’ noses. For several years, the state of California has been insisting it is going to mandate that staff development funds be spent on all employees, so those were going to have to be paid anyway. At the same time, it turned out that the college was going to get additional funds just for having the part-timers show up for opening day, so it was from that allocation that office hours and staff development funds could be drawn.
Interestingly, when I talk to my fellow part-timers about this year’s union deal, I don’t see much anger: they are either quietly dispirited or complacent. Some part-timers think that union involvement will ruin their chances of getting a full-time job and–who knows?—perhaps they one day will get to enjoy the privileges of teaching a full workload at one place. Others don’t feel empowered enough to brook disagreement with anyone, even me. These are the effects of institutional power. Needless to say, more part-time involvement is the antidote to being managed rather than represented, but it’s an open question if we part-timers are ready to swallow it.
by Dennis Selder