What is a Union?

By: Gina Gemmel

The history of the labor movement is not something that is typically taught in history courses in the US anymore, at least not those general courses that most of us are required to take.  As a result, there is a lot of misinformation about what unions are and what they do.  In response, we have developed a series of posts that will explain what exactly a union is and what it is not.  This first post will focus on what makes a graduate employee union different from any other campus organization that you might join during your time at UIC.

There are a lot of organizations on UIC’s campus that graduate students can take part in, including some that are political in nature.  These organizations do a lot of excellent work, and the purpose of this post is not to disparage them; UIC-GEO works in solidarity with many groups all over campus to try to effect changes that will have a positive impact for the UIC community.  However, it is important to understand the difference between what these organizations do and what the GEO does.

The GEO is the sole bargaining agent for graduate employees at UIC.  This means that members of the GEO negotiate a contract with representatives of the university, and that this contract governs our employment here.  Because the GEO has legal standing as the bargaining agent for graduate employees, the agreements we reach during contract negotiations with the university are binding.  This means that involvement with the GEO provides a unique opportunity to compel the university to make decisions that will ensure our fair treatment.

Our relationship to the university is not advisory, which means that the university cannot simply take the demands we present during contract negotiations under advisement and then make a decision without our involvement.  The GEO is the only organization that has this power.  There is no other, more effective way for graduate employees to make their voices heard and to demand change.

The GEO also enforces the contract that has been negotiated.  This means that if your supervisor is making you work more hours than the contract allows, if you are being treated unfairly, or if you are not being paid properly, the GEO can file a grievance to compel the university to follow the contract.  The GEO, as a labor union, has legal standing that requires the university to listen, to answer, and to take action.

With all the talk of austerity going around these days, there are a lot of people who feel uncomfortable making demands of their employers.  We may think that we are being greedy if we demand better pay, especially when so many others are suffering- holding such a philosophy is bad for workers in general.

First of all, the gains that union members are able to make are not just for unionized employees.  The 8 hour day/40 hour work week, for example, began as a demand of labor unions, but is now standard practice and required by law for all workers.  For a more concrete example, at UIC, we have three classifications of employees, two of which are in our bargaining unit (TAs and GAs), and one of which is not (RAs). The employees not in the bargaining unit have traditionally been extended most of the benefits of the contract that the bargaining unit negotiates. It would be better for RAs to be in the bargaining unit so they had full protection through grievance processes, but for now, their standard of working conditions has been improved because of a union to which they do not belong (the reason RAs aren’t in the BU is because of an IL law that prohibits them from being in it). Think of how bad UIC would look if they didn’t extend those benefits to the workers not in the bargaining unit who are doing very similar work to those who are in it. The union has created a situation that makes it difficult for the employer to mistreat those employees, even though they could legally.

Second, people seem to think of unions as some sort of exclusive entity that is trying to snatch up all the resources and leave everyone else behind. But in reality, good unions have solidarity with all workers as their core value. We don’t want to get some benefit that causes other workers to go without, and if an employer tried to take away something from other employers because our union negotiated a contract with good benefits, we would support those other workers in unionizing and protesting their unfair treatment. A union’s goal is to use collective action to better working conditions for people who don’t have the power to better their conditions individually. If an employer decides to take something away from other employees as a result of the union’s work, that is the employer’s decision. If I feel like my working conditions have been negatively impacted because my employer apportioned more resources for some employees who have a union than for me, the solution is take the issue up with my employer since that’s the entity that made the decision. It would get me nowhere and would not make sense to take the issue up with the union members who have successfully guaranteed their rights (although this is precisely the thing that would benefit employers most, because if we’re busy being at each other’s throats, we won’t demand accountability from the people who are really responsible).  And the best way to take up an issue with an employer is to do it with other like-minded co-workers at your side. The employer can fire one person demanding rights, but they can’t fire the entire workforce. And that right there is why unions are necessary, and why they are capable of achieving results.

Voltio

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