The union world has been on the move since my election to MCCC President a little over a year ago. Despite the Janus v. AFSCME Decision, support for unions has been steadily climbing. Far from the short-sighted anti-union perspective of Janus and his ilk prevailing, people are re-discovering that it is not good enough to just have a job. After all, what good is the creation of 1,000,000 more jobs, if those jobs demean employees and pay wages they can’t live on. Working conditions matter. Livable wages matter. Respect from one’s employer matters.
History has shown us that expecting employer altruism to improve salaries, working conditions and job security is a fool’s game. Collective bargaining is what gives us leverage to demand higher wages and improved working conditions. However, we cannot take for granted the existence of such leverage just because we are in a union. Unions are only as strong or weak as the people who belong to it. The strength of the MCCC lies in what I have come to think of as “the Donnie McGee factor.”
When I first started working in the Massachusetts Community College System almost two decades ago, I was lied to. I was advised by my Human Resources Representative not to join the State Employees Retirement System (SERS) because, he said, it was bankrupt, and I would never see my money again. So I got into the Optional Retirement Plan (ORP) with no inkling of how big a mistake that choice was. But Donnie McGee did know. She was hearing from people who told her how they were lied to; how they would never have enough in their ORP to retire. Something needed to be done. So Donnie went to work to get something done.
She was relentless at the statehouse. At MCCC events over the years, lawmakers presented with awards for their support of the MCCC, relayed stories of the countless ways in which she lobbied on behalf of others. When Section 60 passed to allow people in the ORP to buy into SERS, I watched Donnie step back again and again to allow others to take credit for the outcomes she single-handedly achieved because she didn’t care about credit. She cared about results and progress. She patiently and compassionately took on complaints and criticism from those who were displeased with the implementation of Section 60. She just kept working on their behalf no matter how they criticized her.
The question I have heard asked again and again is the following: “what can/will/has the union do/done for me such that I should pay dues?” Donnie asked, “what can I do to improve the lot of my union brothers and sisters.” Donnie’s is the right question. Therein lies the strength of unions. The MCCC would have no leverage at all if everyone sat back, expecting altruistic actions from others. The strength of the union does not lie in the exchange of dues for services. It lies in the Donnie McGee factor. We strengthen our union, when we improve the lives of those in the union. And that strength in turns gives us added leverage to further improve our working conditions.
So here is what I firmly understand now after almost one year of being the MCCC’s president: the question, “what union services do I get for the dues I pay?” is inherently anti-union. If the relationships between union members were merely transactional, a union does not really exist, and collective bargaining strength is undermined. The Donnie McGee factor has taught me the right question to ask, the question we should all be asking if we want to build greater union strength, is “what can I do to improve the lot of my union brothers and sisters?”