Published in Journal of Hispanic Philology, 11 (1987), 97-101.
The Editor's Column:
United Faculty of Florida
by Daniel Eisenberg
These are reflections on involvement in and disillusionment with a union. Although some years have gone by it is an experience not yet put behind me, and it is a story I feel the need to tell. As there is no other obvious vehicle for it, and faculty in states without unions have expressed interest in the topic, it is related here.
Florida is the only state in the American South whose public employees, among them the state university system faculty and staff, bargain collectively through a labor union. Our bargaining agent is United Faculty of Florida, originally Local 1440 of the American Federation of Teachers, now affiliated with the National Education Association. On my arrival in Florida in 1974 the union was just defining itself after a statutory change that made collective bargaining by state employees possible. Fresh from a successful reverse discrimination grievance at the City University of New York, and impressed by the contrast between the good the union had done for me and others in New York and the impotence of the faculty at the unionless University of North Carolina, I felt indebted to the union movement and that it was worth an investment of my time.
During some crucial formative years I was heavily involved in union activities in Florida, indeed spoken of as a potential state leader. I was newsletter editor on the campus, assistant editor of the state-wide paper United Action, member of the bargaining team, the union Senate, the budget committee, and finally president of the Florida State chapter, a position resigned in mid-term. A few years later I resigned from union membership altogether, as it was by then an organization with a leader I didn't trust, publications I didn't believe, and policies I didn't agree with.
When the union worked well it was inspiring. There were many idealistic and bright people volunteering time and energy to make the union a success, and there was a lot of experience from other unions to draw on. Things were to be done right: the union was to be run by its members, not by a hired staff; delegates were to be chosen by proportional representation.* There were tenuous but real links to the great social movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was also a quasi-religious faith in the nobility, destiny, and brother- and sisterhood of the working class, and it was explained to us that as exploited employees, we were part of that class. When a meeting at a state park ended sitting around the campfire singing "Solidarity Forever," one felt, or had the illusion, that something was essentially right about it. Hard work for a cause, especially if one makes progress toward goals, can be a lot of fun.
The work with the union was also very educational. I visited more different buildings on the campus, more campuses in the system, and met more people than ever before or since. It was also instructive about politics, which in large measure consists of sitting through boring meetings, to which one must sometimes spend weekends traveling to, in order to vote on confusing questions ("Should there be a salary schedule?"; "Are we for or against single-member legislative districts?"). Being a politician means giving up one's privacy, and above the local level politics involves deception. The legislature, seen from inside, is chaotic and brutal. Lobbyists function by supplying reliable information and thus helping the legislator to do his or her job. I also learned most of what I know about how a university operates: not just how to read and analyze a budget, which is a valuable skill, but such strategic gems as "People think the Board of Regents runs the university system; that is an error; no one runs the university system"; "That is the policy, what is the practice?"; "Our credibility is our most valuable asset"; and the classic "No one will ever give you power; you have to take it."
We did achieve some of our goals, yet this progress took place early on. The union was soon faced with a series of failures, and internally it began to deteriorate. A big problem was the rigidity, and to some extent inapplicability, of the theoretical structure. The structure we adoptedin part because that was what the American Federation of Teachers would fund with organizing grants and advisorscould not be adapted to our situation in Florida. The union bargained; its power was the threat of a strike; it assured that everyone was happy through a grievance mechanism.
This model was in trouble from the beginning. Strikes by public employees are illegal in Florida, and our constituents felt, for whatever reason, that this law should be obeyed. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the legislature was within its rights not to fully fund the raises we bargained. We failed completely in bargaining for better fringe benefits. The grievance procedure didn't work quite as well as everyone had expected. Most potential members didn't join, and some of those who did join resigned.
It became clear, also, that the union modeland there was indeed a definite model, examination of which was taboodid not completely apply to our situation. The goals of the chancellor were not identical with ours, but they were not opposed. We had much more control over our jobs than did factory workers. Our employers and exploiters were not the capitalists of leftist theory, but the voters of the state of Florida. Lobbying was much more effective than bargaining.
The union's only response to these problems was more of the same: bargaining, handling grievances, and especially seeking more members. If the university faculty weren't joining, organize the community and private colleges in the state, a disastrous campaign. The grievance head explained that to persevere "you have to be a good hater." The explanation for the union's failures was Florida's so-called "right-to-work" law, prohibiting the union from charging for the services the faculty had asked it to provide. All income was from voluntary memberships.
The "right-to-work" law, without which the union might not have been voted in in the first place, had a much more insidious effect than merely depriving the union of money. Policies were made by those committed, exploited, or angry enough to become paying members. As these were scarcely a representative cross-section, union policy, within the limits of what could be changed, became more radical, thus further alienating those who were not members. The membership at the newer campuses was higher than at the older ones, and the membership of junior ranks was higher than that of senior ones. True as it was that the older campuses and the senior faculty could dominate the union if they joined in the same proportion, it became clear that they never would. The whole orientation of the union movement was to take from the "haves" and give to the "have nots." It was very sobering to realize that, having become a tenured professor at one of the senior institutions, I was among the former.
As soon as the union achieved any power at all it stopped being an open and truthful organization. Perhaps this was inevitable: candor and political effectiveness seem to be incompatible. Opposition to secrecy was expensive. If our representatives could bargain in secret the deals that could be cut were better; grievances were more easily and favorably settled if the terms were confidential. Yet the problem was not just a benevolent reticence. Faced with a group of faculty working vigorously against it, and a growing discrepancy between goals and results, the union began to tell only its successes. While lies were never told, misleading half-truths often were. Publications never admitted problems or setbacks, merely listing accomplishments, sometimes out of context. One could not find out what was in the collective bargaining contract by reading the union's summary of it. Information, within the union leadership, was power; it was thus hoarded.
Two other problems also contributed to my decisions to withdraw from leadership and then from membership. Working for the union was an education in what, in this instance at least, was the collaboration of the oppressed in their own oppression. Faculty were often just as irrational as the public at large. Decisions were made on prejudice and bias, to which facts were irrelevant. There was also a gulf between what people said they wanted and how they acted. While most (not all) said they wanted a higher salary, for example, what would satisfy some of them was not more money but a bigger raise than the person in the next office. Progress was to be made from someone else's efforts, not their own.
Finally, there were our affiliations. Affiliations, within the union movement, are very important. In brief, one was a member of a national organization, through which one was a member of a national labor federation; the same took place on the state and local levels. A union joined and had a voice within these umbrella organizations by paying per capita dues based on membership. All then coordinated effortsin lobbying and votingto achieve common goals.
In this case, also, theory and practice diverged. Coordinated efforts were sporadic, and unions did not always have the same goals. We had to affiliate and pay dues because otherwise the would-be allies would lobby against us. There were also repeated allegations of corruption in one of our affiliates at the state level. The last straw, for me, was a poorly-explained change in affiliation from the American Federation of Teachers and its state organization to their rivals and our former competitors, the National Education Association and its state organization. At this point the discrepancy between the rhetoric and the deals being made became unacceptable.
There is no doubt in my mind that our salaries are higher than they would be without the union. There has never again been, as there was just before the union, a year with no raises. As a result of the union we have sabbaticals. Many policies have been clarified and put in writing. The university budget, including everyone's salaries and raises, is available in the library. The administration treats the faculty with more respect, and there seems to be a new sense of common interests and common frustration shared by administration and faculty: the real problem is the electorate. The catastrophes predicted by the anti-union activists have not materialized: standards have not declined; the sacred cow, tenure, is intact. Yet the discrepancy between what was planned and what happened is large, and the prospects for further union accomplishments seem modest.
* Proportional representation, which in politics only survives in the U.S. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a progressive "good government" measure intended to assure that minorities had a political voice. It has been abandoned in large part because it worked as intended; see the discussion in the New York Times, November 4, 1987, p. 6.