UMD faculty union shows worker empowerment

The idea behind unions is that, as individuals, we are relatively powerless to influence our own destiny in the workplace. But together, by organizing ourselves into unions, we have a voice in determining terms and conditions of our working lives and the quality of our society, as well.

This week, graduate assistants on the Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses of the University of Minnesota will vote on forming a union. While graduate students need to make their own decision independent of the opinions of faculty, I can testify that at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, our faculty union, the University Education Association, is a prime example of how unionization can empower groups of workers in ways not available to individuals.

First and foremost with UEA, we negotiate the terms and conditions of our employment as a collective, not as isolated individuals. By helping to birth a legally binding contract, UEA has resulted in any number of benefits for faculty and for the University of Minnesota-Duluth as a whole. Prior to UEA, promotion and tenure decisions were made on the Twin Cities campus, meaning our professional futures were decided in a manner that denied us a voice. With the contract, we have not only some local control but a set of rules and procedures that is legally binding.

Even more important perhaps, our dues give us access to the lawyers that make the contract and the grievance process effective in the face of our employer. Our contract, in other words, is more than just a piece of paper, as is the case with most “faculty handbooks” many nonunionized faculty are required to live under. Finally, unlike faculty at other institutions whose “voice” can be heard only through a nonbinding advisory “governance” process, UEA has provided us with a mechanism to meet our employers across the table as equals.

At a time when wealth has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, it is more important than ever for workers in all walks of life to organize themselves in our culture of unbridled greed. Without unions, regular people who work for a living cannot hope to have their voices represented in the workplace or in the larger social and political system. Unions, by empowering average people, make for a healthier and more democratic society.