Educator: Unions help hold management accountable

EVERETT — A union contract gives workers the power to hold their managers accountable when they’re treated unfairly, members of Machinists Union District Lodge 751 were told at a series of members’ rights workshops in November.

Class3“You guys have a much more-direct line for hand-slapping than someone who doesn’t have a union,” said Sarah Laslett, the director of the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center at South Seattle College. “Whatever’s happening in the shop, you have the voice and the power to respond to that.”

Laslett led the  classes, which took place this month at all four IAM 751 union halls in Puget Sound.

As a rule, Laslett said, union workers have more ability than non-union workers to address workplace issues they’re unhappy with.

Union contracts mean that managers have to treat workers with a basic level of respect – “not out of the goodness of their own heart” — but because union workers have more of a voice on the job and are less likely to be punished for speaking up for their  rights, she said.

The most-basic rights involve workplace discipline. Laslett said most workers who don’t have union contracts are “at-will” employees who can be fired on a whim.

“Your employer can hire or fire you for any reason at all,” she explained – unless it represents a clear case of racial, sexual or age discrimination.

On the other hand, union contracts mean that workers can only be fired or disciplined “for cause,” which means “they actually have to meet a pretty strict standard in order to discipline or fire you, or change your working conditions,” Laslett said

For example, a company has to inform union workers of its rules before it disciplines them for breaking them. Rules have to be reasonable and consistently enforced, and there has to be an investigation before any discipline can be handed out.

If there’s a dispute, union members have access to a network of stewards and business representatives to help them reach a fair solution, she said.

Non-union workers are on their own, Laslett said. Their only recourse is to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit, “and how often do working people have the money and time to do that?”

Class5The Machinists Union’s contract with the Boeing Co. gives workers many more basic benefits than those simply required by law, Laslett said.

Take overtime pay, for example. Washington state law says employers only have to pay time-and-a-half after 40 hours worked in a seven-day week, she explained.

But the union’s contract with Boeing says workers get time-and-a-half after eight hours worked in a day, and double-time after 10 hours. There also are premiums for work done on holidays.

“Your overtime benefit under your contract is amazing, compared to what workers in non-union companies have,” Laslett said.

The education benefits under the contract also are top-notch, she said.

Starbucks, for example, is “patting itself on the back” for offering its workers a chance to enroll in online college courses. in comparison, IAM 751 members at Boeing get benefits that allow them to study to further their career, or even train for a new one, in any field at any accredited college or university.

“These are some of the very basic things you have because you have a union,” Laslett said. “A lot of workers think they get them because the company is just a bunch of good guys.”

While a union contract can grant rights, those rights “don’t stand up for themselves,” Laslett said. It’s the role of everyone in the union – stewards, officers and members alike – to ensure that management at Boeing and other companies live up to their commitments.

Laslett discussed specific tools IAM 751 members have to push back when management oversteps its bounds.

Collective action is one way. She praised District 751’s “We Cower to No One” t-shirts.

“This is a way of speaking back to management and showing your power,” she said. “I just love this t-shirt. I bought one.”

The union also has ethics violations forms, which members and stewards can use to document instances of managers abusing members on the job floor, and SHEAR forms that can be used to force management at Boeing to address unsafe work conditions.

“As working people, we can work to make our workplaces more just,” Laslett said.

Unions give workers at Boeing and other companies the ability to make their workplaces better, Laselett said.

“You have a union. You have a powerful union. You have a great contract, even though I know it doesn’t feel that way right now,” she said. “It’s about voice. It’s about process and in the end, it’s about power.”

Originally formed in 1935 to represent hourly workers at Boeing, District Lodge 751 of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers now represents more than 33,000 working men and women at 51 employers across Washington and California.

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