Some articles posted from educational sources last week and a documentary I watched earlier all had a similar theme to them. They had somewhat disparaging comments of unions, workers and their abilities, and yet, were all weak in their arguments if you looked into them further.
One of the articles was about the Los Angeles public school system one year after teachers went on a six-day strike which occurred in January, 2019. As the article went on, it did provide a more positive view of the union’s accomplishments from the strike and the results of their negotiations but at the beginning it was a little critical. One teacher said he didn’t really see any benefits from their new contract especially with the teachers’ issue of large class sizes. The teacher said he had one less student in his class plus his own children were still in large class sizes. The article also reported other things that have lagged, too, such as more school nurses which again was part of the new contract. In addition, the article reported the strike had been a huge cost burden for a school district that has struggled financially, and as many suggested, hurt the students.
In another article, a local hotel chain owner filed a lawsuit against unions because he was facing financial hardship on his development projects that did not include the hiring of union workers. He accused the unions of running campaigns against him and using legal pressure on environmental issues that damaged him. In addition, he said, union members pressured politicians to vote on issues important to them. Despite the owner’s charges of racketeering and conspiracy in his lawsuit, the judge said unions were within their rights and dismissed the suit.
And the third item is not an article but a documentary that has received a lot of attention especially since President Obama has supported it. The Netflix documentary, American Factory, looks at a manufacturing plant here in Ohio. Several years ago, GM closed a plant outside of Dayton. It was a huge plant that had as many as 4,000 workers at one time. When the plant was closed, a Chinese company bought it to manufacture auto glass. In the video, management complained the workers were lazy, unproductive and self-confident. The American workers threaten to join a union and the owner threatens the workers by saying he’ll close the plant.
All of these may have some credibility in the claims but as we tell groups when solving problems it’s best to get all the information and facts instead of making assumptions or what you think you know. This next part of the blog provides that other piece of information on each of the articles and the video.
Starting with the first article on the Los Angeles school district strike, the first part of the article doesn’t say the strike actually helped the Los Angeles community. You have to continue reading more of the article to get to that part. One school board member, a former teacher and administrator, said nobody wins with a strike but, he said, but in this situation it helped because it made the community more aware of issues the school district was facing even though citizens voted against a tax levy that could have helped the school district financially.
The teacher who said he couldn’t see any difference also said something else that came later in the article. He, too, said the strike actually was good because issues were raised that needed to be addressed. Although he complained about having only one less student in his class, the contract agreement showed teachers agreed to stagger class size reductions starting with one student per grade level for the first year instead of pushing the school district to move faster on class room reduction. But it appears the school district listened and has already exceeded in class room reductions. Some classes have had greater reductions than the one student mandated under the contract.
There also was another important item that came out of the strike. The board member who was both the former teacher and administrator said the strike helped both sides realize it’s better to work together because more can be achieved.
The second article is about San Diego’s longtime hotel owner, Bill Evans, and it appears his issue with the unions is because he’s losing his voice in the business development of the community and as a community leader. What’s even more difficult for him is unions are the ones replacing his voice. The lawsuit he filed was a last attempt effort to get back at them and regain some of his power with the city’s political leaders. Like a lot of communities, San Diego is going through some changes. San Diego citizens are becoming more involved in community projects that affect them. The development projects that Evans and his partners were planning were not popular with many citizens. The projects impacted environmental issues, made San Diego a less attractive place to work and live and hampered growth potential because of infrastructure problems created through their projects. In addition, wages, as they are everywhere, became an important issue. Evans’ hotel workers were paid low wages and some of Evans’ partners in projects did not like project labor agreements that help to increase wages. All of these were concerns to the residents of San Diego.
Labor formed with other groups to address the issues so they could put more pressure on political leaders that made the decisions. It was the exact same strategy Bill Evans once used but it was being turned around to benefit what the citizens wanted and against Evans and other business owners and developers. It was natural for Labor to become involved in those issues because they were issues Labor had an interest in but they also know something about organizing people. The AFL-CIO website lists many causes unions have under the What We Care About menu. While workers’ rights are at the center, there are other ones, too, that help to make life better for everybody. And that leads to the third item, the documentary.
In the film, American Factory, management of Fuyao Glass Company had a lot of complaints about the workers but just as there were other sides to the story in the articles, there was another side to this story. Fuyao has been cited many times by OSHA for safety violations. One worker could only work for ten minutes every hour in a work space that was over 200 degrees. In another clip of the film, workers are encouraged to do more which meant compromising quality of product but it also caused unsafe working conditions. One worker was killed when he was pinned between equipment and a pallet containing 2,000 pounds of glass. In August of this last year, the safety violations continued. OSHA fined Fuyao for more than $700,000 . Safe work places is something unions fight for and that’s important to remember for both workers and managers alike. One worker summed it up best when he said a union may have helped him from becoming disabled because of Fuyao’s unsafe working conditions. In American Factory, one of the American managers who helped with the anti-union campaign, and was later fired, admitted workers do need a voice in the workplace.
Fuyao workers have tried to organize for union representation. Three workers were fired for their efforts during the union campaign which is displayed in the film and they recently received a settlement including back wages, taxes, and other expenses. Unfortunately, because of the pressure from the company, workers voted against the union.
Concerns or fears people have about unions may be legitimate but the articles and video also prove unions work hard to improve lives for everybody. They help not just workers and workplaces but they also help others who may not be associated with them or they help our communities thrive and be attractive such as in the second article. What is important is to make sure we have all the information first before making any type of assumption. What we think we know may not be what it is.