The Myth of the Blue Collar Union

Consistent with the role of unions theme, I thought it would be an appropriate follow-up to Christian’s post to discuss the role of unions in my own life. Much of my upbringing has depended on a union. My father has worked a union job for the last 30 years in New York City. Aside from the unwavering protection of which I only recently became aware, the union provided a number of medical options, educational enrichment courses, and education scholarships to children of the union members (a benefit that my siblings and myself benefited from). Contrary to popular belief, unions do much more than take your money.

Unfortunately, another popular belief that unions only serve blue-collar workers seems to persist. Unions of any kind often tackle the same issues that arise in disparate contexts. To better illustrate my point, allow me to reference to a not so brief anecdote that I’ve observed in the past year.

This March, my father will be 61 years old, just four years away from retirement. While the next four years would be an exciting time for most, for my father, the past year has been a pressure test. In April of last year his company began assigning new employee hours at random. Prior to this change my father worked from 7AM to 5PM every day. With this new change, he began working from 12PM to 9PM. Being the Boy Scout my dad is he dutifully obliged and went to work without complaint. However, because the union makes it a priority to have eyes and ears across the workplace, the union was not pleased with this request, and began to further investigate something a little more unsettling: each of the company’s employees ages 60 year old and over, employees who continue earn double what new hires do, were assigned these late work hours.

What reason could the company have to change all of the older employees’ hours and create mandatory over time? I’ll give you all the credit you deserve and let you figure that one out on your own.

How does this story end? Perhaps the company became too cocky when they not only enforced later work schedules but later mandatory overtime. The union guidelines strongly advise against precarious schedule or job assignments. Several meetings with union representatives over the course of three weeks resulted in the company “offering” employees the option to work earlier hours versus later hours, or a mixture of both. A win for my dad and a win for the union.

My father’s experience is nothing new. This is only one example of how companies employ strategies to make working conditions difficult in order to retire older employees. This same tactic is used in other workplaces, even in academia. Professors well into their 70s that enjoy teaching and doing research are sometimes given heavier teaching loads, often teaching three or more different classes a semester. As a graduate student I’m sure you are aware of similar situations that have made your experience as a student employee more difficult.

Still think unions are a blue-collar “thing”?

While universities with graduate student employees may or may not overtly overload students with excessive teaching and research assignments, at the end of the day universities, like any employer, seek to extract as much labor from its employee with as little cost to them as they can get away with. Despite being students we are still employees. In order to prevent our employers from taking advantage of our labor we need unions for all workers, regardless of the type of work we do.

TUGSA’s primary goal as your union is to protect you against being taken advantage of. TUGSA provides that protection by putting limits on the number of courses you can teach and the number of hours you are expected to work in a given week while working toward ensuring you receive a livable wage. These are all examples of rights your union has fought for and ensured that all graduate student employees across the university have. These protections are not arbitrary; these are all practices the university employed before TUGSA was formed. However, because there were graduate employees that spoke up and out against these injustices, you are lucky enough to benefit from their efforts.

Perhaps you’re someone that has reached out to the e-board alerting us of situations in your department that alarmed you. Or maybe you’re more like my dad and many other employees, keeping to yourself and enduring any changes brought on by your department, not realizing that these changes are insidious and exploitative. Let this be a reminder that TUGSA exists so that you do not have to bare that burden alone. Shoot us an e-mail. Write us a letter. Stop by our office. Let your voice be heard so we can have your back.

Dana Miller-Cotto
TUGSA Co-President
College of Education

Translate »