Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

I am a fat-cat union employee

I’m a couple of weeks behind with this post, but work–and yes, I did a lot of work over Spring Break–has gotten in the way of blogging a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of years, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately with the attacks on unions in the midwest. It’s a local issue too, in a sense, because Rick Scott and the Republican-led legislature would like to get completely rid of our largely neutered unions in Florida.

So I’m going to take a few minutes here and describe my own situation. I don’t honestly know if I’m typical of a union employee–I’m sure that I’m not on the upper end of the pay scale, but I don’t think I’m scraping the bottom either–but my example can serve as a data point for anyone who wants to collect them.

I’m an Instructor at Florida Atlantic University, which means I teach four classes per term. I don’t get course releases for anything, nor do I get credit for publications in my field beyond the congratulations I receive from my peers. I work on a ten-month, year-to-year contract, renewable at the university’s option. I don’t get travel money to go to conferences, and I don’t have a budget for things like books. This year I got my own office for the very first time, but if the department hires more tenure-line faculty, I might have to double-up again. Some instructors still share offices.

I want to stress that I have a good relationship with my department and they treat me well, given the bounds of my job. I get to teach upper division courses, including poetry workshops, on a regular basis. At some universities, people in my job teach four sections of composition every semester.

I’ve also been a union member for nearly a year. (I tried joining the previous year, but there was a paperwork mixup and it didn’t go through.) I’m not required to be a member, and in fact, fewer than 50% of the faculty on my campus are members, even though they’re all covered by the collective bargaining agreement. More on that in a bit.

Here’s what being a member gets me: the union will represent me if the university administration violates the CBA. This is of limited value to me personally because I don’t have tenure protection. All the university has to do to get rid of me is not renew my contract, and I won’t even be able to collect unemployment. Being a union member also means that I help keep the union as the bargaining unit for the faculty. There’s a move afoot by Rick Scott and the legislature to require at least 50% membership (while simultaneously making it more difficult to recruit and collect dues) in order for the union to act as the bargaining agent for the faculty at a university.

But I get raises based on the contract the union negotiates even if I’m not a member. Before you get too excited, that means I’ve gotten 3 raises in the last six years which totaled just over $2000, less than 10% of my yearly salary, and I got half of that after the first year, which was before the housing crash. This is an indication of just how little power our union actually has. During the last bargaining session, the union and the university went through non-binding arbitration, and the union won its case. However, because the arbitration was non-binding (a condition imposed by the state legislature), we received exactly what the university had offered from the start.

It sounds like the union is pretty ineffective, so why am I a member? The biggest reason is that the situation would be a lot worse without one. Without the union representing us, even tenured faculty members would lose much of their employment security. The state has already tried to summarily dismiss tenured faculty at this university in the recent past, and were only stopped because it was a violation of the CBA. Without it, the university would have a much freer hand to dismiss faculty with or without cause. That alone makes its presence important.

The union is also important because people at my position are covered by the CBA, which means that on those rare occasions that faculty get raises, we get them too, and the policies covering health benefits, retirement, summer pay and the like cover us as well. If the state could get away with denying us retirement benefits or significantly changing them, for example, they would, because it’s an expense to them.

And if the state can get the UFF decertified, I have no doubt that’s what they’ll do. I already earn less than the national median for my job–about $7500 a year less, as a matter of fact–and that divide would almost certainly widen. Pay for teaching summer classes would drop from being a percentage of our annual contract to being what they pay adjuncts, which means fewer teachers would teach those classes and educational quality would suffer. It’s even possible that my teaching load would go up to five classes a term with no resultant increase in pay. These are all things that have been openly discussed as possibilities because of budget cuts, and they have been tossed aside because of the CBA and the union.

This isn’t what I originally planned on writing about when I started this post, but I wanted to explain what my union does for me and those in my field. If I’m an underworked, overpaid union member sucking off the taxpayer’s teat (which involves auto-suckling, I might add), then the definition of those words has become incredibly skewed. I work a minimum of 50 hours a week, even during my “holidays,” and I make right around $32K a year. I have health insurance which I contribute toward and a retirement plan, which I also contribute the max toward, all while living in one of the more expensive parts of the country. My partner and I rent a house because we can’t afford to buy one here, and while we have two cars, they were both made in 1995. I’ve been out of college since 2005 and I have yet to make a payment on my student loans (they’re been in economic hardship deferral/forbearance the whole time) because I can’t afford the payments.

I’m your fat-cat union member. Tremble before my economic might.

March 20, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. What’s missing from this is some sense of the value to society — to all people whether they go to college or not — of what you do, what the university does.

    University education is about more than just money, but it is about money too:

    Florida’s students can go to college for significantly less than the $30k/year it would cost them if taxpayers weren’t helping with the cost of salaries and facilities.

    That means some people graduating with no or less debt. That means others going to college at all when they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

    Those college grads have skills — including the reading/writing/communication skills you teach them, but also the general maturity and wisdom that comes from their experiences and studies — that add value to our lives in innumerable ways. They make it more possible to live in a civil democratic society, and they make the economy stronger too: mo’ money.

    The whole state of Florida, from the doctors to the paver-layers to the dishwashers, benefits from what you do, to the tune of far more than you earn.

    We need to stop seeing expenses associated with education as “costs.” They are real investments, ones with a pretty quick turnaround too. This goes for higher education and grade school education too.

    Comment by amy | March 20, 2011 | Reply

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