Earlier this week, on Labor Day, we had one of our periodic Zoom family gatherings. My sister asked me a question that was hard to answer on spur of the moment. I took a stab at it with the below letter, which I sent the next day and in which you might have an interest or an opinion.
“Mary, your question about the guy who said he was a member of eight unions (or some such) caught me flat-footed. I thought a lot about it this [Tuesday] morning on my walk.
Perhaps the confusion begins because the comment came on Labor Day, which celebrates Labor, and thus often incorporates unions of workers, like the AFL-CIO. Of course, there are many other “Unions” which don’t have particular affection for organized labor. Like, perhaps, the US Chamber of Commerce, or the National Association of Manufacturers and on and on and on.
I just looked up “Union” in my old unabridged dictionary – the paper version of 2129 pages. The first definition (of 13) under “Union” is “1. A uniting or being united; combination; junction; fusion.” (emphasis added)
The very first sentence of the United States Constitution talks about forming “…a more perfect union….” The Charter of the United Nations doesn’t get as specific, but the intent is exactly the same. You can read it online here.
Of course, “united” is a difficult concept to practice, as is “union”, but the purpose for each union is exactly the same – a group of disparate people/philosophies attempting to cobble together a somewhat workable coalition. As you know, I lived within the labor part of Union for many years.
I got to thinking of my own personal experience which I will try to define briefly.
At this moment in history I am affiliated with the following “unions”:
- On the Board of French-American Heritage Foundation (active member/leader)
- On the Board of Citizens for Global Solutions MN (active member/leader)
- Life Member of National Education Association (since late 1960s), Education Minnesota (since 2000). As part of Education Minnesota, I think I am also a retired member of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. I pay no dues to any of these, and other than perusing newsletters and absentee voting for officers, I’m not active.
- There are other affiliations as well: Homeowners Association since 2000 (which is a union as well); American Legion (since 1994); etc.
I could get creative and easily come up with at least eight unions I am currently a participating part of.
As you know, I’ve been more than a passive part of many assorted groups over the years, often as President (or like position); for 27 years Executive Director [we were called “field representatives”] representing usually 1000 or more teachers in locals of sizes varying from a dozen to over 1500 members. Every one of them were very similar and very different, dependent on the personalities that made them up. (There is no ‘cookie cutter’ union, trust me.)
Probably my most unique experience was as President of the teachers union staff union, the Professional Staff Association. which went on strike against the employer Minnesota Education Association in 1979 or so. In that time period I represented my state in a new group called National Staff Organization which was comprised of probably more than 1,000 union staff around the U.S. We were truly unique. There was no central office, just an informal organization that had one conference a year, and had no particular dues that I can remember. We were a head-scratching operation, to say the least, an organization of organizers which wasn’t sufficiently organized to attract any attention. A mutual support group, shall I say.
My most recent experience, not always pleasant, was Trustee for [our uncle] before and after his death. Before he died I represented what I believed were his interests. The minute he died, all of his 32 or so designated heirs in a legal sense became my boss, which was not always a comfortable position to be in – not all heirs think alike – just like in a union local.
I could go on at great length about this point of commonality within the family we share, but will pass on the opportunity. Try not to pretend that you’ll live forever. That’s my temporal advice as we participate in the last season of each of our lives.
Anyway, let’s start with that.
Our national and international “unions” of which we are all members – the U.S. and the World itself – are deeply stressed at this moment. We’re all in different places and circumstances. Be engaged.
POSTNOTE: After the George Floyd killing on May 25, I reflected on police unions, and there were several comments. You can read that here.
I shared the above letter with a retired colleague union rep in Wisconsin, and he commented: Your definition of “union” is right on. I have often used the same description, but you have taken it somewhat deeper. The key is “Be engaged”. Each of us has an opportunity to be engaged in one way or another. Like you, I’ve been engaged in many different ways in many different organizations.