Getting a union job

January 3, 2019

Here are some of the factors that socialists should consider in looking for a union job, put together by Amy Muldoon, a longtime socialist and a Communications Workers of America member at Verizon in New York City.

This article is part of the International Socialist Organization’s (ISO) Socialist at Work Toolkit assembled by the ISO’s Labor Working Group. We hope this collection of articles — as well as the experiences of socialists that went into it and will come out of it — contributes toward reconnecting today’s revived socialist movement with the rich history of labor struggle in the U.S. Only in the U.S. is socialism seen as foreign to unions and shop-floor struggles. It’s high time that changed.

At SW, we’re publishing articles from the Toolkit along with contributions from our readers about their own experiences, collected in a series called Socialists at Work. Please consider contributing your own stories and the lessons you’ve drawn from them in an e-mail submission to SW — or just tell us what liked, or didn’t, about this series.

THE POWER of the working class for Marxists is based on our productive role on the job. We fight in the streets, the neighborhoods and the Capitols. But to transform society we have to lead the coming struggles that will break the chains of capitalism where they are forged — at work.

Not all of those struggles will be in unionized workplaces, but unions provide a basic defense against capitalism and a platform for organizing our co-workers.

Why a Union Job?

We encourage all members who are not in union jobs to consider the possibility of finding union work.

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Union jobs usually offer basic protections and benefits that most workers lack: job security, guaranteed wages, time off, sick time, retirement benefits. Some are substantially better paid than comparable nonunion jobs. Other unionized jobs offer average wages, but benefits necessary for security and raising a family. So for comrades, it can mean a much higher standard of living, which in and of itself is worthwhile.

But being in a union culture offers socialists a number of advantages. Despite the decline in unionization, a collective culture of some kind exists in union workplaces, even if it just the expectation of services from the institution of the union around grievances, fair pay treatment or other daily issues.

It can be quite challenging to figure out how to be part of that culture, while attempting to introduce ideas about rank-and-file activism and independence. But engaging co-workers in the question of “What kind of union?” assumes that having the union is a good thing, which is not always the case among unorganized coworkers.

Public Sector

The majority of ISO members in unions work in public-sector jobs and are concentrated in teaching, nursing, libraries and social services, which mirrors the much greater concentration of union workers in this sector.

Socialists at work

An SW series dedicated to discussing how to organize in your workplace. The ISO’s Labor Working Group has contributed how-to guides, and readers are adding their own experiences.

These jobs attract people who have an impulse toward social justice and who usually support the idea of government programs playing a positive societal role. The composition of these workforces is heavily female and disproportionally nonwhite (especially in large cities), and they generally trend liberal.

Because of the ongoing attacks on social services and slashing of budgets, these workers have been facing incredible pressures to serve more students/patients/clients with less resources. Data-driven rationalization, restriction of hours and shrinking of workforces had intensified work dramatically.

Many of these jobs have very specific vocational training or require educational backgrounds and certifications. Committing to a field like nursing is a multiyear, if not lifelong, project. And a requirement for being a good workplace leader is being good, if not great, at your job.

Making that commitment usually has an affect on comrades’ immediate ability to play a large role in existing branch work. If a particular job is a comrade’s life passion, that is not something to be argued against. But taking up a skilled white-collar profession as a political project should be weighed with an eye to the overall impact on your own development and participation in political life.

Social service jobs have peculiar pulls that retail or blue-collar jobs don’t, because of the incredible emotional and mental demands and also the liberal framework of “saving” vulnerable communities.

With all those caveats, we should expect continued eruptions in these fields as capital demands more retrenchment, and the example of the “red state” teachers’ rebellion shows how to wage effective resistance. Given the density of women workers in these professions, the ongoing #MeToo and anti-sexist radicalization will continue to make itself felt in these areas.

Teaching has always been a bastion of socialists and radicals, and for many comrades, this will be an appealing career track.

Higher Education

Colleges and universities have been remodeled over the past 30 years. Public universities have cut out the lowest rungs for the neediest students, raising or imposing tuition and fees, and cutting remedial education. Private universities have built up billion-dollar endowments as tuitions are skyrocketing.

The university as a bastion of left-wing ideas is under fierce attack. The result is a volatile setting, where we are seeing lots of labor battles unfold.

More ISO members have been moving toward academic work as grad students, adjuncts and professors in the past few years. As grad students, comrades have been involved in organizing drives, strikes and struggles like the Wisconsin Capitol occupation.

However, a career in academia can present a number of challenges to being an active socialist. With universities replacing full-time, tenured positions with adjuncts, the pay is often poor, the hours are grueling, and there is often a need to move away from hotbeds of socialist activity to find full-time employment.

In addition, the pulls and pressures of academia — the material pressures achieving tenure and of publishing once you are there, plus the ideological pressures of the milieu itself — can be quite intense for comrades committed to an active, revolutionary path.

Universities and college are also employers of massive numbers of administrative workers, technical workers, plant engineers, landscapers, food service and janitorial staff. Many of these jobs have lower thresholds for entry-level positions and promote from within; Many are seasonal as well, affording comrades access to campus life, flexibility and benefits.

Private Sector

Many of the jobs described above are also in the private sector, as privatization encroaches on all social services. The proportion of private-sector work that is unionized hovers around 7 percent, and labor’s record over the past 40 years has largely been characterized by retreat and concessionary bargaining.

Our comrades in the private sector span electricians, telecom, retail, factory, logistics and other industries. Most are isolated in their workplaces and industries. It’s exceptional to have more than two or three members with the same workplace in the private sector.

While unionized private-sector jobs are rare, many have very low requirements for hiring. UPS and Verizon, for example, do not require special training or education, and they have excellent benefits and better than average pay. These jobs have complicated unions for very different reasons, but strong union cultures.

These jobs can be physically punishing, sometimes requiring long hours, and they lack the progressive veneer of social-service jobs. However, these can be places where comrades can be part of a union movement, if and when they are hiring. If comrades are interested, both have jobs pages that are easily found online.

Final Thoughts

If materially possible, choose work you like that will be, if not enjoyable, then at least tolerable for a several-year commitment.

Consider jobs where we already have comrades with experience and connections.

Talk to comrades who do labor work already to get a picture of what their industry or field is like. Speak to your branch organizer if you are interested in taking this on.

And remember: every unionized workplace was at one time unorganized. Being in a union is an advantage in many ways, but the future success of our movement will require new organizing. You don’t have to be in a union to be an effective socialist at work!

Further Reading

From the archives