UTLA dues debate a step forward

July 10, 2008

TRISTAN TAYLOR raises a good question in posing that perhaps the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) vote against the dues increase was a good thing ("UTLA dues vote a good thing").

As an activist in my own educators' union, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), I can certainly relate to the frustration of unions that all to often want to use the resources they have to put them in the coffers of useless Democratic politicians (or even Republicans).

Still, the critical thing that Randy Childs points out ("Why did the UTLA dues increase fail?") is that this vote for a dues increase was a public campaign in the union that involved a democratic vote of all the membership. This is key, because that type of campaign raises the union consciousness of the membership and, if won, a "yes" vote holds the leadership much more accountable to the membership.

So, if UTLA refuses to go on strike, organize rallies or take up any other grassroots organizing on the basis of a lack of resources (a common refrain from union leaders) then the entire membership is in a much better position to consider the claim, because a public campaign was waged to win it.

In our union, over the last two years, several dues increases have been pushed through (and some I agree with) but none of them has required a full membership vote and have based on votes that have involved a handful of active union members rather than the full participation of our 6,000 or so members. This has weakened our union in two ways (even though our union coffers are more full). First, there is much less membership oversight of how the money is spent (a point Taylor is rightly concerned about). But an even bigger loss is the de-politicization of our union by not having an open and public debate about what our union dues should be going to.

This discussion is critical for turning our unions into the vehicles of class struggle we have read about in the past, but seem a distant memory today. It is a key way to get more rank-and-file members involved in their own union. I would contend that rank-and-file inactivity is even a bigger issue for unions than empty bank accounts.

I agree with Randy Childs. It was unfortunate that the UTLA members voted "no." Our unions are cash-strapped.

Still, I think the fact that UTLA had a public debate (even if UTLA botched it a bit) is a real model of how a union should conduct these affairs.
Andy Libson, San Francisco

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