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What Would a Better Union Look Like?

The following is an excerpt from our Saturday email, which includes our musings on the latest developments impacting public employees, links to that week’s labor news, and a collection of whimsical reads for your weekend. If you’d like to receive our weekly email, you can use the sign-up form at the bottom of this page. We promise to respect your inbox, and we will never share your email address.

If you could put your finger on what’s wrong with public sector unions, what would it be? And what would a better union look like?   

The largest state employee union in California just elected a new president, and he has promised to shake things up. After his third run for office, Richard Louis Brown defeated the long-time president of SEIU 1000, and he now represents 96,000 employees. In his run for president, Brown made some startling promises to union voters: 

  • To cut dues in half.
  • To end political donations.
  • Not to accept a salary as union president.
  • To leave SEIU.

Brown’s win made national news, partially because of his unusual platform, but also because it was so unexpected for a union outsider to win an election against a powerful incumbent.

Just because Brown won his election doesn’t mean he’ll be able to make all of the changes he promised – he’ll have to deal with the union’s board, among other potential roadblocks.

But what makes Brown so interesting is that he seems to have put his finger on what many of us think is the problem with unions – they’re supposed to help their members, but instead they’re political organizations, with leaders who have cultivated deep relationships with lawmakers on the political left. Even more troubling is that union leaders have become political power brokers because of the gobs of money they have to spend on politics – money they’ve collected from union members.

What if that stopped? What if unions no longer spent money on politics, but instead focused on the needs of their members?

Let’s take it a step further – what if public sector unions were organized around the idea of creating happier, better functioning workplaces? As they exist now, unions are adversarial – they sew division and prop up ineffectual employees. It is normal for there to be some tension between employees and employers, but we’ve gotten used to unions that are angry and mean. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way?

– Suzanne Bates

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Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.