This I Believe

Robert - Sacramento, CA, California
Entered on May 21, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65

I believe in

The dignity of the individual;

The value of work and;

The benefit of collective action to achieve the common good;

I believe in unions.

When I was a teenager I picked strawberries, trimmed produce and bagged groceries. When I was eighteen and could apply for a union job I did. I pulled lumber on the green chain in the sawmill and tailed the corrugator and gluer in the paper mill of my hometown.

My Grandmother told me when I got my first mill job that unions were the only hope for the workingpeople. My grandfather was a plywood mill worker with little formal education (my grandmother taught him to read and write). He had decent wages and working conditions because of the unionization of the lumber industry in the Northwest in the last century. He worked hard; I wanted to work hard.

After college, I left my hometown and state and went to work for Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers’ Union. I have been doing union work ever since. What follows are the three fundamental principles, I have found to be at the core of the work that I have done for the last 30 years.

First, the dignity of the individual, the same fundamental principle that gives rise and substance to a democratic society, is also the core element in the right to organize, the right to have a voice at work. Workers are not drones or spare parts or expendable resources just because we are not entrepreneurs, the managers of commercial enterprises, or political bosses. We give our labor, our service, our mental capacities and our creative talents in exchange for compensation that advances the job and nurtures our hopes and plans. We deserve the right both legally and morally that our dignity as individuals be respected.

There is an individual identity or a divine spark that we protect and treasure in our religious, cultural and political institutions that requires workers be free to protect ourselves against conditions of employment that negate our humanity, potential or purpose. Individual dignity is the basis in the workplace as well as the society-at-large to exercise the right to assembly, speech and redress of grievances.

I have seen it time and time again in organizing situations when special leaders emerge. They claim their dignity as individuals when they realize internally that they should be treated with respect. All of a sudden the light goes on in spite of threats from the employer or confusion among co-workers. Workers who were reluctant because of the real threat of retaliation, deportation, termination or family resistance become fearless. Whether the campaign is successful or not, they have been changed forever.

Second, we value work. It is part of the identity of most workers to take pride in what they do whether it is creation, production, construction, distribution, maintenance, communication or service.

We identify with the enterprise of the employer, and expect our working conditions to reflect that commitment to the end product whether it is writing creatively, building a bridge, packing apples or processing applications at the Department of Motor Vehicles. We value work because it is our work, our contribution to the needs of others and our stamp on the present. Work is each person’s opportunity to say with pride I built that; I taught those kids; I fixed that; I made those; I sent that; I moved that; I helped make that happen.

Most organized work places recognize the fact that the worker wants the business or public body to be successful both in its sustainability and its mission. The best work places also recognize that the workers are a natural resource to address ways to improve the process or the outcome. I have seen it in contract negotiations – the discussion is frequently not just about money or benefits but about addressing underlying concerns – accomplishing the jobs workers are asked to do. Nurses care passionately about patient safety; teachers about quality education and class size; construction laborers about getting the job done right and on time.

Third, we believe in collective action to achieve the common good. While the fundamental tenet of democratic activity is the integrity of the individual, its impact is felt in the work community by both workers and bosses. We come together in the workplace to make conditions better to benefit the whole group. Unions are the collective voice of the group to express that interest. The Union gives the employer a powerful sounding board against which to articulate it’s interests.

The group acts in concert to determine its interests and exercises individual restraint to insure its communal needs are met. Individual potential expands when the communal needs including those of the employer and the enterprise are addressed. There is no better way to do this than the collective bargaining process and the work place agreement.

The common good is the balance between the needs and requirements of the individuals acting collectively and the mission and goals of the employer including the right to successful return on investments and expectations.

I believe that the implementation of these principles is the exercise of our highest values, using our most fundamental resources, to achieve the goals of our collective imagination.

As a Union person, I believe that the dignity of the individual, the value of work and the benefit collective action for the common good are profound and enduring principles incorporated in the collective bargaining agreement. These are the Union legacy and the cornerstones of the free work place in a civilized society.