Mike Hendricks

Mike at Night

Mike Hendricks recently retires as social science, criminal justice instructor at McCook Community College.

The legacy of unions

Friday, August 12, 2016

The emerging power and influence of unions during the mid-twentieth century was a boon for workers and allowed them to finally work their way up to the middle class. Unions had the power to negotiate contracts with management and, because of the strength of numbers in unions, many obviously spoke much louder than one. Before unions, individuals had to negotiate themselves with management and management usually held most of the cards.

Union membership turned that scenario on its head and, for the first time, gave individuals power over management. So new clothes, new cars and new houses were bought and an entire class of people, many under-educated, were ushered into the middle class. It was a time of upward mobility and prosperity for many in this country.

When others saw the power of uniting together in numbers, unions became more attractive to most workers and we saw unions spread to educated workers as well as the undereducated or uneducated. But something else happened during this time that many didn't notice and, if they did, they alibied their way around it. Unions were creating mediocrity by negotiating the same raise for everyone. In other words, superior workers were no longer being rewarded for outstanding work and substandard workers were no longer being sanctioned because they were all getting the same percentage increase.

For most of the 22 years I taught at McCook Community College, I was a member of one of the most powerful unions in the country, the National Education Association, and was president of our association, both at McCook and also the entire area for several years during that period. On individual dealings between management and instructors, I fought hard for our members and we had good outcomes on several different fronts. I was also a negotiator for several years and the chief negotiator occasionally when it came time to work out contracts. Of course, the most important contract consideration was always salary. The union would present a number we thought was reasonable, the board would always counter our number with a much lower offer, and then we would usually spend the next several weeks trying to decide on a compromise. We always settled, but some of those compromises were agreed upon begrudgingly.

But here is the important thing about contract negotiations. The number we submitted to the board was our percentage increase for all faculty. Our usual rate of increase was around 3 percent, although it's much lower than that this year. So, the most outstanding faculty member would get a 3 percent increase in salary and benefits, but so would the least productive an ineffective faculty member. In other words, the best faculty member wasn't rewarded for their skill and contributions and the worst faculty member wasn't sanctioned for their lack of skills.

I taught at Northwestern State University in Alva, Okla., before I took the job in McCook and we were not represented by a teachers' union. Management took a look at our teacher evaluations, our class sizes, our educational level and our commitment to the field and then made salary recommendations to the president of the university. The last year I taught thee, I received the highest raise of any faculty member. Others received smaller raises. Some didn't receive any raises and a few actually had their salaries reduced and were put on probation for academic inefficiency.

My bias might have something to do with me getting the biggest raise that year, but it seems like Northwestern had it right. You're rewarded for excellence in the job you do and punished for a lack of it. But that's not the way it is in most public schools and public colleges and universities across the country. Everyone gets the same percentage raise because that's perceived as the only fair way to do ti. If the bargaining is done at the individual level rather than the union level, personalities might come into play and people end up being rewarded because somebody important likes them instead of them displaying excellence in their job. That could happen, I suppose, but it seems to me if we really want to get the most out of our employees that we can, motivation has to be provided for that employee to continue to produce in order to justify their wages.

Obviously there are problems with any plan one comes up with. The most logical way to solve those problems is by involving as many people from as many different perspectives as possible in the process, and that's something that's rarely done. For example, the Mid-Plains college cabinet makes decisions every time it meets that affects everyone on campus, especially faculty members, but no faculty members are on the cabinet.

So an important perspective from the faculty, one perhaps administration has never thought of, is never heard and, consequently, never considered.

There are always solutions, but they're often hard to find, and it typically takes a concerted effort by many to find them. If we're not willing to involve many and to turn over every stone looking for a solution, the solution is likely to stay hidden.

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