Home » Hot Topic » The Value of Being a Union Member

The Value of Being a Union Member

Wisconsin worker cites changes without union representation

PEF leaders are sounding the alarm to all members about the need to protect public labor unions. Newspaper stories across America have pointed out the growing power of corporate employers who are fiercely determined to weaken unions, and to prevent their emergence.

Stories have appeared about the army of labor consultants, also known as union busters, and how they have succeeded in the private sector to squash any budding organizing campaigns. Firing workers for union organizing is illegal under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, and is five times as common today as it was in the 1950s.

Systematic anti-union attacks were concentrated in the private sector. But then the Koch brothers and other conservatives backed the American Legislative Exchange Council and put the public sector at center stage in the war on unionism.

The iconic case occurred in Wisconsin. It was the first state in the nation to pass legislation authorizing public-sector collective bargaining in 1959. Then in 2011, that law was dismantled by Gov. Scott Walker. Wisconsin’s governor went on to lead a successful effort to pass a right-to-work law in 2015, and eliminated the union shop in the private sector.

“This situation affects workers who are still union members, and also the future of the nation,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “If the Koch philosophy spreads and unionism declines, it means fewer and fewer workers will have the right to voice their concerns on the job without fear of employer retaliation. This weakening of the labor movement affects the overall character of American democracy.”

Cynthia Schmitt, an occupational therapist at the Winnebago Mental Health Institute near Oshkosh, WI, is feeling the effects of working without union representation from the Wisconsin Association of Nurses and Professional Health Associates.

Schmitt began her career as an occupational therapist in 1990, and after three years, she moved into a management position as a therapeutic services supervisor. She enjoyed her job supervising recreational, occupational and music therapists, always ensuring quality care for people suffering from acute psychiatric disorders.

“Things were going fine, but then there were changes in the state government and three levels of layoffs occurred. At the time, we had two therapeutic supervisors and I was let go,” Schmitt said.

Her last day was December 31, 2010. She was fortunate to find another position, but wanted to get back into the state system. Schmitt kept track of openings, and was re-hired at Winnebago, not as a supervisor, but as an occupational therapist.

“Winnebago honored the fact I worked there previously, so I did not have to go through probation and my vacation time, retirement benefits, and end-salary were reinstated.

“I was grateful to get back into the state system, but the union dissolved and now there are problems. Legislation is pending about firing people on the spot. Probation periods have been extended from six months to two years. And the issue of supervision is a very gray area.

“There are no guidelines without the union. Everything is very different with scheduling. The staff has been watered down and there is no safety net. If you need to take a day off, you have to give seven days notice, but you have to wait until the day to find out if you can take it off. It depends if there is enough available staff,” Schmitt said.

Working without union representation and the ability to refer to the union contract when questions arise is taking its toll on the Winnebago staff, and throughout Wisconsin.

“We don’t want to see this happening in New York or anyplace else,” Spence said. “We have to build alliances with other labor unions and progressive forces. We also need to let all our members know what they may lose if we don’t unite and fight.”

Story By Deborah A. Miles

See more Communicator stories for this month