Monday, October 13, 2014

My unsolicited advice to the UICUF: shy away from electoral politics

The UIC United Faculty Union proposes to hold a meeting of members this week.  I won't be going, mostly because I think it would be wrong to go and be privy to a members-only conversation when it is not clear that I am a member.  But I have some thoughts about one of its proposed items of discussion:  "Should the UICUF engage in electoral politics."  (This item is listed on a public facebook feed.  One doesn't even need to "like" the union on facebook to read it.  Therefore, I do not feel as if I am disclosing anything confidential.)  By "engage in electoral politics," I assume the union means, "choose to endorse specific candidates or ballot measures."  I urge the union not to do so.

My argument is both practical and principled. 

Practical:  Union endorsements either don't work, or work very poorly and can have unexpected and bad (for the union) consequences.  While any glad-handing politician may be eager to rack up all the endorsements possible, I suspect very few minds are changed when a union, or other organization, endorses a candidate.  I won't deny the possibility altogether that minds are changed, but I doubt whether people are waiting for what the UICUF's position on, say, Rauner vs. Quinn before making a decision.  Also, and perhaps more important, a UICUF endorsement will probably alienate two groups of people in the union:  those who support the non-endorsed candidate and those of a contrarian nature who may support the endorsed candidate, but resent what they see as "the union telling me who to vote for."

Principled:  The members of the union's bargaining unit are required to give money to it.  If they do not wish to be a member of the union and thereby pay dues voluntarily, they are required to pay them anyway, with only minimal provisions for opting out.  The money is taken from their paycheck.  If the union "engages electoral politics," the members of its bargaining unit are being compelled to endorse speech they may not agree with.  I admit that my case is stronger if the union actually funds advertisements for or against a candidate, while what is at issue is probably something like a press release that costs almost no money and simply says, "the UICUF endorses x candidate for y office."  But the union does claim to speak for the interests of its members and the members of its bargaining unit, and political endorsements are usually at least one step removed from a determination of what those interests are and how best to pursue them.

Of course, the $100 billion elephant in the room is what to do about the state's outstanding pension obligations, and a smaller, but still sizeable, elephant is the prospect that the state might further cut funds to higher education.  And it seems (to me) very clear that if one candidate is elected governor, the hits against public employee pensions and funding to higher ed are likely to be less severe than if the other candidate wins.  What could be more relevant to the people the union claims to represent than the fate of their pensions and the funding for their jobs?  Why can't that fact justify at least endorsing a gubernatorial candidate?

My answer is twofold.  First, I cannot deny those are probably the most important and most discussed issues at play in this election.  But I ask people to keep in mind that there are many reasons to support or oppose either of the major candidates.  We don't vote for party platforms.  We vote for people.  And we vote given the likely outcome of who will control the statehouse.  And sometimes we weight our interests differently.  To one person, the possibility of a tax increase may be more ominous than the possibility of a cut in education funding. To yet another, a cut in education funding is regrettable, but to be preferred if the money saved goes, for example, to health care or to food stamps or to other ways to help people who are less well off.

Second, we can have good faith disagreement on the appropriate approach to addressing some of these problems.  Take pension reform.  One person might very well conclude that 90 percent of a loaf from any pension reform that is likely to be enacted is better than the half a loaf, or the quarter loaf, that a non-reformed system could bring about in 10 years, assuming the most dire predictions of pro-reformers are realized. 

Those types of issues are not easily addressed in a union meeting or in an up-down vote on any given candidate.  The union should keep that in mind and its leaders and voting members should exercise caution before entering those waters.

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