Yesterday I attended a delegate meeting for my union. It was a striking illustration of what can go so wrong with democracy. Democracy is a government of the people and by the people. In this country many seem to think that government is an ethereal entity that we have little to no control over. I understand if all you do is vote the political process is completely disconnected from you. Policy choices are given to you on a take it or leave it basis, usually with little and in many cases poor information on the substance of the choices. With your work, your home, and your outside responsibilities it is very hard to keep up with what is going on you’re far too busy trying to make sure you accomplish everything on your todo list. As with saving money however, it is becoming clear to me that neglecting this aspect of life because you are too busy has the net effect of making it harder to accomplish your goals.
No place is this disconnect more prevalent than within unions. Almost every person I have spoken to who is in a union complains about how they don’t do anything for them, or how useless they are. Not a single one of these people have ever genuinely tried to find out why. Almost every one of my co-workers looks at the union as a sham yet none of them realize why. A union is a governmental body. To best represent its members it structures itself in a democratic model, with people elected to different functions. Yet most people at my job barely acknowledge the union other than to disparage it. However the union can only be as good as the people who participate in it. This is important Government can only work if it has talented people involved in not just the decision making process but also in the decision initiating process. Complaining about it unfortunately is not enough!
At the meeting I attended the discussion was on contract negotiations. It was an emotionally charged debate, and frankly I used the term debate loosely. The matter at hand was whether we should stick with the larger union at the negotiation table, or should we separate and attempt to negotiate on our own to better represent our interest. I will talk in depth about this in another post.
As this was my first meeting and this was a very complex issue, I listened carefully to both sides speak. What I hoped to be a discussion on the merits of each strategy devolved into a bickering on semantics and procedure. At least 15 minutes of the hour long discussion was bogged down in an argument over whether or not to impose a 3 minute time limit to each speaker. It was ironic that a union would be so divisive.
One thing became crystal clear to me; these people were not political mavens. Over the past 7 ½ years I went from caring very little about politics to someone who can’t wait to talk about it. And while I disagree with the state of national politics I have learned volumes about how to address people in a political discussion. What I witnessed at this meeting was embarrassing, a break down of basic civility. I knew I was in trouble when the president felt it necessary to vote on treating everyone with respect. Yet how does this happen? These are caring, intelligent people, all with degrees, many with doctorates. How can the social contract be in such disrepair? I don’t know, but it needs to be restored if any progress is going to be made. While these people may be good in their fields they fail at the basic fundamentals of good politics, maintaining the high ground in civility is the most effective way to have your voice heard.
What saddened me the most was beneath all of the turmoil, buried within the in fighting was very intelligent logical arguments for both sides of the discussion. What was most remarkable, was though they were at each others throats in words, more often than not in content they were united. As trite as it sounds there are a lot more things that united us that evening than divided us-in content. Yet this division weakens the union not only to people outside but to its members. If the leadership can’t get along, there is nothing that will encourage people to participate because to the outside observer what I saw last night was utter chaos, and that is enough to disenfranchise if the most ardent union supporter.
It leaves us in a downward spiral; the people most helpful to the union are discouraged by the lack of cohesion, which leads to further disarray which alienates more members. To move forward there first must be an acknowledgement of the problems of the present. Re-discovering what binds it together and rallying behind one another will give the union strength and with strength will come numbers; with numbers will come talented people to lead.