Disabled Workers Belong in Unions Too

This will have to do.

In 2015, 17.5 percent of persons with a disability were employed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.0 percent. The employment-population ratio for persons with a disability edged up in 2015, and the ratio for persons without a disability continued to increase. The unemployment rate for persons with a disability fell to 10.7 percent in 2015, and the rate for those without a disability declined to 5.1 percent. [US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary]

Those of us who have a passing familiarity with disability, disability politics, and disability policy have likely come across these statistics. They are shocking. They are sad. At the same time, they should be energizing. Assuredly, many disabled people cannot and/or do not want to work. And we should not push these people to work. But for those who are able (with the correct supports in place, and without buildings and social systems constructed in such a fashion as to block their full participation) and those with a true desire to work, these numbers are a tragedy.

Still, they are not the numbers I wanted to lead with. I wanted to tell you how many workers with disabilities were unionized. But despite a good bit of searching – and maybe I was just doing it wrong – I couldn’t find what I was looking for. (Even searching for “benefits of unions for disability” led mostly to how to retire or seek SSDI – which, while appropriate for many, is not the topic of this post.)

Why am I looking for this? Well, because I’ve been working for a good decade now, after having spent some years on disability benefits. And I’ve worked both with and without union protection. And while unions bear the imperfections associated with any true institution, I’ve come to believe that unionization is essential for the welfare of the disabled workforce.

I want to preface this by saying: Disabled workers are multitudinous. We are very young – filling out permits to be able to work – to quite old. We work anywhere from 5 hours a month to 80 hours a week. We work in every industry there is. We have every type of disability there is – ability to work is not based on your diagnosis; it’s based on your functional limitations, which are individual. Physical, mental, emotional, cognitive, behavioral – imagine it, we have it, and we can work. And we are working, alongside you, right now. Many of us visibly, and many of us not.

Why would a disabled worker want to be in a union? Well, in no particular order,

  • Union workers have a contract (collective bargaining agreement or CBA) to refer to. They have policy that their employer has committed to in black and white that they can refer back to. Something to keep in mind here is the value of this black-and-white policy is a three-way interaction between the employer, union and whomever enforces the contract when the first two cannot agree (whether an arbitration panel or the US court system). It depends wholly on how willing each and every party is to cooperate in what they have agreed upon. But generally – again, depending on employer/union involved – they aren’t going to sit down at a table and negotiate those words unless they’re willing to follow through with them in some fashion (which, thankfully, has been my experience).
  • Union workers have people who will fight with them. They have a union steward at the local level, right there in their office/shed/floor/factory/etc. that they can talk to if anything ever goes wonky, and they can request that the union steward be present with them anytime they have to speak with their supervisor or management if discipline could ever be involved in that particular discussion (Weingarten rights). More than that, the steward is a resource and a connection to the larger union network, including member representative/business agents, your Local elected officials (president, VP, secretary, treasurer, chief steward, etc.) your structural union contacts (directors), etc. depending on how much you want to get involved and how far up the chain you may need to go. If you are ever wronged in a serious way, you can talk to your union representative about filing a grievance if merited, or about other actions such as contacting your state’s EEOC, local resources, and so forth. They have the resources to connect you and when they don’t know, they are going to do their best to find out. These are generally people who give a damn and want to make sure you are “made whole” (union parlance). This is in contrast to your employer’s HR – some employers’ HR departments are terrific, but the risk with some is that they are sometimes actually built to protect the employer, not the employee.
  • Union workers make more money and generally receive a better benefits package than non-unionized workers. Again from BLS (pdf warning):
    • In March 2011, union workers’ wages were $23.02 vs. $19.51 for nonunion workers.
    • Benefits packages were $14.67 for union workers and $7.56 for nonunion workers.
    • 97% of union workers had access to any type of retirement benefits; 84% of nonunion workers had access to same.
    • 95% of union workers had access to medical benefits; 81% of nonunion workers had access to same.
    • 97% of union workers had access to paid sick leave; 83% of nonunion workers had access to same.
  • This is not trivial stuff. To bring this back to the personal: I would not be able to work full-time without my paid sick leave. I earn a pretty good amount, and I use almost all of it, due to my disabilities. If I were a healthy person, I would have well more than six weeks we are supposed to keep “in our back pockets, just in case” by now, eight years into my public service career. Also, obviously, without a good set of medical benefits (health, mental health, prescription, vision, dental, gynelogical care) I would not be able to maintain my employment. I also have access to exceedingly cheap short-term and long-term disability benefits, life insurance, and long-term care insurance, all of which I maintain most especially due to my conditions. I have seen situations in my own social circle in which people have been very fortunate to have maintained coverage with these benefits (as in, would have lost a home without them), so as long as they are cheap enough – thanks to the negotiating power of my union – I will keep them.
  • You earn seniority from Day 1. And depending on your specific industry/union/location, that seniority likely means something and translates to specific benefits. The more people who are hired after you, the less likely you are to be laid off, for instance. If you apply for a job elsewhere, you may have automatic rights to it, again depending on your bargaining unit, the specific job (your job classification and the classification you are applying for), etc. This can get complex, but the point is that once you step foot in your new workplace, you rack up points that mean something real to you and protect you in the future if things go south. (I know you may be thinking: but there are so many people ahead of me! Trust me, in most workplaces right now, the turnover rate is on par with that of everyone else in the world and you will get ahead at a fairly quick pace. It took me about 5 years to reach 2nd from top, and now I’m 1st.)
  • You get a voice in the direction of your workplace. For one thing, you get a voice in your contract when it comes time to negotiate the next one. Your union will ask for your input before the next contract comes due and take your opinions into account. But for another, the very fact of having a union means you also get a stake in how the employer itself operates. And it’s up to you to decide how involved you wish to be. Trust me, your union would absolutely love to have you at their Local meetings!
  • Unions will fight for benefits that you may never see without a union, such as: more consistent schedules along with more flexible work schedules, student loan repayment and/or job training programs, parental leave and family care programs. As far as schedules, again, I would not be able to work without a consistent schedule with weekends to rest. Other people need a more flexible schedule, especially those who are caring for family members or others. Many agencies where I work offer flexible schedules where you can, for example, work 4 out of 5 days, or 9 out of 10 days. Some places might require you to choose a partner to take this schedule with you (so they can cover your day off, and you cover theirs) and others do not. And there are many variations on these sorts of schedules, those are just two easy examples.
  • I have found the process of obtaining accommodation in the unionized workplace to be much simpler. To be fair, there is far more paperwork associated. But I am more likely to have my accommodation approved (and I have seen coworkers, whom I have advised to apply when they asked me about it, have their accommodations approved) and even expectations occasionally exceeded. I’ve had coworkers who have had sit/stand stations installed; specialized computer equipment; different lighting setups (something I myself have sought in the past); rolling carts for materials that have to be transported. I, otoh, right now have only asked that my employer be lenient in my sick time usage; understanding that I will take frequent, very short breaks; and that I be allowed to mostly arrange my own workday (prioritize what I do, when), due to the nature of my condition. And this has, so far, worked very well, and I’ve even earned a promotion (yes, with pay and title) under these conditions. So your accommodation request can be formal, with paperwork and specific, tangible items requested – or it may be an informal sit-down with your supervisor, informing them of your condition, your limitations, and your needs so that you can accomplish what you need and want to accomplish for them.

Again, disabled people are varied. My particular disabilities are invisible to sighted observers and are highly variable and unpredictable in nature. This means that, for instance, I need to be able to call in sick at any time. Maybe I’ll be able to come in that day, and maybe I won’t, and maybe I’ll know what time I can make it, and maybe I won’t. Usually I call and say I’ll be in before lunch, and that I’ll call back if that changes. And that’s totally fine with my employer. With a few exceptions throughout the year (where I have to be there on that particular day/time), my work is such that it can be performed when I get back. I might have a set and steady schedule, but it’s made essentially into flex-time by use of my accrued paid sick leave and my employer’s willingness to accommodate the terms of my medical condition.

Additionally, I have to take time off for medical appointments quite frequently. Some are local; some are an hour’s drive or more. I let me employer know about this and they make space for it. And my medical benefits are, fortunately, good enough to cover this, though of course the financial hit isn’t zero.

I have had instances in which I had to call in help to represent me in talks with my bosses. (I am the local steward for my office, so I needed my officers’ help for this one) They were more than happy to help out, and actually the meeting went very well and my supervisor was surprised that a meeting was needed at all, and I was basically worrying myself into a lather over something that wasn’t going to affect my employment at all. But the union rep was there, we discussed beforehand all the different ways the conversation could go and what to say in each event, etc. and would have been there after to help me figure out a plan had things not gone so well – if I hadn’t had a decent supervisor, it could have affected my employment greatly. And obviously, I have been there to help out my members when they have needed assistance talking to their supervisor about something contentious, and fortunately in my office it has gone well to date. (knock on wood.) We have also filed papers when need be about things that have gone wrong where we work, and we continue to meet and discuss with our employer on a continuing basis about things that go on there.

Unfortunately, not many folks today are unionized at all (back to the good old BLS):

The union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions–was 10.7 percent in 2016, down 0.4 percentage point from 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.6 million in 2016, declined by 240,000 from 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

And having a strong union base to the national workforce is important to having a strong economy, as is having strong involvement of the disabled populace in the workforce and in public society as a whole.

Employment is not the only important identity in life. I fought against this when I was on disability. But employment is still an important activity that many people can and want to participate in, and should be able to. And unions help protect employment for disabled workers. Those of us who care about disabled people, who care about promoting employment for those who want it, and who care about unions, should start to see the connections between these three items.

(And maybe the BLS should give me a line of stats for disabled workers in unions!)

See more from Blogging Against Disablism Day at http://tinyurl.com/BADD2017 or #badd2017

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