In a recent conversation, Rachael described the sequence in the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale where Moira, after escaping from Gilead, finds herself struggling to cope with her newfound identity as a refugee in Canada. The social workers who help Moira settle in give her new clothes, some money for groceries, an apartment to stay in, and leads on finding work; they ask her for a list of friends and family that they can be on the lookout for and notify her about if any of them also cross the border. Moira’s entire identity shifts from being a brave, ruggedly self sufficient survivor under an oppressive regime to someone who has just escaped a long horror and is in serious need of assistance. Moira has transitioned from a “save yourself” society to a “let’s help each other” one.
In describing this sequence, Rachael was trying to illustrate the way she was feeling about our move from the South to the Pacific Northwest. We had a lot of reasons for making this move, but it’s undeniable that one of the big ones was our wish to live in a society where community cooperation is more highly valued and human rights are protected. We get to experience that on the West Coast in ways that it never seemed possible in Georgia. The most obvious way that Rachael picked up on before me (because she started training for work about a week earlier than me) is in our work as educators. We had realized things were going to be better in terms of our quality of life (we’re going to be earning significantly more as a family than we have for most of the last decade while we’ve been going through graduate school), but we didn’t quite grasp how much better our quality of work could be.
Our health benefits are superior; we get better pay; we are treated as educational professionals in a way that you never see in the South. The reason for this is pretty straightforward: Oregon is not a “right to work” state.
Some clarification of terms. The phrase “right to work” is code for legislative policy that is designed to be unfriendly to workers’ unions. The way it’s typically used rhetorically is statements like, “You have the right to work without interference from those overbearing, inflexible unions.” It’s a stance that grew out of the fact that unions, because they are about pooling resources in order to accomplish collectively what individual workers lack the power to do, can sometimes overlook the specialized needs of individuals (this is a reality that occurs in any organization of sufficiently large size; it just gets turned specifically against unions because they work to take power away from the power centers that are favored under a capitalist system). In places where unions are strong, there’s a lot of social pressure for workers participating in a given industry to throw their weight behind the union. This reality has historically been used as a wedge to discourage unionization with an appeal to individuality. The logic goes that the government should protect you from that oppressive union so that you have a right to work under whatever conditions you find acceptable.
This rhetoric is extremely popular in the South. I was raised to have a pretty significant distrust in unions as wastes of time and money. In college, when I spent a summer working as a clerk at Kroger, I was required to pay dues to the workers’ union there; I remember complaining to my parents that that money was coming out of my paycheck for benefits that I wasn’t really receiving. When I started working in education, I accepted that I would be joining a teachers’ union. In Georgia your union is the way that you get access to affordable tort insurance and legal aid in the event that there’s a conflict between a student’s family and the school where you could be personally found to be at fault. These are important benefits to have, but they’re about all teachers’ unions in Georgia provide (everything else beyond that is pretty much just discounts on financial services and other things, which are great, but they assume you have enough money to need help managing it; I’m still waiting for that stage of life). With this sort of model, I never had much of an opinion of the unions that I joined at the two schools where I worked in Georgia.
The reason for that unions work like this in Georgia is, again, the “right to work” legislation. This sort of legislation is designed to prevent collective bargaining, which is the big benefit that strong unions provide to their members. In Georgia, when you get hired as a teacher you are given a standard contract that the district has written, and you have no power to negotiate the terms of that contract; you either accept it or you decline the job because the district can always just look for another person to fill the vacancy. This preliminary assumption that prospective workers have no ability to dispute the terms of their employment falls under the umbrella of a “right to work.”
Flash forward to Oregon, and Rachael and I are in the process of learning just how much negotiating power our respective unions have in acquiring benefits for its members (we work in different districts and so belong to different local associations within the larger state- and nationwide organizations). The contract under which educators work is still standardized, but it’s a document that the district and the union work together to come up with on whatever terms they can mutually agree to. In my district, as I’ve recently learned, we don’t have a current contract yet; the previous one expired in June, but its terms continue to be in effect until the union and the district come to a new agreement. I’m writing this post up on the first full work day for all employees that the district has had, and part of our kickoff agenda was a meeting among the union members where the committee in charge of negotiations gave us all an update on what is being asked for in the new contract and how close the district and the union are to coming to an agreement.
This collective cooperation, both in terms of the good-faith negotiations and the way that everyone is on board with supporting the union’s efforts because they benefit everyone in the district, is something that’s really new to me. It takes a little getting used to the union culture, but the effects are really positive so far. This is one of the ways that we’re gradually coming to realize just how much better life is going to be for us out here.