A few months ago, I engaged in a rather vigorous discussion in which a member of my family told me that, “Unions are the problem.” I am not sure which unions she was referring to, or what experience led her to believe it. I am inclined to believe that “problematic” views of unions come from problematic experiences — when consumers feel like they have no recourse for dishonest service providers or struggling workers can’t compete for contracts because of contractor or government policies.
Over and over again, though, I keep coming back to a different idea, the idea that a good union protects a community as much as they protect the employees they serve.
Case in point: the unparalleled heroism of Jim Cunningham, a San Francisco police officer who charged into the terrible scene of the downed Asiana Flight 214 to look for survivors and assist the rescue effort. He beat the firefighters onto the scene. He scrambled up the inflatable slides. He was not wearing fire gear or an oxygen mask.
Cunningham said he had stopped an ambulance after hearing of the plane crash, telling the driver to follow him. Outside the plane, he said, he and another officer threw knives to members of the flight crew who needed to cut people out of seats, as jet fuel gushed out near him.
As he looked up into the plane from the back, he said, “it didn’t look like they had enough people.” So he went in.
“I was just running back and forth trying to help people,” he said. “I didn’t think about it. I just knew people were trapped in there. I just thought, ‘I’m kind of a tough guy, I can hold my breath if there’s a lot of smoke.”
Add Officer Cunningham’s story to the courageous and tireless efforts of every police officer, every fire fighter, every member of the cabin crew, every ambulance driver, every paramedic, and you could be overwhelmed by the sheer power of their grit, determination, expertise, and kindness.
Officer Cunningham is a member of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. The firefighters are members of the San Francisco Fire Fighters Union. The brave flight crew who cut injured passengers out of their seat belts and helped get them off the plane are members of the Korean Federation of Public Services and Transportation Workers Union.
And someone, somewhere, sometime soon will make an argument that their pensions, pay, or health care benefits need to be cut for the public good.
And when they do, their union will be there. It will be their union that reminds the legislators of who ran into a burning airplane with no regard for their own personal safety. It will be their union that reminds the legislators that every single first responder on that tragic day was needed to save lives, just like they are needed every day, that cutting their ranks endangers our well-being. It will be their union that lobbies for better pay for this dangerous work so that these brave men and women can live in the communities they serve, provide for their families, and — if tragedy should cut their lives short — leave something behind for those who loved and cared for them so that they could care for us.
When that family member who snapped at me hears the word “union”, she thinks of something different than I do. Perhaps she thinks of problems in the system or experiences she has had, and that is understandable.
When I hear “union”, I think of police officers and firefighters. I think that when I scramble for my phone in an emergency, I am hoping for the most experienced and decorated veteran to show up at my door. When I hear “union”, I think of nurses. I think of the time I have spent in the hospital hoping that my nurse wasn’t on hour 15 of a 16-hour shift with too many patients to count. When I hear “union”, I think of carpenters and plumbers and electricians. I think of needing a vital service provided in my home, and I am grateful for unions that have lobbied for minimum standards of certification so that I am protected.
And because I am a teacher, when I hear “union”, I think of Newtown, Connecticut. I think of Columbine, Colorado. I think of Moore, Oklahoma. I think of the countless men and women who woke up, went to work, and never came home because they sacrificed themselves for their students without thinking twice about it. They stepped between their children and death.
The teachers we have lost and the ones who continue the fight for a quality public education with little regard for themselves are why I go to work every day. A teacher is not just a hero in a time of tragedy; we are heroes to countless children and their families every day. That is why I will fight every day, with every ounce of energy I can muster, to ensure us a decent wage, access to affordable health care, reasonable working conditions, and a real voice in our profession and in our society.
That’s what I think of when I think of a “union”, and no one will ever convince me differently. Like Officer Cunningham, I’m kind of tough, and I can hold my breath if there’s a lot of smoke.