I arrived at the University of North Florida (UNF) in the fall of 1979 as an untenured faculty member with two contractual guarantees. The first was the bargaining agreement between the faculty union and the state Board of Regents, in effect a due process document that offered collective protection and a route for protest that could end in the final court of appeal for labor agreements — binding arbitration. The second was a four-year “letter of appointment,” in effect a separate employment contract. It was issued to protect me against the uncertainties of the special pot of money dedicated to supporting my new faculty line.
When this special funding dried up halfway through my first year the university administration showed its true colors. In total defiance of its own special guarantee, to say nothing of law and human decency, it started issuing termination letters — in fact, three in a row over the next three years. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the union I survived, ultimately retiring in mid-2008. In theory private legal action might have achieved the same result, but I could not afford that alternative — in dollars or in time.
By the fall of 2007 the personnel situation in my unit had become unbearable. I faced the prospect of at least one year, probably two or three, of grievance proceedings — quite possibly ending in arbitration. I went to the union and said, “Buy me out.” My strengths were the presence of the union, a bargaining agreement with binding arbitration, and — a strong case. By this time I had the experience of serving in almost every post within my union local, including president and grievance representative; I knew that the odds in arbitration would greatly favor me. Apparently the administration agreed — I received a substantial special settlement for retiring.
In between: After five years in the defined-benefit Florida Retirement System program the union negotiated into existence the defined-contribution Optional Retirement Program — the first-ever exception to the FRS. I went ORP and never regretted it, though I realized later (after I decided to stay at UNF) that I was paying a price. Then, in 2007, the union negotiated the opportunity for ORP members to buy back into the defined-benefit FRS! I did so, and my retirement income is substantially higher as a result. The presence of a union lobbying politically on behalf of its members made the difference.
There is a reason that labor unions speak of “brothers” and “sisters.” It really helps to have a family backing you up and working on your behalf. The union helped me more than once, and I gladly repaid the favor. Was it worth it? When your local president sends out a retirement announcement that says: “Stan has been no sunshine unionist. He has been there for UFF through thick and thin — in good years and in lean years” – I guess so! Perhaps the best one-line summary of my view on the value of unions is from a labor song made famous by the late Joe Glazer:
“On a union job you can have some dignity.”
— “Brother Stan the Union Man” (Stanley L. Swart), Jacksonville, Fla.