First in a series of articles that address the importance of unions and what, in particular, your union, the Part-Time Faculty Association, has accomplished for part-timers at Allan Hancock College.

Union bashing has been a staple of right-wing talk radio and the Fox News crowd for a whole generation now, and is at least partially responsible for the steady decline of organized labor since the 1970s. This has coincided with the decline of the middle class and the unconscionable concentration of wealth at the very top of the income pyramid. A revitalized union movement is our best hope to rebuild the middle class and bring those who have been pushed down into poverty up to a living wage. We who believe in the union movement must find a way to counteract all the mountains of anti-union propaganda that is circulating out there. To someone who doesn’t know any different, the claims that unions hold down wages, destroy jobs, and are a general drag on the economy might seem plausible.

It is an undeniable fact that unionized workers in the United States earn more than non-unionized ones. It is an undeniable fact that unionized workers receive more benefits, have better working conditions, and have more rights than non-unionized employees. But in order to revitalize the labor movement, those of us who know the truth have got to reach out to those who may have a negative impression of what unions are all about, and inform them of all the good unions do.

In order to do this, we are starting a new feature in our website called “Union Yes!” Unions are about basic human rights and human dignity. Unions are about justice. Unions are about the right of every woman and man to earn a living wage, to have health care, and to have a measure of security in their working life.

This includes the right to be paid for the work you’ve done, and be paid on time, not when the employer finds it convenient. This is what our first “Union Yes!” story is about.

Back in 2005, (if memory serves) payday at Allan Hancock College for part-time faculty was on the 10th of each month. Checks were mailed to the people in our bargaining unit (direct deposit did not exist for us yet). So assuming nothing went wrong, like the mail person putting your check in someone else’s mailbox, or the mail not going out until late in the day, or someone forgetting to put the checks in the mailbag, most of us received our checks on the 11th of each month.

One month the 10th fell on a holiday. The campus took a holiday of its own the next day, and after that came Saturday and Sunday. Checks were not mailed out until late Monday afternoon. Result: Many of our unit members did not receive their pay until the 15th or 16th of the month.

Because so many of our people live paycheck to paycheck, this was more than an inconvenience. This was a near-disaster. They had budgeted their money thinking they would be paid on the 11th. Our office began receiving reports that people could not pay their bills on time. Their rent was late. They were being assessed late charges on their credit cards, compounding their difficulties.

We at PFA took our concerns to the administration; we did not want this to happen again. The response: We were told that the college had always done it this way (and was not about to change). If part-timers’ payday fell on a holiday or a day the campus was closed, the checks did not get mailed until the next working day. (There was no way they would even consider paying us early.) We were just out of luck.

We contacted our CFT representative, who promptly consulted one of our attorneys. Soon we learned that according to the California Education Code, what the district had done was illegal. California Education Code Section 12472 is very specific: We had to be paid by the 10th of each month. Any community college district that failed to do so had to pay interest to each affected employee for each day their pay was late!

We brought this to the administration’s attention, and threatened to go to the Public Employee Relations Board with our complaint if this was not rectified immediately. It was amazing how quickly the district changed its tune and paid interest to each person impacted. The money paid out was not as great as the embarrassment factor. It should be no surprise to learn that since then the District has always paid on time, and if payday falls on a holiday, the people in our unit are paid the day before.

But the importance of this small tale goes far beyond a modest amount of interest. It points yet again to the importance of unions. For without a union the part-time academic employees at Hancock would still be paid late if a holiday intervened on pay day. Without a union to stand up and say this is wrong, nothing would have changed. For years, too many years, the district had paid part-timers when it was convenient to the district, not when it was required to by law.

The union-bashers would say, “The law already protected you in this situation. You did not need a union to resolve it.” My response to this: Having a law is one thing; having someone to stand up for it is another. How many people would know, off the top of their heads, that paying employees late like this was against the law? How many would have known where to look and find out if the law was being followed? How many would have known which law was being violated? Most people would not. But the union did.

Even more important, how many people would be willing to speak up in a situation like this and risk retaliation? In my fourteen years being active with our union I have heard—more times than I can count—someone say they fear rocking the boat. They fear speaking up. They fear “getting a bad name” because it may damage their chances of being rehired or getting another class. Having a union to stand up for them makes all the difference.

But the law protects you from retaliation, the union-haters will say. Talk to any lawyer who works in labor law and you will get the same answer: Proving retaliation is extremely difficult. Few managers or supervisors are so foolish as to openly threaten retaliation against someone who has displeased them.

Unions are important because they protect people from abuse. Without a union to speak up on their behalf, working people have no voice and little protection. Without our union, part-time instructors at Hancock would still be paid when it was convenient for the district, not when the law required, and they would still be facing the difficulties that come along with being paid late. If you like being paid on time, thank your union!

Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA