If You’re That Worried About the P.C. Police Coming For Your Job, Then Join a Union
The media loves to hate political correctness, especially political correctness in academia. Political correctness, they tell us, is aiding terrorism and threatening our freedoms. Never mind that a white nationalist is the Republican nominee for President of the United States: to these pundits, it’s those damn kids in college with their safe spaces and trigger warnings who are bringing us down. The media seems particularly fired up when “the P.C. police” cause someone to lose their job. The media pounced on the story of Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, who was forced to resign an honorary professorship after tone-deaf comments about women in labs. Earlier this year, the media covered the story of Dale Brigham, a University Missouri professor who resigned after causing outrage by refusing to cancel class in the wake of racist terrorist threats at the same university. (His resignation was not accepted). The right-wing Washington Times tried to make a scandal of the fact that a Georgian student named Emily Faz got fired from her job at a Wild Wings Cafe after she criticized, and arguably threatened, Black Lives Matter activists on Facebook. Probably the most famous story of this nature is that of Justine Sacco, who infamously tweeted a tasteless joke about AIDS at an airport. She too lost her job.
These are all stories of people who have been insensitive, illiberal, or outright sexist and racist, and I do not mean to condone them or to say that their employers were necessarily wrong to can them (or to pressure them to resign). And the hysteria over political correctness is way, way overblown, if not misplaced altogether. But I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that finds these stories about job losses concerning. Maybe it’s my own white privilege talking, but it’s scary to think that we are all one boneheaded (or even misinterpreted) tweet away from career ruin — and I am hardly alone in this fear. The new-normal of precarious employment makes many people unusually anxious about keeping their job, if they are lucky enough to have one. Happily, there are ways to acquire more job security. One of those is unionization.
Unions are groups of workers who come together to bargain with their employers for better wages and benefits. Some of those benefits are purely financial, including cheaper health insurance, but others can be more intangible, such as improved job security. Employers almost always retain the right to hire and fire employees, but persistent unions are often able to get their bosses to agree to increased transparency and procedure when it comes to disciplinary measures. Conservatives themselves admit this when they blame unions for causing “inflexibility” in the labor market or complain about teacher tenure. Still, there are usually some limits to what unions can do to prevent their members from getting fired: if an employee commits a crime, or deliberately sabotages the operations of their employer, then no arbitrator in the land will back them up. But if a union has negotiated a collective agreement with their boss, and that agreement spells out what does and does not constitute a terminable offense and the procedure to terminate an employee, and if the union can prove that the employer departed from the agreement in firing someone, then the union may be able to save the employee’s job.
Employers may argue that making racist social media posts constitutes sabotage of their company, or otherwise be an unforgivable offense. And really, who can blame them? But with a good collective agreement in place, employees can take comfort that there is a process by which they will be judged for their actions. Of course, a simpler, more direct way to guarantee free speech at work is to negotiate for that right during bargaining: it is the position of the Canadian Association of University Teachers that academic freedom is best protected in bargaining, for example.
You may think that unions cannot or will not protect people who say or do truly awful things, but they do. Last year, Shawn Simoes, an employee at Ontario’s Hydro One who also happens to be an asshole, got fired from his job after defending his buddy’s “FHRITP” remark to a female reporter. Well, guess what? He got his job back. He grieved with his union, the Society of Energy Professionals, and an arbitrator ordered him reinstated. Apparently, he showed signs of genuine remorse. Whether or not the reinstatement is justified is a valid question, but not the one that I’m interested in now. My point is that unions can, and often will, save the jobs of people who say unpopular things and even hateful things.
Of course, for unionization efforts to succeed, we have to ensure that workers are allowed to talk about organizing at work. By law, they have this right, but in practice, they can find it under threat. In March 2015, for example, an Arkansas Days Inn employee was fired for talking to a reporter about her low wage (and not even for endorsing union organizing). If the folks in the anti-P.C. crowd are so concerned with saving peoples’ jobs, maybe they should fight on behalf of those workers whose right to organize and protest has been compromised.
This is not to say that people who say bigoted things should have their jobs saved. If we are to wipe out racism and sexism from our society, then racists and sexists need to face accountability. Unions and collective agreements are about fairness, not special advantages, and their priority should be about giving people a fair process, not about defending reprehensible things for the sake of it. And, of course, they should fight against racism, sexism, and all other forms of oppression, wherever they find it. But unions are the missing part of the conversation when it comes to the free speech and “political correctness” debate, both in and out of academia.