© Paul K. Davis 2007. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 2, 2007

To observe Labor Day, we will illustrate the relevance of all seven Unitarian Universalist principles to accomplishing democracy in small groups, using labor union locals as examples.

Tomorrow is the holiday we call "Labor Day", set aside to celebrate and honor our contributions to our economy and society as workers, and to respect and thank those institutions which protect our rights in the work place, including especially labor unions.

A year ago, on the Sunday before Labor Day, I also addressed you, and you may consider this the second of a two-part series. Last year I discussed the "why" of labor unions, and this year I will concentrate on the "how" of labor unions.

Labor unions and labor activists are not the only institutions and people who maintain the rights of workers. We should also thank and encourage the vast majority of quality managers, human resources officers, labor lawyers, political leaders and others. In many nations of the world we now have beneficial bills-of-rights and laws to protect us, including in our working life. We must always be vigilant to protect the guarantees of our rights against those who strive for arbitrary authority, whether in the name of evil causes, such as racial, national or religious dominance, or of good causes, such as security or efficiency.

Not only are there institutions and people other than labor unions and labor activists who protect our rights as workers, it is also true that not every organization which calls itself a "labor union" and not every person who participates in labor action is accomplishing, or necessarily even intending to accomplish, protection of worker rights. Various authoritarian nations have established institutions with the name "labor union" which are in fact instruments of the ruling political party, and many employers have promoted so-called unions on their own terms, to avoid true labor unions.

What then, can we look to, to distinguish a true labor union from a fake. There are several aspects of this, but I believe the most essential is internal democracy. What I would like to do in this talk is illustrate democracy in action, taking examples from my own union local, and as well as other sources.

About a decade ago professionals where I work, NASA's Ames Research Center, voted to unionize and to join the same union already there for the Center's wage employees. A few years later I became active in the local; I was elected a Trustee, and then Secretary, followed by Second Vice President and then President. I was elected President about the same time I joined this Congregation, and I have found the seven values of Unitarian Universalism very helpful in navigating various circumstances in my Union since then.

Most of us, before we get involved in the leadership of an organization, tend to think of democracy as fairly simple. You discuss things, then you vote, and then you do what you voted to do. We heard a Sunday morning Story for All Ages about a month ago which I found very illuminating because it shows a problem of democracy in its simplest setting. Three children wish to play together, but like different games. Each evening they vote, and the vote always goes the same way. Eventually they realize this isn't fair, and decide to rotate among the games instead.

This is the first step. True democracy is not simply majority rule, but also respect for minority rights. I associate this qualification of majority rule with the first two principles of Unitarian Universalism. "The inherent worth and dignity of every person" is the basis for listening to each point of view, and "justice, equity and compassion in human relations" is the basis for adopting a solution which seeks to accomodate everyone's needs.

In my Union local we have some things that can rotate. An example is that, as President of the Union, I can make an appointment to the Center's honor awards committee. I have appointed a different member each year - a scientist three years ago, a software engineer two years ago, a secretary last year, and I offered the position this year to an engineer.

This feeling of fairness regardless of occupation is not just my personal belief, but also the predominant sentiment in my Local. As an example, when we were negotiating the formula for financial rewards for outstanding annual performance appraisals, we asked for the same dollar amount for each deserving individual, without anyone disagreeing. We obtained this in negotiations, and it has been applied for two years now. Unfortunately, NASA headquarters has now imposed a new rule, clearly sought by our current Presidential administration, that these awards be based on a percentage of salary. We've been set back, but I believe only temporarily.

These, however, are only the first steps in realizing how complex true democracy must be. The rotation solution cannot be applied to all questions. For example, suppose we are the committee on traffic laws for a new small nation. We need to decide whether people will drive on the right side of the road like in the America, or on the left side of the road like in England. It would be a disaster if the decision were to alternate sides of the road from day to day. People would be perpetually confused and there would be very large numbers of accidents.

Besides voting, and rotating a choice, another possible democratic procedure is using chance. For example, my Local's election rules specify using a chance method to settle an election when two candidates are tied. This would certainly be better for deciding which side of the road to drive on than rotation. Chance actually has a long history in democracy. Some choices in ancient Greek city politics were made by chance, and Jesus disciples, when they felt the need to replace Judas in their number, first narrowed the choice down to two, possibly by voting, and then used chance to choose between them.

Much thought has actually gone into developing rules for implementing democracy in small and large groups. Here's my copy of Robert's Rules of Order. It can be very valuable, but one hopes never to have to use most of its procedures. Like many solutions, it also creates a new problem, namely that of understanding the rules, with the resultant inequity that those who know the rules better can unfairly outmaneuver those with less knowledge.

When I was first elected President of the Local, I won by about a two-to-one margin, and I had a most gracious opponent. One of the other offices, however, was won by only six votes. This led to a rather strenuous test of our ability to perform even the most basic function of a democracy. The defeated candidate was not pleased, and carefully studied the applicable laws and regulations. Finding some we had failed to incorporate into our election procedure, he challenged the election, and our International Union directed us to re-run the election. Emotions ran very high. I had personal strong sympathy for the candidate who had won by the six votes, but remembered my duty to a responsible search for meaning and truth. This was essential to my determining who was telling the truth about various events. I found it necessary to remove two of the Local's stewards. After the re-run election, I found it necessary to bring a disciplinary charge against one individual, a conclusion I reached only after very careful study of documents which had come into my hands and rules in our International constitution. These were among the most difficult decisions I've made, but I believe I served my Local correctly and lived up to my principles. This may seem to go contrary to the principle of acceptance of one another, but there is a difference between accepting a person and accepting their actions. Further developments included the resignations from the Union of six members, four of whom were subject to disciplinary charges. Of these one has since rejoined the Local, and we have accepted him back. There is much more to this whole episode. I have thought that if I wrote a book based on these events, it would be unsuccessful because it would seem so unrealistic.

Another tricky situation occured more recently. My Union represents the civil servant employees at Ames Research Center, but many who work there are employed by private companies under contract to NASA. Some of them, including the guards at our gates, also have a union. They recently went on strike. It was the gut feeling of the union activists in my Local that we should support them. This inclination is also expressed in the U-U principle of world community. Our defense of the rights of workers does not end at the edge of our Local Union. However, in the United States the labor laws for federal employees are distinct and different from those for private business employees. Among other things, we civil servants are legally prohibited from striking. What's more, there is also a specific law prohibiting federal civil servants from representing other citizens to the government. My Local is committed to obeying these laws, but we were able to find legal ways of expressing our solidarity with the guards. We gave them visible sympathy when we came to work. We engaged our management in discussions aimed at guaranteeing management respected the legal requirement that they remain neutral. We reported violations of striking guard's rights to the NASA Inspector General. Their strike was quickly concluded with a negotiated settlement that is apparently satisfactory, and they have expressed gratitude to us for our solidarity.

Our concern also goes beyond our fellow workers. For instance, our Union contract specifies that Ames Research Center, in pest control efforts, will "employ the least amount of toxic chemicals possible." It also provides that lighting, heating and air conditioning will be "consistent with national efforts to conserve energy." We understand that we are part of the interdependent web of all existence.

I have talked about how the other U-U values relate to democracy, but democracy itself is one of these values. We often think of democracy as merely a method for realizing other values, but I believe it has intrinsic value itself. In my assessment, because of internal democracy, the Daughters of the American Revolution, usually thought of as a conservative group, in fact fostered the development of leadership skills among women excluded from our national democracy. This was an important factor in spreading the franchise to women. Similarly, the Black churches of our nation, forced into separate existence by the failure of many of our predecessors to understand Jesus' message, were the place where many great leaders developed, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I feel I was quite fortunate to have joined this Congregartion at essentially the same time as I became President of my Union Local. While the values I have cherished most of my life are essentially Unitarian Universalist values, it has still been very helpful to see them listed in front of me week in the hymnal after week. I am also pleased with the history of Unitarian and Universalist support for working people. Remember, the struggle continues, and it's not just a struggle between workers and bosses, we also must continue the struggle for proper values within our various organizations and within ourselves.

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