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What's a Union Boss?

By Mike Matejka

The Illinois Education Association, the IEA, the state's largest teachers' union, had a Representative Assembly meeting in Chicago, where Democratic Governor Patrick Quinn faced off against Republican nominee Bruce Rauner.

Throughout the primary, Rauner has targeted what he calls "union bosses." IEA elected President Cinda Klickna asked Rauner who he meant by union bosses. He replied directly to her, "You're one."

It was a gutsy move by Rauner to reply to Klickna in that way. But did he forget that Klickna was elected by the people in the room?

On the job, we don't get to elect our boss. When we go to work for someone, they are in charge. They rule, and we obey though sometimes we do talk back.

However, a labor union is not a business. Union leaders are elected, not self-appointed. Unions are owned by their members, who vote for their leaders.

In that IEA Assembly were 1,200 teachers and support staff. Most were building representatives, elected by their fellow workers. The majority still works full-time in schools, but after hours, they represent their fellow workers. This basic workplace democracy is what a union is all about.

Here in McLean County, the Mitsubishi workers have voted for United Auto Workers representation. Since the union organized at the plant, there have been six different union presidents. No one is the boss and owns the union. Members who feel they can do better run for the office. If they can find support, they win. The union president serves at the workers' discretion. Every three years the members vote whether or not to retain or replace their elected leadership.

If politicians want to criticize labor union involvement in Illinois politics, feel free to do so. But using the term "union boss" is a cheap shot. Union leaders are elected by the workers, who must approve spending any union funds or contract ratification. In the workplace, we don't get to elect our boss; but in the union, you do get to elect your leader. I hope candidate Rauner, political commentators, and other public voices will respect that basic workplace democracy a union brings and drop the term "union boss."

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