The impending election and the Fairpoint strike have catalyzed many conversations about today’s role of labor unions. Common misconceptions that are being voiced over and over again are based on a combination of old stereotypes from the industrial age and general misinformation.

I recently was involved with organizing one of the most innovative collective bargaining units in Maine, and I can confirm that people who toss around phrases such as “union thugs” and “union bosses” have little idea what they are talking about and are sadly out of touch. Today’s unions have evolved and incorporate the best of the past (the power of the collective voice) with contemporary business expertise, current technology and an inclusive, fresh approach.

Through my work I know members of every labor union in Maine, but I am most familiar with my own, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW, or IAM for short).

Unionization can be a long and challenging process, but at no point along the way did our union representatives “tell us what to do” or make decisions for us. They provided the structure within which we were able to make our own choices. They answered our questions. When approaching an issue, our union representatives laid out the options, asked us more questions than we asked of them, learned about our work and how the company operated, and explained the result most likely to be obtained by each approach. Our own committee then made the choice that was best for our situation.

The IAM respected the fact that we love our work and wanted what was best for our company. Though we had some internal issues to sort out, they were not problems caused by deliberate ill-will or dangerous working conditions. Instead, they were much like those in any relationship where communication is stagnant.

We do good work and are proud of it, and we did not want to disparage our employer in this process. Neither did we want to make unreasonable demands. On the other hand, we wanted to be heard in a meaningful way that would provide both the opportunity and incentive for internal changes. Our IAM representatives were honest with us and helped us find an approach that improved our circumstances, strengthened the company, and did not cause harm to either.

Our union representatives often reminded us that we know our work better than anyone else. They helped us focus our ideas and were able to tell us the cost to the business of any particular idea. They helped us balance fairness to the employees with today’s economic realities for the company. They showed us how to communicate effectively and had access to resources that are not otherwise available to ordinary people.

In my experience of more than 30 years working for a labor law firm, I’ve never met a union “thug” and I’ve never met a union “boss.” Perhaps they exist somewhere, but I’ve not yet seen one in Maine.

The people I have seen are union educators, business analysts and advocates who specialize in protecting workers’ rights, jobs and benefits. The union members I’ve seen are firefighters, police officers, plumbers, pipefitters, postal workers, electricians, municipal workers, teachers, lobstermen (and women), nurses, steelworkers, welders, mechanics, office workers, etc.

These union members look just like all of us. They look like our parents, our friends, family and neighbors because they are parents, friends, family and neighbors. People often overlook the most basic concept of organized labor: We are the union.

Carol Sanborn, of Dresden, is a paralegal member of Machinists Local S-89 and advocates for workers’ rights.

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