A young UFT delegate asked me that question while she was watching UFT President Michael Mulgrew shut down Jamaica High School's James Eterno, for my money the most knowledgeable and resourceful chapter leader anywhere. Eterno, after listening for over an hour about the marvels and wonders of the new contract, attempted to give the other side.
We have a union so that demagogues like Michael Bloomberg cannot do to you what Michael Mulgrew did to Eterno. Without a union, you wouldn't be reading this right now, as anyone who spoke counter to the great and mysterious Bloomberg would have been sacked without a second thought. This was what Bloomberg was aiming for when he pushed a bill to end LIFO for NYC teachers only. Fortunately, our esteemed governor decided he could fire teachers effectively enough via junk science VAM.
We have a union so your supervisor can't push you to do ridiculous petty nonsense, even if she's from the Leadership Academy. If you don't feel like sleeping with her, that ought not to jeopardize your position. If you don't feel like washing her car or getting her dry cleaning, that too ought not to be problematic (unless perhaps you're angling for that 20K master teacher gig).
We have a union so that callow and untrained supervisors can't just walk all over you. In your school, you ought to have a chapter leader who knows the rules, or who can at least find out what the rules are, and make sure school leadership follows them. You ought not to get a letter in your file about bulletin boards, or about something that happened 22 years ago, for example.
We have a union so that reformy leaders face not only you, but tens of thousands of your brother and sister UFT members when they wish to enact pointless reforms. When they introduce their unproven and/ or failed nonsense, they at least have to get us to agree to it. They don't like steps like that, which is why they love mayoral control. In NYC, for example, the mayor had absolute dominion over our fake board of education and could do what the hell he wished, right until he crossed Eva Moskowitz, whose BFF Andy Cuomo imposed new law.
We have a union so you don't have to work nights and weekends, so you don't have to shovel coal to heat the classroom before you teach, so you don't have to carry a cell phone on which parents can contact you 24/ 7. We have a union so you can have a life and so that your employer doesn't own you.
I agree there are flaws in our union. Chapter leaders should represent the interests of their members rather than the interests of leadership. There ought not to be loyalty oaths, but rather open and honest discussion. We ought not to build brick walls around the likes of James Eterno, but rather utilize his talents for the benefit of all. Within union, people ought to be selected for merit rather than blind loyalty.
Were that the case, we wouldn't alienate over 80% of membership to the point they deem it a waste of their time to even write an X on a ballot.
We can work on that. We can try to wake up our sleepy membership. We can try to get leadership to listen rather than shut us up.
But I'm absolutely confident, for all its glaring flaws, we're better off with union than without.