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I did not always see the relevance of labor unions to my own career. This is a bit ironic given that both of my parents were in unions. In the past, I did not understand that blue-collar working people (like my parents) and white-collar working people (like myself) could encounter similar workplace challenges. As it turns out, fair working conditions, wages and benefits should not be taken for granted — no matter one's occupation.

Furthermore, I also used to believe that if I could be a hard-working, assertive individual with negotiation skills, then I could always secure good working conditions, wages and benefits for myself. That turned out to be untrue. I am certainly hard-working and assertive. I also now have well-developed negotiating skills, but that has not prevented me from having issues with working conditions, wages and benefits in my career.

There are certainly many arguments regarding the pros and cons of unions. I spent time engaging with these arguments during my training to become a social scientist. Ultimately, I began to see the issue of union membership differently as I transitioned from primarily identifying as a student to identifying as a worker. Some economist's detached perspective on unions seemed much less important after I personally encountered issues with working conditions, wages or benefits across different employers.

I came to a point where I was ready to join a union, and fortunately one was available to me. I am a member of North Dakota United, the union representing educators and public sector workers in North Dakota. Nationally, it is associated with both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

I expected my union to be a source of support, information and assistance as I navigated my experiences as a working person. What I did not expect was to find so many opportunities to connect with members of other North Dakota unions. I have discovered that collaborating and communicating with union members has been an incredible way to become more connected to others in Bismarck-Mandan and throughout North Dakota.

In our polarized society, where else can I so swiftly find common ground across political party lines like I can among union members? Where else can I easily move past sources of division and get right to the "kitchen table" issues? There is something about participation in a union that makes us better listeners, thinkers and citizens. Union participation teaches us both self-determination and the art of healthy compromise. Union participation fosters not only professional development, but personal development. I really like the person that my union is helping me become.

When I think of the high density of union members living in Mandan, it makes me feel proud of my community and connected to my neighbors. When I attend the grand opening of a new Bismarck training center for a local trade union, I feel that I am among friends even if the room is full of many strangers. When I encounter other union members in our state, we’re able to begin conversations knowing — at the very least — that we agree that our work has dignity and we deserve some say over our working conditions, wages and benefits.

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Ellie Shockley is a social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan.

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