The Union Said I Couldn’t Wear My Favorite Color (and Other Absurd Assertions in Education Nation)

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose39 Comments

Cry Baby

First, watch this video. Then, predict what I might say to this, even before you read this title. Now, multiply that times two and that’s what I said when I watched this. Full disclosure: I was supposed to go to Education Nation, but I had an important date (my godson’s costume birthday party, where I dressed as Batman). Even still, I probably would have rolled my eyes hard at anyone who attended that event and said anything close to what this young teacher said because

a) she’s not helping relieve the stereotype that young White female teachers have no understanding of their surroundings when coming into the urban education system (not always true, but it happens often enough …)

b) as a corollary, she’ll either leave the job after 2-3 years of being in her alternative certification program and then head to med school, law school, or central offices as someone getting paid 30% more money to tell schools what to do

c) she really doesn’t understand what real teachers do.

I like working in these shades of grey because nothing’s ever black and white (pun intended), but teachers who get the work done never settle for what they believe is a union issue. Let’s ignore for purposes of this argument that, historically, time restrictions and workplace conditions were set as a standard for healthy and career teaching, and that without unions and the struggle behind them, teachers would still work in rat holes, have too many periods in a row without getting any chance to plan lessons or  and lose their jobs over meaningless minutiae because there was no such thing as due process.

Can we just agree that teachers just do what they got to do to make things happen for their kids? When kids needed me to stay until 5-6pm to tutor them in math, I never went to my union rep and complained. I just did it. When I wanted to work with my colleagues or call a series of parents one week, I just did it. Before school starts every year, I’m already buying materials and getting to my classroom (if my school’s open) trying to get a feel for my new classroom. And in no way do I consider myself a Superman in the classroom: I take after a ton of my colleagues who’ll readily do the same thing without getting on national TV and spewing another mal-informed opinion. I rarely go to my union except if it’s for some bulletin board mandate or my own understanding of the contract. Little more.

I also can’t be sure what her union rep is telling her or how administration has set expectations at that school, factors I can’t look into. I just feel like a part of the teaching profession gets cheapened by people who think silly things like regulations are preventing them from reaching their students in constructive and caring ways. I know principals secretly cheered her on, but they’re often as cognitively dissonant as some of the teachers in their building.

In other words, just get it done. Ask real questions. And know the ledge before you jump off it.

Jose, who will give his big announcement today …

Comments 39

  1. Without unions, there would likely not be as many Black/Latino teachers, even though we could certainly use more. As I watched her the other day, I thought to myself: She has not idea what it is like to work in a non-union state. In fact, anyone who says that the union ‘ties their hands’ has no idea how good they really have it. You are right, she will be gone in 2-3 years because she will get burnt out, not because her hands are tied, but because the union and the district meet an impasses. If the union is even around in 2-3 years. As they say: You don’t know what you got til it’s gone.’

    1. I think that depends on which union you’re talking about, in which city. In Minneapolis teachers of color were laid off over the last decade at a rate double that of white teachers because of seniority. Now we have a mostly of color school district with a mostly white teacher force. And the laid off teachers of color, including the black teacher of the year, we’ll they’ve been hired in the suburbs where there are fewer kids of color that would benefit from them.

      1. Post

        We know this too well. Yet, I think my thesis in this wouldn’t depend on which union. The LIFO rulings tend to help our veteran TOC because, as you mentioned in another post, there are less TOCs than ever before, and that’s across any place with a strong union. Chicago lost a huge percentage. Teachers in NYC were put in rubber rooms or ATR pools, and many of them were of color. This goes hand-in-hand.

  2. I used to be this little sister, convinced that because I was pouring my entire life into teaching, that I was doing a better job than the veterans with 10, 20 , 30 years’ experience. I was the first teacher in the building in the morning. I spent money I didn’t have on my classroom (and took a part-time job to make up the difference).

    The longer I taught, the more I realized that most of what I was doing, all those evenings and weekends in my first year of teaching made little difference in the lives of my kids. I hadn’t put all the pieces of good teaching together–thinking deeply about evidence that my students were learning. In fact, while they liked me, I wasn’t teaching them very efficiently.

    While I’ve always spent a great deal of time, I’m vastly better now. I pay attention to the things that matter, things that kids will take away and use in their lives. And I honor the work of my colleagues.

    Did you see how pleased with herself Little Sister was? She’d “hit a home run” and pleased Brian Williams. The fact that they lifted her–unique and non-representative–comment out two hours’ worth of better stuff is very telling.

  3. An interesting post, Jose. I do know some teachers and/or schools that have been innovative, were student-focused, and did NOT consult their unions, as you advocate above. But their unions found out anyway and filed grievances which prevented them from doing what they wanted / needed. The unions were concerned that ‘innovative’ practices like voluntarily spending more time in PLCs, voluntarily meeting before school, etc. would become expected practice for all teachers. Thus the grievances.

    Maybe the teachers just didn’t fly under the radar enough..

  4. Scott,
    Are you really saying that you know first hand of a union that filed a grievance against one of its own members? That you’re certain that all concerned wanted to spend more time off the clock voluntarily at meetings. No administrative pressure? No pressure from others? You know this first hand?

  5. Umm, Scott? Unions don’t file grievances against their own members. They file against contract violations–when teachers are required (or forced, urged or shamed) into practices that are not contractually required. Sometimes, these practices are good ideas. However, the best way to get teachers to do productive things is not contractual coercion. Kind of the way it works in your classroom: you want the kids to behave reasonably and learn because it’s the right thing to do, not because your stick is bigger than theirs.

    Any school where teachers are grieving reasonable expectations for professional practice is a school that has far bigger problems than the teachers’ union. The situation you describe is dysfunction–a place where people are not working toward a common mission. It’s not about the association.

  6. This concept that teachers become teachers for unions is absurd. This young woman’s comments tell on herself. The core dynamic of the “education nation” will never truly be examined until we turn off the camera lights and get to work. For my take on this summit, please visit my blog at

  7. Sorry, Nancy. I didn’t mean to imply by my reply to Fred that the union filed a grievance against its own members. The grievance was against the district for allowing the teachers in one school to go beyond what the union wanted them to do.

    In other words, the teachers in one elementary school voluntarily were doing things (like meeting in their PLCs) above and beyond whatever ordinary work expectations were because they thought that’s what was needed/best for kids. The union wanted them to STOP because they were worried that this would create unreasonable (and perhaps precedential) expectations for staff at other buildings. The teachers at the elementary building didn’t want them to grieve the issue; they had voluntarily taken on the extra work/time. But the union filed anyway, effectively telling the teachers they had to stop doing what they were doing.

    I don’t think that’s dysfunctional behavior by the school’s teachers. In fact, I think that’s admirable. It’s the union that engaged in less-than-desirable behavior in this instance. This has nothing to do with failing to work ‘toward a common mission’ and everything to do with one school, at least, doing “the right thing to do,” as you say.

  8. Post

    Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    First, let me say that pedagogy has to be #1 when coming into the classroom, and whether you only have 2 minutes or 2 hours, if you’re not good at teaching, then you’re no good in the classroom as a teacher anyways, so I’m glad you upgraded your teaching when you had to, Nancy. A lot of people can learn from that, and I mean it. Also, I don’t know how long Brian Williams has been in a classroom as an adult, but I don’t venture long.

    His smile in the interview betrayed him. As usual.

    EdCEO, you’re right, but not just that. She can say what she likes, but unions make these things happen, and no matter how dysfunctional some of them are, I’d never wish harm on any of them, because the alternative is that much worse.

    Scott, I see that side, too, but from my experience, as Nancy and Fred highlighted, unions can’t file grievances against their own members nor would it be in their favor. As fair-minded as I usually am, I’d find it hard to believe unless I read the charges myself.

    And if it did happen, it’s not about being under the radar per se. Many teachers across the nation have a hidden autonomy that anyone with a little cojones can get away with. Someone who’s consistently leaving at a later time or doing things not in the curriculum get lots of attention, especially in a big yet tight knit school like mine. We just gotta do what we gotta do, no hoopla ;-).

  9. Scott: “In other words, the teachers in one elementary school voluntarily were doing things (like meeting in their PLCs) above and beyond whatever ordinary work expectations were because they thought that’s what was needed/best for kids. The union wanted them to STOP because they were worried that this would create unreasonable (and perhaps precedential) expectations for staff at other buildings. The teachers at the elementary building didn’t want them to grieve the issue; they had voluntarily taken on the extra work/time. But the union filed anyway, effectively telling the teachers they had to stop doing what they were doing. I don’t think that’s dysfunctional behavior by the school’s teachers. ”

    Nancy: Let me take another (gentle) stab at this, Scott. And start by saying that it bothers me when people divide the players in a situation like this into two groups: #1) teachers and #2) “the union.” The union *is* teachers. In my school, the staff won the contractual right for teachers to have keys to the building, so we could work evenings and weekends. However, establishment of contractually obligated hours, helps teachers plan their own working life.

    If union leaders are trying to persuade teachers to abandon their plans to form a PLC, that’s dysfunction. A union cannot file a grievance without an aggrieved party. If teachers are in agreement that they want to meet beyond hours in a PLC, terrific–more power to ’em. But the “union” can’t file a grievance until there are teachers who feel as if they’re being forced to do something that they’re not obligated to do, and willing to take action. The union helps them craft a formal grievance, perhaps, or encourages teachers who believe that the agreement has been violated to speak up. But unless someone has a contractually related beef, there’s no grievance.

    There are myriad examples of schools where PLCs have been imposed on unwilling teachers–in fact, it’s this mandate to form PLCs that may eventually kill the PLC idea. Teachers function best when they understand that their time and beliefs are honored. Rules and agreements make things smoother. If formal union leaders have disagreements with rank and file members, the solution is democratic–take a leadership role in the association.

  10. Scott, we have exceptions to the contract built into our contract. That is if a school site want an exception to the contract there is a ‘site based exception” that they can follow. As long as it is truly teacher directed, they are almost always allowed.

    for instance, one of our elementary schools wanted an additional minimum day in the week to allow teachers to collaborate based on the needs of the teachers. This site based exception has allowed them to get out a little earlier in order to work with their colleagues. It has been approved by the union for at least the past five years.

    It sounds as if perhaps this is what is needed in the contract of the district you mention.

  11. You let her off easy. The extra time, the extra block, her principal could have created those and it’s clear that if he had posted them, she could have applied.

    Her principal failed to create necessary programs, and she blames the union.

    About even money she’s talking from a TfA script.

    Same odds Scott’s situation is similar. How about a school and a district, so we can see for ourselves?

  12. I think we have to make something important very clear:

    Unions don’t stop teachers from going over and above.

    Unions stop administrators from requiring that teachers go over and above.

    And that’s a good thing.

    I had a situation in my teaching career where I was told, six months after the birth of my child, that “certain opportunities wouldn’t come my way” because I refused to work all four days on two straight weekends. (I was willing to work three of the four.)

    Unions make sure that principals can’t give teachers a work assignment on a Friday afternoon and demand that it’s due on Monday morning. And the reason that’s a good thing isn’t because teachers should never work over the weekend – most teachers I’ve ever known considered Sunday night part of the work week – it’s because the work teachers do over the weekend is theirs to choose to do or not do or prioritize as they see fit.

    The problem with the “this isn’t about the adults” or “do everything for your kids” trope is that it strips teachers of their right to be human too. I work my tail off for the students of SLA, but the day that I feel like being a teacher to the kids of SLA is preventing me from being a parent to my own is the day I leave the job. Period. End of story. And anyone – and Geoff Canada, Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan, I hope you’re listening – who thinks that is somehow wrong or selfish, you can talk to my union rep.

  13. Chris and Nancy:

    In this situation, teachers at other schools in the district wanted the teachers at this elementary school to STOP ‘doing extra.’ So they asked the union leadership to file a grievance with the administration, which they did. I don’t know what the ultimate settlement was ’cause I didn’t follow up, but I do know that the grievance was filed. It may have been thrown out, overruled, acted upon, or whatever.

    1. Teachers should never try to stop other teachers from doing extra. Yet often they do. Unfortunately, many school organizations have a ‘crab bucket culture’ (one crab tries to climb out, the rest drag him back down…).

    2. This is not a case of the union advocating for humane working conditions for teachers. It’s an instance of the union leadership trying to stop part of its membership from doing more because other members didn’t like it.

    ms_teacher: Yes, I concur that this school would have benefited greatly from such an exception.

    Jonathan: I’m ordinarily VERY public. But this school continues to try and do extra, is trying very hard to fly under the radar (which is hard to do when its achievement results clearly show something’s going on), and does NOT want any more run-ins with the union leadership than necessary. The staff at the building do not feel very supported by their union, nor do they feel they should be attacked for ‘doing extra.’

  14. I have a little experience with union contracts and a little experience with urban myths. The nature of grievances in union contracts is that they require a employee or a group of employees who believes that their rights have been abridged by the failure of management to follow the terms of the contract. Grievances must, by definition, be against management; they can not be against other employees. The point of a contract is that the use of time outside of the standard working hours for which one is compensated is up to the employee. The notion that a union would attempt to restrict how employees use time outside of regular working hours seems clearly — especially in the absence of any tangible evidence — to fall into the realm of urban myth. One could see a union preventing management from dictating how employees used that time — but that is an altogether different matter than what is being claimed here.

  15. You caught me, Leo. I like to spend my spare time spinning urban myths about unions because … because … because … well, I don’t know why. Maybe in addition to apparently knowing truth v. myth you also know the reason for my miscreant behavior?

    Everyone: What I stated above (with the exception of my misstatement, which I clarified but Fred says I didn’t) is as conveyed by the elementary staff in question. I suppose it’s your prerogative to bask in your certainty despite no first-hand knowledge of the situation and to consider them and me liars. All’s fair in love, war, and the blogosphere, right?

    Not sure where to go from here. Um, have a nice weekend, I guess? Ciao.

  16. What you are saying, Scott, is that we should take on faith your claim, despite the fact that you offer no evidence which would support it and despite the fact that it defies the most elementary precepts of American labor law. Of course we have not only no first hand knowledge, but no knowledge at all, since you will not share any information that could be independently verified.

  17. Well, Leo, I guess you and the elementary teachers at that school will just have to disagree, then, about what really happened.

    As my own school law instructor liked to say, “Just because it’s illegal or improper doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen…”

  18. In fact, in the highly unlikely event this happened, it would be one incident only. To infer that it were the norm would be preposterous. Were it told by teachers, I’d suspect they were misinformed. I’ve been a UFT member for 25 years. I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling this.

    Furthermore, it happens I have heard this story before, which lends credence to the assertion it’s an urban myth. They tend to pop up and be passed by word of mouth, like the vanishing hitchhiker.

    Here’s something all teachers know—every teacher brings work home. Every teacher corrects papers, writes exams, lesson plans, buys supplies, calls parents, tries to figure out how the hell to get that kid to care–and it just can’t all be done in the classroom.

    Personally, I’d be grateful if someone from the union would come up now and then and forbid me from correcting too many papers. Maybe I’ll propose it at the next meeting, but I don’t have high hopes for it.

  19. How do “some” become “one”? How do “grievances” become “grievance”? How do “schools” become “that school”?

    I do know some teachers and/or schools that have been innovative, were student-focused, and did NOT consult their unions, as you advocate above. But their unions found out anyway and filed grievances which prevented them from doing what they wanted / needed.

    The unions were concerned that ‘innovative’ practices like voluntarily spending more time in PLCs, voluntarily meeting before school, etc. would become expected practice for all teachers. Thus the grievances.

    In the course of these comments, these plurals have gone singular. That might suggest that the assertions could use some checkable back-up.

  20. Scott,

    Let’s even assume what you say is true. No one should suggest that unions are blameless or perfect. When I was a NYC teacher / UFT member, I would get frustrated that our union chapter chair would defend the actions of teachers wh, in my opinion, were not doing right by kids, without question. But my union rep also worked with the administration to make the school better time and time again.

    The point isn’t whether we can or can’t point to mistakes and missteps when unions did the wrong thing. We can. We can point to moments administrators made mistakes. We can point to moments parents made mistakes. We can students made mistakes. You know why? Schools are made up of people.

    The question is this – do teachers have a right to collective bargaining? Do teachers have a right to a say in their work environment… in their pay… in the conditions by which they teach? If the answer is yes, the next question is… do teachers have a better chance to have that right respected alone or collectively?

    I think they do. I worry that the ‘messiah myth’ of the do-whatever-it-takes teacher — especially in our cities — creates incredible potential for abuse of teachers. I think teachers unions make sure that teaching can be a career, not just a stop-over on the way to law school.

    Do teachers unions need to change and adapt to a changing times? Yes. Are some of the work rules that exist based on a model of school that is outdated? Yes. That said, Randi Weingarten has steered the UFT to a time of great change, and in every moment I saw on EducationNation and what I have seen of WfS so far, her reward for being willing to change has been to be herself — and her teachers — cast as the enemy in the current narrative, and yet she continues to take part in the debate, continues to stand behind the changes the union has made, continues to work with districts like Baltimore and Philadelphia to make changes in the contract.

    We aren’t going to modernize schools by forcing change on teachers. We are only going to do so if we make change with teachers. That means working with teachers unions who are filled with all those flawed, human, wonderful teachers.

  21. Chris,
    Scott never argued teachers didn’t have a right to join a union or bargain collectively.
    So, your passionate defense of Randi Weingarten and the right to collectively bargain is not really on point.
    Scott’s issue was his claim that unions (or a union) obstruct teachers (or a group of teachers) at schools (or at a school) from working outside the contract and prohibited them from being as innovative as they wanted to be.
    Aside from some well founded skepticism about the details of the story by some who have commented, Scott remains wrong about his assumptions.
    Contracts are a set of rules, agreed to by both management and employees. In the best of worlds, the rules would be few and contracts would be flat. But this depends on the degree that both sides having common interests. The number of rules reflect the past experience of collaboration and trust.
    If we bracket off situations where errors are made by one side or the other in applying the rules, the fact remains that the concern by the union side that management will take advantage of employees without the active enforcement of the mutually agreed upon rules, is based on real life experience.
    The fact that some individual teachers feel that this imposes on their sense of freedom is true. But the alternative is frequently worse.

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  24. I have read all of your comments. I have watched the video. I would like all of you to get current with MANY periodicals that address this issue; teacher time, commitment and union intervention. I have been a teacher for 35 years. It isn’t just the young that feel teacher effectiveness is blocked by their unions. I take great pride in the fact that I am open to new ideas and perspectives and I have another 10 years to go before I will even consider retirement. The reason teacher unions were put into place was important at the time; during the 1950’s. Teachers did need to be protected and our founders did a good job. The problem is that the teacher unions have not kept up with what education needs are today and, more important, what kids need today. I work for an incredible school district with incredible teachers, administration, and school board. We are ALL there for the children. But our union, who I am very much in conflict with right now, spends too much time fighting and not enough time putting the kids as a priority. They seem to look for reasons to grieve and cause conflict. This isn’t good for anyone and certainly is not professional. If anyone out there chooses to call me naive, then you are simply vastly misinformed. The issue of “trickle down effect” hasn’t even been brought up on any of these conversations. Tunnel vision? I think so. There are many school districts out there that are facing horrible financial issues. If teacher unions don’t start “getting with the times”, they will kill anything productive that’s happening in our schools. Now who’s hurt? Teacher unions need to become a part of the good things that can happen. They need to stop being only the watch dogs for teacher rights. They need to start advocating for better communication instead of constantly presenting themselves as the “me generation” they are. I have the intellectual ability to be anything I want, including a lawyer. Well, I seem to have made it with my ideals and opinions for all these years without abandoning the classroom and going to law school where I could earn 30% more in wages. I’m still here. Some of you are under the opinion that all the good things that have been gained for teacher’s rights will magically disappear if the unions start to refocus and put more energy is curent needs for our schools and our children. Those already earned rights won’t go away unless the district’s negotiators give them away. That’s the way it works. So, we all need to start thinking about what education, communities, parents, teachers, and the children need rather than just what teachers deserve. If you think that putting extra time in for children isn’t part of your job, then go get another job.

  25. Post

    Gretchen, thanks for dropping by and offering your opinion on this matter. If I could summarize what you’re saying is that not all veterans like the union currently and that we’d still retain our rights with or without a union. For one, I’m happy that somewhere in the Midwest, they’re doing the right thing for students, even when I don’t work in absolutes like “INCREDIBLE.” I don’t think anyone would argue that unions are perfect. To the contrary, many of the commenters here have been critical of the very union they see as vital to their jobs, myself included. There’s a difference between wanting improvements to something and wanting to remove it completely. You seem to lie on the latter.

    Secondly, in many parts of this nation, the respective union lately has made many concessions that may look to you like progress. I don’t want to go over that here, but DC, LA, and NYC come to mind immediately. This mentality that the union will never change is absurd. I’m one of those who doesn’t agree in the direction of the current negotiations. Also, the question about who’s going to “negotiate” for us without negotiators is something I’d like an answer for.

    Third, no one’s questioning your intelligence. You don’t need to bring guns into a debate, no matter how raucous it seems. Breathe.

  26. You misunderstand, Jose. I am in favor of teacher unions and the good they can accomplish. I am saying that it would be best for education, society, and how people view teachers and their unions if they left their anger, their narrow views, and their many “can do” and “can’t do” items at home. Also allow me to clarify why I brought up my decision to stay with teaching. The young lady that was broadcasted by NBC has taken some pretty good hits for the statements she made. So she’s a bit naive and ready to save the world. Didn’t we all start there?

  27. Post

    Fair enough, but the difference is that, as Nancy pointed out, they use her clip as a push for what “teachers” really want versus their union, trying to create a wedge between the union leaders and their own representatives. It’s disingenuous at best, insidious at worst. Obama did the same thing recently by quoting a “young teacher.” If he really wanted to do it, why not quote a veteran teacher saying the same thing? The mind games are insane. She herself doesn’t deserve to be piled on (though her statement reminds me of others who’ve come her way), but the media coverage surrounding this one opinion does.

    Really, as naive and myopic as I was, I was also fortunate to find a slew of veteran teachers who, after all the changes to the system, still put their head into the work and just did. No blaming administration or unions, even when they had every right to. They just did.

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  29. I saw that young lady on Education Nation. I did a double take. I taught for 34 years in a public high school and I’ve had contact with many other teachers from around the country, but I’ve never seen or heard anything as idiotic as her assertion that, in effect, union rules prevented her from helping or teaching her students. Then there was the lame reaction by Bryan Williams and the so-called education reporter whose name escapes me. Those two swallowed that “young teacher’s” assertions without checking her credibility. Though I can’t prove it, her bizarre statement makes me believe that she was a plant who was hired by some kind of right-wing, anti-union, anti-public school, corporate, front group.

  30. I wanted to throw up! Really? I have taught for 28 years in NYC and Delaware, and never has my union told me what I can or cannot do! If she wants to stay late, stay late. I agree with Karl. She was a plant. I also agree with Jose, she will be gone in 2-3 years. Some of these new teachers need to research what it was like pre-union. The union is not our enemy. Does she even know the purpose of a union?

    1. Post

      What I often find with the old-new teacher pseudo-dichotomy is that it’s perpetuated from up top, as if, once we get wise, we don’t learn just how important our union is. By some measures I’m considered young (and by others old), yet, from jump, I recognized the power of having a union. This matters for so many of us.

  31. I am in a “right to work” state. No unions with any teeth-in fact, I wouldn’t even pay the dues if I didn’t need the insurance.
    We are expected to “do what it takes” and frequently reminded about the mythical “young teachers” who spend their lives in the schools, tutor evenings and weekends for free, and are just altogether better teachers and human beings than we, the vets in the trenches, who insist on maintaining a marriage and our own health, and raising kids of our own. No surprise that these “young, passionate professionals” leave pretty quickly.

    We are also rated in our evaluations our participation in the life of the school, so, no, we don’t HAVE to show up at volleyball games and weekend festivals, but if we don’t, we lack ” commitment and caring.”

    Too often, voluntary becomes compulsory in kinder, gentler gift-wrapping. It’s still compulsory.

  32. I am an 8th year Kindergarten teacher from Wisconsin. I think this girl touched on something unsaid. She is willing to do this work on Saturdays, etc… but I don’t think her admin would be against her volunteering her time with her students. However, per her contract she would not be PAID for her extra work, unless her school was able to find an additional source of funding (grant, etc.) I feel her frustration but she is taking it out on the wrong party. Her union is keeping her from being forced to do things outside her contract day. If she wants to provide additional test prep outside the school day, she should write a grant for an after school program or seek out donations. I just want to take her by the hand and say, “Trust me girl, you’re going to want to keep your union.”

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