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Should Sign Language Interpreters Unionize?


Unionization of sign language interpreters continues to be a topic of discussion in our field. Author Anthony Goodwin presents some pros and cons on the impact of establishing a union for interpreters.

In today’s economic downturns and upswings, representation in the labor market is paramount to the success of any profession.  The profession of sign language interpreting is no different.  Without understanding the influence unity bears, sign language interpreters all over the country, dare I say the world, will not realize the import of their services as a group of professionals.  Individually, we who are in private practice or in some type of hybrid practice thereof, will always be on the weaker end of the negotiating table.

From negotiating with mega agencies to any type of employment negotiations, the individual sign language interpreter often lacks the leverage of any good negotiations:  information.  We keep quiet about our rates. We are afraid that someone will undercut our bids. We undercut other interpreters just to get the contract for that one day job.  Often, we are unaware and unconcerned about the greater repercussions of such actions:  how will our acceptance of lower rates and non-support during extensive interpreting assignments affect the industry, affect our colleagues, and even ourselves for the next assignment?

Time For a Union?

As I have traveled around the country, I’ve had the chance to work with a variety of sign language interpreters in a myriad of settings. Conversations about having a union that represents sign language interpreters in the labor market inevitably crop up.  I have yet to meet an interpreter who disagrees with the idea.  Does that mean we should rush out and establish a union? No.  But it does mean we should be having serious conversations about what it looks like to be represented in the labor market of sign language interpreters.

There are both pros and cons to forming a union.  On the surface it seems like a great idea, but what are the hidden pitfalls?  First, the cons.

The Cons

Unions often can become beasts in and of themselves.  Like any corporation, they intend to survive. Those who run the organizations seek to preserve their positions and jobs.  Self-preservation can very easily and inconspicuously become the driving factor.  If this happens, and it will, then professional concerns will take a back seat although any activity will be couched in terms of benefitting the constituency.

Second, unions can often demand salaries or rates that the market will not bear.  If that happens, then corporations that higher a significant number of sign language interpreters and doctors’ offices and other smaller venues may seek ways to avoid hiring interpreters.  Moreover, the deaf community may suffer adverse affects of such consequences.

Third, unions can have a polarizing affect within companies and workplaces.  They support an “us” versus “them” environment and often work best in adversarial environments.  For example, union members versus non-union members, or union members versus employers or management can be an adversarial environment.  Because unions work solely for their constituents, such an environment can create salary and pay discrepancies among other sign language interpreters in the same work place.  This dynamic can have negative affects on the working environment within the profession as well.

Fourth, there may be an argument for redundancy.  The work that our professional organizations such as the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), the National Alliance of Black Interpreters, Inc. (NAOBI, Inc.), and Mano a Mano are doing can be viewed as empowering sign language interpreters such that they feel that they are already represented in the labor market.

The Pros

Unions can provide representation in the labor market for sign language interpreters.  It allows professionals to be united in terms of fees, qualifications, labor standards for the sign language interpreting industry, and so on.  RID, NAOBI, Inc. and Mano a Mano already work toward influencing and establishing industry practices.  These organizations, however, are not labor market representatives.  All three organizations support industry standards related to certification and testing.  All three organizations weigh in on licensing as it relates to particular states where chapters of these respective organizations are established.  A union, however, takes up as its sole cause the proactive work of the protection of its constituency from unfair business practices, disadvantageous working environments and inequitable wages, fee schedules, and benefits. In fact, unions can be quite beneficial in establishing, maintaining and ensuring fair market value for services rendered.

Second, unions can be an additional source of pension security for sign language interpreters.  Currently, private practitioners (freelance) sign language interpreters can set up self-directed retirement accounts.  Those who also work in some capacity for corporations or for any type of government agency may have access to a 501K plan.

Last, unions have the potential for maximizing leverage within the sign language interpreting profession.  As sign language interpreters, we tend to be lone rangers.  Divided we fall.  A possible benefit of a union is that of agreement.  Sign language interpreters as a group have the unique ability to be able to provide direct work as well as the ability to sub-contract and/or to be employed.  This is a form of empowerment. Awareness and understanding of this fact means we are a strong professional group able to ensure the quality of our industry and the fairness of the market value for our services.

Conclusion of the Matter

Some thoughts to consider: how can dialoguing about unionizing increase awareness and understanding of our industry and of the service we provide? What types of workshops along these lines can initiate a dialogue about sign language interpreters understanding the power of their service?    What are the gaps in our profession that impede this type of dialogue?

Maybe we should consider the example of other organizations:  the Writers Guild of America; the Directors Guild of America; the Screen Actors Guild.  What about the history and functions of these organizations can we benefit from in the sign language interpreter profession?

My hope is that we can begin a national dialogue about how to foster agreement, unity, and empowerment within our profession so that we continue to ensure quality service and fair market value for services rendered.