A Lesson Plan for Organized Labor

This Labor Day, with public opinion firmly in favor of unions and teachers racking up victories across the country, the news for the labor movement is actually hopeful.

A Chicago teacher takes a break from picketing during the union's 2012 strike. yooperann / Flickr

Despite many setbacks, this Labor Day, the news for the labor movement is hopeful. Public support for unions has been increasing with the realization that they improve working and living conditions for both unionized and non-union workers.

Sustaining this reversal requires that we fight for good unions — democratic unions that make demands for the whole working class central to their agenda, integrate struggles against social oppression, and are willing to take direct action like strikes.

This is what the past year’s #RedforEd teacher walkouts has taught labor. It’s also why we should, yet again, thank a teacher this Labor Day.

Workers are suffering from capital’s successful attacks on the political and economic gains that labor and its allies have won in a century of struggle and sacrifice. Labor is still reeling from its diminished influence in politics, and young workers especially are suffering from capitalism’s offensive. As the New York Times “workologist” advised readers, employees who are dissatisfied with their working conditions have almost no legal protections.

They may think suing an employer will bring relief, but the only legal protections workers have are in cases of discrimination. The exception, ignored by the “workologist,” is if you have a union contract and are willing to enforce it.

Labor desperately needs vision and courage. And this is the context in which teachers have demonstrated a new grammar for unions to build political support as well as win economic gains.

The state-wide walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona and a one-day protest in North Carolina occurred because working teachers dared to challenge conditions their unions had accepted as inevitable. While some teacher activists were officers of their local unions in state affiliates of the National Education Association (NEA) or the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), neither union represented more than a handful of school employees.

The vast majority of teachers who walked out were “ordinary” teachers and school workers. They weren’t union members. Moreover, this was a movement started and sustained by workers, independent of and often in defiance of the union apparatus.

The “red state” walkouts follow in the steps of teacher activists in US cities who have been transforming their unions through reform caucuses, inspired by the bold strike of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in 2012. #RedforEd and the burgeoning movement of reform caucuses in both NEA and AFT show how we might create workers’ organizations that are democratic, defend labor’s political purposes, and build collective action at the workplace.

Unions can’t bring democracy to the workplace if they are autocratic and hierarchical, or if they continue to cast the union as a business that provides services to members, who in turn, pay dues and do little more. The term “free riders,” workers who are represented by a union but don’t join and pay dues, which the Right intends the new Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME to produce, in droves, is symptomatic of this destructive mindset. It casts workers’ alienation from their unions as an individual moral failing, as occurs when dining out with friends but then refusing to pick up your share of the bill.

Organized labor has not yet figured out how to mount a counter-offensive against what was identified forty years ago as a one-sided class war against us. Yes, we need laws that defend workplace rights. How will we win this legislation when we can’t even win the right to strike and don’t demand it from politicians who receive union endorsements, money, and campaign help? Strategies for encouraging “member voice” or “engagement” that don’t address the alienation workers feel from the organizations that ostensibly represent them cannot succeed in building the unions’ strength in the workplace.

Often the need for sustainable revenue pushes union officials and staff to support policies that protect the union apparatus at the price of insulating the organization from workers’ demands for protection. That’s why union support for “direct reimbursement” legislation, having governments pay for the costs of collective bargaining for public employees and compensating them for revenue they may lose as a result of the Janus decision, is a supposed cure that worsens the illness.

Other legal solutions, like reconfiguring dues collection and ditching exclusive representation, are wrongheaded because they substitute quick fixes to unions’ immediate financial problems for transforming the unions as organizations.

Union members need to experience their collective power on the job, which, as union reformers who now lead unions acknowledge, is a challenge that isn’t erased when reform-minded leaders are elected. Union contracts and the culture around their enforcement, including ingrained practices among staff and member expectations of “the union” handling problems, can reinforce members’ passivity.

To develop members’ sense of agency and clarify the role of staff, the CTU developed a protocol that combines staff support for grievances with members building solidarity with co-workers to address toxic cultures in the schools, with battling abusive administrators a key problem to address. Jackson Potter, former CTU director of staff, says that while the most effective antidote to such abuse is a developed climate of trust among school workers, a procedure that involves union staff from the first identification of a problem is needed because school workers are often scared, with good reason, of retaliation from principals.

Most union members don’t (yet) have the confidence to push back without first receiving support from union staff, nor to push staff about what should be done. The protocol therefore encourages members to call on staff for support and advice.

Potter notes, “Rather than default to the staff members’ individual opinion, we thought it better to default to an organizing strategy.” What CTU has aimed to do is to support union members to use the staff as a resource to build union consciousness and solidarity in the school. The grievance is transformed from an individual, legal complaint into a means of encouraging members to understand how they can be the union.

The courage and determination of teacher activists in this year’s walkouts, who coordinated their actions with other school workers and developed deep support among parents and community, have gained teachers unions significant approval. #RedforED still has to persuade more people that teachers unions aim to protect the public good. They still need to figure out how to embed support for social justice issues in their organizing on economic demands — there is no shortcut to transforming the unions.

An inescapable element of that transformation is acknowledging teachers unions and organized labor’s complicity in creating and sustaining conditions of inequality that have repercussions today.

How many union members know that Southern congressmen pushed for New Deal labor standards, like minimum wages and the right to unionize, to exclude occupations in which blacks predominated? And for decades, the government (and organized labor) allowed unions with rights to exclusive representation to entirely exclude African Americans (and women) from their trades? Part of the task of reformers today will be to own up to this history and craft a plan to rectify it.

Teachers who walked out had broad, explicit support from friends, neighbors, and some other unions in their states. While a few teachers who were leaders self-identified as socialists, mostly members of Democratic Socialists of America, most did not. Many teachers who participated in the walkouts described themselves as conservatives and ruefully admitted to voting for the Republican governors who insulted them as incompetent and immoral.

Despite participants’ perceptions of what they were doing and why, the teacher walkouts illuminated the relationship between workers’ self-organization, unions, and ideals of “socialism from below.” They have demonstrated the meaning of working-class organization being a “new world germinating in the decay of the old.”

With or without a contract and collective bargaining, we see that when workers’ self-organization is sufficiently powerful to wrest concessions from the boss, it “restricts the authority of the employer and substitutes the collective decision of the union membership for the law of the market.” Their solidarity, their collective struggle in defense of goals and strategies decided democratically “make this the first installment of workers’ democracy. Extend that principle of organization to the society as a whole and you will have socialism.”

Teachers and school workers have pointed the way to the rest of labor. But as experienced teachers know, you can inspire and support students to learn, but you can’t learn for them. Margaret Haley, a Chicago socialist and suffragist who helped organize the first teachers union in the United States, told teachers we can’t separate the fate of teaching, public education, and democracy from what happens with organized labor. She ended her 1904 speech to the National Education Association, “Why Teachers Should Organize,” by telling her audience that workers and unions had fought “humanity’s battles, unhonored and unsung … often misunderstood and unaided.”

Since the CTU’s 2012 strike, teachers throughout this country have been showing organized labor how unions can revive that proud history. In Labor Day 2018, let’s honor their lesson plan.