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Which Side Are Union “Leaders” On?

Teacher and school support worker strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky in the past two months, and now Arizona and Colorado, have shocked the nation.  The immediate causes have included low pay, overcrowded classes, and attacks on health benefits and pensions, but all of the strikes have targeted decades of worsening poverty and underfunding for public education. Who could have predicted that pro-Trump “right to work” states would spawn an unprecedented wave of statewide teachers strikes?  Maybe American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten could have.

On March 1 Weingarten emailed a message to her union’s 1.7 million members on the monumental implications of a Supreme Court decision that is expected later this spring. On February 26 the Court heard arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that threatens to strip public employee unions of the right to collect fees from all workers they are required to represent, including those who are not union members. Weingarten warned that the Janus case is “about who will have power in our country—working people or big corporate interests…This is a ‘which side are you on?’ moment.”

But Weingarten may have been more candid a few days later when she reminded the corporate class that leaders like herself serve their interests by keeping a lid on working class militancy. “A loss of collective bargaining would lead to more activism and political action, not less. Collective bargaining exists as a way for workers and employers to peacefully solve labor relations.” (Washington Post, 3/5/2018)

AFSCME attorney David Frederick’s argument against Janus in the Supreme Court made the message even clearer. “Union security is the tradeoff for no strikes,” he said. He warned the Court that if it breaks the deal that allows unions to collect fees from all bargaining unit members, “you can raise an untold specter of labor unrest throughout the country.”   (Education Week, 3/6/2018)

Weingarten and Frederick’s Exhibit A was the strike by teachers and other public school workers in West Virginia that began February 22.  They stayed out for nine days in defiance both of state law and state and national leaders of both major teachers unions, the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA). West Virginia public workers have no legal right to collectively bargain, let alone to strike, and less than half the state’s public school teachers are union members. Despite this, or maybe partly because of it, educators and other school workers organized themselves at schools and on Facebook in all 55 counties in the state to fight a drastic increase in their premiums for Public Employee Health Insurance (PEIA) benefits.

Weingarten and Frederick are certainly correct in saying that those aiming to destroy established unions may unwittingly unleash the “specter of labor unrest.”  But let’s be clear: this wasn’t “don’t mess with unions” tough talk, but a plea to the One Percent to remember its longtime deal with big unions. Here’s the deal: bosses let union officials collect fees, have a seat at the table, and claim credit when members get a few crumbs. In return, union bureaucrats do their best to prevent disruptions to business as usual.

Arizona and Colorado teachers and school workers have been closely watching the red states uprising while preparing for their strikes for better pay and public school funding.  A teacher and rank-and-file leader of the recent teacher strike in Oklahoma, Larry Cagle, offers them this advice:  “Take every dollar your state union will give you, and tell them to sit down and shut up as the rank and file leads the strike. That’s what we should have done in Oklahoma. We never should have allowed the state union to take control.”

Cagle, a Tulsa English teacher, co-founded Oklahoma Teachers United, which organized tens of thousands of educators around the state via Facebook to build support for the strike to demand decent pay and more funding for public education. As in school worker walkouts in West Virginia and Kentucky, Oklahoma’s bottom-up movement repeatedly clashed with state union officials who tried to block, and then delay, their action.  Their determination to strike forced the right-wing Republican dominated state legislature to offer a $6000 pay raise that Cagle says still doesn’t lift Oklahoma educators from their status as the lowest-paid (some sources say second-lowest) in the nation.Thousands of Oklahoma teachers and school support workers walked out on April 2 and rallied at the state capitol in Oklahoma City with strong public support. But after nine days, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) called the strike off, saying that educators had won all they could for now.

OEA’s decision to end the shutdown without further gains has provoked widely reported frustration among teachers. Cagle says that OEA’s survey, and one conducted by Oklahoma Teachers United, indicated that as many as 70 percent of school workers and parents wanted to continue the walkout. A month earlier, West Virginia teachers had rebuffed their leaders’ announcement in front of the state capitol that their strike was over after four days (based on a promise from the governor) with chants of “Go back to the bargaining table! We are the union bosses!”  The West Virginia strike continued for five more days, securing legislative approval for a 5% raise.  It also had beaten back bills attacking seniority and union dues payroll deduction and enabling more charter schools. Teachers and school support workers did not get a long-term resolution to a threat to drastically increase their health benefits costs–the central issue leading to the strike– but they  averted premium hikes for the time being.  They continue to demand progressive and corporate taxation, such as on natural gas producers, to address this issue and to fully fund public schools and services.

But unlike their West Virginia counterparts, Oklahoma strikers were not able to thwart their state union officials’ termination of the shutdown. A number of factors differentiating the two states may have played a role. Oklahoma lacks the tradition of labor militancy found in West Virginia’s coal mining regions where “Fed Up Friday” school walkouts began months before the strike, inspiring workers throughout the state. In addition, since collective bargaining is prohibited in West Virginia, all school workers understood they had to confront the state government directly to win their demands and shut down schools in all of the state’s 55 counties. Oklahoma is more complicated in that regard. Though teacher strikes are prohibited there (as in West Virginia), the state allows collective bargaining for teachers, and about one-third of locals negotiate contracts with their districts. So Oklahoma workers may not have been as unified in believing that progress depended on forcing the state government’s hand.

Oklahoma’s legal right to bargain also may generate a more highly developed state organization of union professionals and officials with greater leverage in many locals than state unions have in West Virginia. This put them in position to become the voice for what had been a grassroots movement once the strike began.  “We never should have trusted them. We were terribly naïve,” Cagle says.  “We never should have handed them the microphone and allowed them to lead us.  After we took a step back for the first three days…we couldn’t get the media momentum to take away the power we’d given them.”

OEA Vice President Katherine Bishop defended the decision to end the school closure. (She says it was not a strike, since school workers didn’t break the law prohibiting strikes, but instead pressured districts throughout the state to close schools.)  “As the leadership,” Bishop says, “we were able to sit down with the leaders of the House and the Senate and try to get to a resolution. And the Senate Republicans just stonewalled it, and there was nothing else that was going to be able to be done.”

But were these Republicans, who recently had caved to pressure to increase taxes and school workers’ pay prior to the shutdown, encouraged to stonewall by state union leaders who signaled they were fearful of continuing the strike? “I think that would be an absolute falsehood and misrepresentation of what our Association stands for,” says Bishop. “We have done everything possible to meet with the leadership of the House and the Senate, and when you hit roadblock after roadblock, there needs to be a shift in how we go forward.”

Cagle doesn’t claim to know whether a longer strike would have secured additional immediate gains, but he believes the top-down decision to end it pre-empted the movement’s ability to “clearly define how angry we are.”

When declaring the strike over, OEA President Alicia Priest told members to “turn [y]our attention toward the election season” and “make our voices heard at the ballot box….We got here by electing the wrong people to office.”  But who are the right people?  Public education funding was nearly as abysmal as it is now during the decades of state governments dominated by Democrats prior to 2004. And yet Oklahoma educators won a major, though insufficient, pay increase even before striking, by organizing a grassroots movement and taking actions showing that they could and would shut down schools.  As in West Virginia, statewide direct action with overwhelming public support won greater progress than electoral politics had achieved, and extracted their gains from right-wing Republican politicians. And the strike was increasing political pressure for higher taxes on corporations to fund public education and services.

Cagle says that the top-down decision to call off the strike has angered many and caused them to drop their union membership. He thinks if large numbers of members leave OEA and join another union, it will send a strong message to unions everywhere that they will have to become more democratic and militant in order to survive.  If he is right, and if the Supreme Court soon eliminates “fair share” fee collection throughout the U.S., union leaders in every state may see the red states rebellion (now spreading to purple Colorado) as a signal that they must radically transform their organizations to attract and keep members.

Meanwhile, these leaders’ public warnings to the corporate class not to unleash the “specter of labor unrest throughout the country” have unwittingly announced which side they are on. Educators and other workers thoughtfully observing these statements and struggles may become even more determined to build and maintain class conscious rank-and-file control over their unions to win real victories.

Craig Gordon has been a high school, middle school, and substitute teacher in Oakland public schools since 1990, and a site representative, executive board member, and organizer for the Oakland Education Association. He is a member of Classroom Struggle, a caucus of educators and community activists working to defend and transform public education and OEA. Craig can be reached at cbgord@gmail.com.

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