|Lorraine Forte on Hitting Left.|
On Hitting Left
today, one day after International Women's Day, we spoke with Chicago journalist Lorraine Forte
, newly appointed member of the Sun-Times editorial board. We led off with a discussion of the current role of women in the labor movement and in the recent wildcat strike of West Virginia teachers.
The most interesting aspect of the just-ended, victorious strike, where women were the main and leading force, is the spark it appears to be providing to teacher militants in Arizona and Oklahoma. It's not just a coincidence that all three are so-called "right-to-work states" with decimated labor unions and no collective-bargaining rights guaranteed to teachers and other public employees.
Some would expect that this weakening of the unions would lead to fewer strikes and more compliance on labor's part. This certainly has been the plan behind the Janus case, now in the hands of an supreme court where the fix is in now that Trump-appointed union hater Neil Gorsuch
provides the deciding vote on the likely decision. That will make it much more difficult for unions to collect dues from all the workers they represent.
The case could have a devastating effect on what's left of organized labor in the U.S. Or, it could be the harbinger of new forms of labor militancy and solidarity.
Currently there are about 14 million union members in the U.S., compared with 17.7 million in 1983. The percentage of workers belonging to a union is only 11%, compared to 20% in 1983. The rate for the private sector about 6.7%, and for the public sector 35.3%. The two national teacher unions, the AFT and the NEA are now the largest unions in the country.
So public employee unions, the kind that Dr. Martin Luther King
gave his life defending 50 years ago, are now the last bastion of unionism left. Thus Janus.
In WV, public workers, mostly women, had to take on both the male-dominated state legislature and their own submissive union leadership at the same time and were still able to win.
Is this an omen of things to come? Or will this further erosion of collective-bargaining, virtually turning the entire country into a big "right-to-work" state, really bring about a new era of labor peace?
Joseph A. McCartin
, a labor historian at Georgetown University, tells the New York Times:
“Unions have tended throughout most of their histories to be forces that seek stability, not unrest. When they are weakened, we’re more likely to see the re-emergence of instability and militancy, and the kind of model that we’re seeing happen in West Virginia.”
AFT Pres. Randi Weingarten,
one of the movement's most persistent proponents seat-at-the-table politics, echos McCartin:
"A loss of collective bargaining would lead to more activism and political action, not less," AFT Pres. Randi Weingarten told the Washington Post. "Collective bargaining exists as [a] way for workers and employers to peacefully solve labor relations."
She's mainly right. The history of organized labor is one of both relative peace and open class warfare. In recent years, that class warfare has been decidedly one-sided with corporate power battering the middle class and working poor and placing unions, including teachers and public employee unions in particular, on the strategic defensive.
What will this mean in a post Janus world?
Of course, peaceful collective bargaining is preferable to open battles. Teachers in particular hate to go on strike. Strikes disrupt schools and the lives of students and their families. But without them, teachers and workers, both public and private, have little to bargain with.
Post-industrial economy has succeeded in blurring over class distinctions and minimizing open class struggle. We are all supposedly "middle class" now, despite living in a time when the chasm between the wealthy and poor is the widest it's ever been. But while the crippling of unions as we know them, will widen the gap even further, it may also lead to a new heightened sense of class awareness and the development of new forms of organization and struggle.
Thank you WVA teachers, for showing us the way forward.