In Washington state this spring, thousands of teachers walked off their jobs to protest chronic underfunding of public education. In Wisconsin in 2011, teachers were leaders in the historic occupation of the state capitol in Madison, as they protested their governor’s push to outlaw collective bargaining rights for public workers.
Given these actions and the long history of teachers standing up not only for themselves, but for their students and public schools, it is no surprise that their unions have a target on their back. It is put there by a cabal of right-wing organizations and big business-backed foundations, including the Christian Educators Association International and Center for Individual Rights. The goal? Demolish teacher unions as a step toward smashing all unions.
The current vehicle is a lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, named after non-union teacher plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs, seeks to overturn the “agency shop.” Under this system, once a majority of workers have voted for union representation, the union can collect dues from all employees covered by their contract, whether or not they join the union. Since the union is obliged to represent all the workers, they in turn are all obliged to support it financially.
This system was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. Leading up to that case, public sector workers routinely went on strike to win unions — often without legal sanction. The Abood case recognized public sector unions and provided a mechanism for dues payment. These unions went on to become a vital force within organized labor, and staunch defenders of public services.
A well-bankrolled war on labor. The Friedrichs lawsuit is part of a larger strategy to destroy unions across the U.S. through misnamed “right-to-work” laws. Labor more aptly calls them “right-to-starve.” A major backer of the movement is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate funded right-wing lobbying group. It also promotes racist voter ID and “stand your ground” laws.
Under the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947, Congress mandated that states could adopt such laws. By 1948, 12 states, most in the South, had done so. The initial push came from the National Association of Manufacturers and white supremacists who hoped to stop the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) from forging solidarity between southern white and Black workers. Where these laws are on the books, workers are allowed to become “free riders” who can enjoy union benefits, protection and representation, without contributing any dues to fund these services.
Subcontracting, outsourcing, trade pacts, and anti-union laws have decimated union numbers over several decades. With labor so weakened, right-wing groups are renewing their push to expand “right to work” across the nation.
In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rammed through Act 10, denying bargaining rights to public sector workers. Within the year, statewide membership in one of the largest public unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), declined from 62,818 to 28,745.
This year, with unions still reeling, Walker leveled another blow, imposing right-to-starve on all unions, public and private, making Wisconsin the twenty-fifth state in the Union to adopt such a law. This latest defeat is a sobering lesson on why the entire labor movement has a huge stake in stopping the Supreme Court from ruling in favor of Friedrichs.
With half the states now banning agency shops, organized labor is at a tipping point, in its most precarious position since the 1930s. From a high of 34.8 percent membership in 1954, only 11.1 percent of workers are now in unions. Among them, education workers have the highest rate of unionization at 35.3 percent. By comparison, only 6.6 percent of all private sector workers are now unionized.
Life-and-death issue. In “right to work” states, the rate of occupational fatalities is 34 percent higher than in other states, according to the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy at the University of Michigan. The Economic Policy Institute found that wages of full-time workers are lower by an average $1,558 a year in these states than in those with a meaningful right to organize, even when the wages of union and non-union workers are averaged together. Employees are also less likely to be covered by pensions or health benefits.
Equally serious as the attempt to stamp out the organized voice of the working class, is the drive to overturn public-sector unions as a means to eliminate their role in defending public services. From public transit workers to school teachers, public employees are in the forefront of fighting privatization schemes and budget cuts to the public services that poor and working people rely upon. In taking aim at these unions, corporate America hopes to eliminate one of the biggest obstacles to their belt-tightening, austerity agenda.
Revive labor’s fighting spirit. While the main attack on organized labor is from the outside, the heads of many unions bear some responsibility for today’s desperate state of affairs. Years of reliance on the Democrats and friendly relations with bosses have moved too many unions away from their true source of power — the rank and file’s ability to stop production on the shop floor through the strike.
One way this has happened is through “binding arbitration” agreements, where the ability to strike is replaced with supposedly neutral professional arbitrators who impose contract conditions on union-represented workers in exchange for labor peace. Such deals may make the job of labor officials easier, but they have come at a steep price in fewer contract gains and less member engagement.
Internal democracy and freedom of dissent, the lifeblood of any organization, has suffered in many unions, as leaders become removed from the concerns and struggles of the members they represent.
The urgent need to mobilize against the Friedrichs case and others like it can be a fresh opportunity for the rank and file to return unions to their radical roots and to do the kind of organizing that gave rise to their power in the first place.
Unionists can call on the AFL-CIO to organize a national march in Washington, D.C., against “right to work” laws and in defense of the right of unions to exist. They can put the Supreme Court — and lawmakers — on notice, regardless of whether the Court takes the Friedrichs case.
Members can demand that unions take the money they usually give to Democrats for elections and launch a campaign to defend union rights, build solidarity between unions, and enlist public support. Only the ranks can send the urgent message that there’s no time to waste in gearing up for this battle!
Linda Averill is a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587. Send feedback to her at FSnews@socialism.com.
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