The power of public workers revealed

PHOTO CREDITS, L-R: Letter carrier: U.S. Postal Service; Hospital staff: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Bus driver: Jason McHuff on Flickr; Librarian: Ike Dodson / CDCR; Teacher:; Air traffic controller: BreakingTravelNews on Flickr.
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On New Year’s Day 2019, the federal government was treating 40 percent of its employees like indentured servants, forcing them to work without pay. But then airport screeners called in sick and air traffic controllers stayed off the job, and major airports like New York’s LaGuardia were effectively shut down. That’s what it took to make the political chest-thumping and the shutdown end.

Solidarity from other working people made the huge difference. Dr. Cairo D’Almeida, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1121 that represents Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers in Washington and Alaska, described the support that poured in. “When I went out to seek help for TSA officers, we received over 2,000 gift cards of various amounts from passengers, unions, churches and others. It really helped ease the strain on our members.”

Political bullies. The U.S. government doesn’t want an uppity workforce. It has put countless restrictions on its workers’ right to organize and strike. The Hatch Act prohibits strikes by federal employees. Many states have laws that ban strikes by any public workers and severely limit their collective bargaining rights. Last year’s Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision took aim at public sector unions across the nation, making it much more difficult for them to collect dues. All in order to blunt the power of unionized public workers.

But legal straitjackets and political attacks are having the opposite effect. Government workers are showing they have much more power than their bosses want to admit.

A work force on fire. Each week brings new coverage of public workers hitting the picket lines across the United States. Teachers took the lead last year in West Virginia. Then strikes spread from Los Angeles and Denver to Oakland and many cities in between.

Educators took their work stoppages well beyond demands for well-deserved pay and benefits increases. They centered their struggle around quality education for their students. With ranks made up largely of women, people of color, and immigrants, these unions draw on their members’ deep connection to their hard-pressed communities. They know what students and their families need.

Central demands of the L.A. teachers strike were smaller class sizes, nurses, counselors, and librarians in every school, and a limit to charter schools that suck resources from public schools. The six-day walkout earned tremendous public support because teachers made it clear they were fighting for quality public schools and services for all young people. On some picket lines teachers were outnumbered by supportive students, parents and the surrounding communities.

U.S. streets were soon filled with other striking public service providers. At the University of Vermont Medical Center, 1,800 nurses and technical staff struck in July 2018. They demanded $15 an hour for non-union staff at the center. When they marched downtown to rally, diners along the route stood up and cheered.

A legacy of strikes for better lives. It should be no surprise that so many government workers — city, county, state, federal, school district — are now on strike, have been on strike, or staged job actions across the country. They draw on the militant history of public employee unions’ battles to exist and grow. A mass strike wave of public workers swept the country in the 1960s and ’70s. At its peak in 1970, there was a public sector strike somewhere in the nation every 36 hours. Every one of these strikes had something in common — they were illegal.

Striking unions could defy injunctions and other legal sanctions because of crucial support from the more numerous private sector unions. Community folks got involved as well. Public workers were striking to expand the healthcare, education and social services that working-class communities needed to survive.

The pivotal connection for workers’ struggles was the close tie between the growing public unions and the Black freedom struggle. The most famous example is the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike to win recognition of their union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The city’s segregationist mayor pledged never to recognize the Black unionists. So, local civil rights activists, along with Martin Luther King Jr., joined this heroic battle.

The picket signs carried by determined strikers read, “I am a man.” They combined the powerful struggle for civil rights with the simple premise that, as King put it, “All labor has dignity.” After Memphis, Black workers continued to organize AFSCME locals, and AFSCME was propelled into becoming a nationwide union with over a million members.

Strikers of this period had a saying, “There is no illegal strike — only an unsuccessful one.” This quip echoed in early 2018 when West Virginia teachers struck in all 55 counties in the state for nine days and won large pay raises. There was a law against that strike too, but due to enormous support from fellow Appalachians, it did not matter. A year later the West Virginia legislature was about to pass a law expanding charter schools and privatization. Teachers across the state walked out, and after one day the bill was trashed.

A radical vision. Public workers showed during the shutdown they can stop the government. History has shown they can wield their power to win justice. They provide crucial services and make the government run. It is not unthinkable that they could take it over and run it in the interest of all workers.

In many unions, especially those representing teachers, socialists and militants have built militant caucuses. If these radically-minded unionists were to collaborate nationally and between unions, they could lead public workers toward using their power to take on the profit system itself.

Now that is unionism for our times!

Hoffman, a shop steward for WFSE local 304, can be reached at

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