A pivotal turning point in labor history was in 1981 when Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers who went on strike. Thirty three years later the downward spiral for organized labor in general and public employees in particular has not been reversed. Believe it or not, those controllers, who Reagan portrayed as greedy, had public support a decade earlier when they were fighting against forced overtime. It was an airline safety issue.
Now that basic collective bargaining rights are either gone or under assault in the public and private sectors throughout the country, labor needs to take a look at why strikes were successful before the 1980s and revive the militancy weapon wisely. For those of us who work for the government in New York, it is almost unimaginable to think of a job action but they used to happen with some degree of regularity throughout the country.
As Joe Burns noted in a recent Labor Notes essay on the history of public sector strikes: "Winning public employee strikes, then and now, depended on a union’s ability to frame the issues, garner community support, and thereby exert political pressure on policymakers to settle." This is very difficult in the age of the media barons and unlimited money from billionaires flooding political campaigns but it is not impossible as recent teacher job actions and/or credible threats have shown.
Striking is a fundamental worker right. Public employees in New York State have basically given up that right because we are fearful of the harsh penalties of the Taylor Law (we are fined two days pay for every day on strike) but without the strike weapon, we are engaging in, as Burns put it, "collective begging" with our employers. There is no need for management to negotiate in good faith and we pretty much have no recourse.*
We should be seeking common ground with the public to show that it is in the general public's interest to have a strong labor movement. Then we can exert pressure on politicians so they know that their jobs will be in jeopardy if they don't stand with us on important issues.
For our union, the United Federation of Teachers, we could easily start with the Comptroller's Report released earlier this month showing how one in three NYC public schools are overcrowded. Lower class sizes/building new schools (instead of shoving schools inside of existing ones) should be at the forefront of the UFT's agenda moving forward. We can rally our members and the public around these issues. Reasonable class sizes should also be a contractual demand for sure.
Opposition to Common Core should also be a no brainer for our union. The public is with us here too.
A revival of the UFT and many other unions must start at the grassroots level and requires person-to-person organizing. We cannot depend on the detached union hierarchy to lead as they are far removed from the work place so they are not impacted by what they negotiate.
If we don't get it together soon, we will continue to spiral downward until all of us will be at will Walmart style employees.
*The Triborough provision of the Taylor Law keeps NYS public employee contracts in effect, after they expire, until there is a new one. However, at the end of any mediation, non-binding arbitration or other process, workers need to be able to have the legal option to withhold their labor until there is a new agreement. For some unions the process ends in binding arbitration. For NYC teachers, it just ends after non-binding arbitration. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was successful in just waiting the teachers out and subsequently we accepted an inferior agreement where most of us won't be paid in full until 2020 for monies owed to us from 2009-11 (some won't be paid at all and are suing) and many of us have had our due process rights weakened.