Monday, March 16, 2015


An interesting article featuring New York Senator Chuck Schumer appeared this weekend in the Washington Post in which our senior senator endorsed the idea of revitalizing labor unions as a way to increase the fortunes of the middle class and the Democratic Party.

While Schumer is correct in stating that strengthening unions would be the best way forward for the working and middle classes, what have the Democrats done in recent years to help unions? Besides the National Labor Relations Board being a little more worker friendly under Democrat Barack Obama, as compared to Republican George W Bush, I can't think of anything, particularly when it comes to education.

The Republicans are openly hostile to unions and are trying to finish off organized labor while the Democrats say they are friends of working people but do little or nothing when in power to boost the union movement. Remember the Employee Free Choice Act that was supposed to help union organizing. The Post story points out how the Democrats couldn't pass this bill even when they had a filibuster proof majority in the US Senate and control of the House of Representatives. To say labor is taken for granted  by the Democratic Party would be an understatement. 

Since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that basically turned politics into more of a money raising endeavor than it already was, it is difficult to imagine Democrats doing anything but giving lip service to unions so as not to enrage their wealthy donors.  I say this as a long time Democrat.

As for how the weakness of labor impacts teacher unions, NYC Educator did a piece about a week ago wondering why UFT/NYSUT/AFT leaders make decisions that actually harm their members. Why is our union supporting rubbish such as teachers being rated based on student test scores on standardized exams (junk science), the untested Common Core and plenty of other nonsense that the rank and file overwhelmingly abhors?  Why did AFT President Randi Weingarten make phone calls for anti-public school candidate Kathy Hochul in a contested primary last year?  Why did Randi act as an apologist for our foe Governor Andrew Cuomo during the fall election campaign?

These questions are not that difficult to answer.

Our union is in many ways just an appendage, a weak one at that, of the Democratic Party.  As the party sinks further into the money raising pit, don't expect to see much positive change. Democrats are not capable as currently constituted of doing much for us.

At the city level, could you imagine independent, Republican(or whatever he was) Mayor Michael Bloomberg getting municipal unions to accept a pattern of 10% salary increases over 7 years with healthcare savings added in? The UFT ceased having an adversarial relationship with the city once Democrat Bill de Blasio was elected mayor. What has it gotten us? 10% over 7 years and a month and what I would call "Bloomberg lite" administration in the schools.

It was only after Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has attempted a full assault on teacher rights and public schools that the union has offered any resistance at the state level. Our fight back I would not exactly call robust.

When it comes to solutions, we could promote a third party but that would risk splitting the non-Republican vote and would pretty much guarantee right wing rule. (See UK politics for an example on how a divided center-left has benefited conservatives in a similar type of electoral system.)

Instead, we need to be more organized and much more militant. That should be our first priority but we can't stick our heads in the sand and ignore elections. Chicago Teachers are setting the example by strongly opposing Democratic anti-union Mayor Rahm Emanual's bid for reelection.  They might not win but they have earned respect for sure by forcing a runoff.

I also believe we can learn from the Republican masses and start to challenge many incumbents in primaries like they do. When politicians don't support us, it is time to vote them out in primaries. This is how we should have handled Cuomo last year.  This blog endorsed Zephyr Teachout's uphill challenge to the governor.  With full union support, she may have won. (Opposing Cuomo in the 2018 primary with another establishment Democrat is not exactly what we are calling for.)

Since our union bosses are a major part of the Democratic establishment, do not expect them to lead a movement to put real progressives on the ballot.  We'll need to do it ourselves at the grassroots level.

For those who want to go further and advocate for some kind of revolution, I can't forecast many circumstances where the vast majority of NYC teachers, including me, or workers in general would be on board for one. However, if we were to have any success energizing a militant labor movement with a well developed political arm that could not be taken for granted by any politician or political party, it would be truly revolutionary.


Harris L. said...

Thank you, James, for a cogent piece of analysis.

It's interesting to use the Democratic Senate caucus to validate your theory. In 2006, the Republicans had a majority of 55-45. In the 2006 and 2008 elections, the Democrats won 15 Senate seats. Between 2010 and 2014, Democrats lost 14 Senate seats so that the current Republican majority is 54-46.

Of the current Democratic Senators, eleven are nominal Democrats, six from red states and five from light blue states, none of whom can be counted on at any time to support labor friendly or progressive legislation.

Yet, this is the Party to whom we, public sector union members, the last of that dying union breed, are expected to pledge fealty because the alternative is so terrifically much worse. Unfortunately, it's not clear to me that any of these eleven could be replaced in a primary by a more reliable progressive.

So, yes, labor is just another of the groups within the Democratic Party taken for granted, along with black and Latino voters and women in the specific cases where a Democrat can claim a gender gap lead.

I think your call for labor militancy needs to stand on its own, not because it will result in more Democrats, which by itself accomplishes nothing, but because a more militant labor front might form the core around which disaffected members of the coalition could articulate an alternate narrative and policy agenda.

If we don't, we'll have lost any hope of protecting our own members against the depredations of the Republican Party and the abject failure to act by the Democrats. A militant labor front may be the only hope of preserving the seed corn for a future progressive program should demographic changes at some point actually turn out to give the Democratic Party some particular electoral advantage.

Other than a few environmentalist groups that may gain traction as climate change accelerates and aging boomers who will rise up to protect Social Security and Medicare, I see no other hope for preserving any force in American life that will press against the full surge in economic inequality and privatization of what is left of the public good than resurgent public unions. The only trick to that is dumping the leadership that whores itself to the Democratic Party bloc for table scraps. No problem there....I'm sure we can take care of that without too much problem, don't you think?

James Eterno said...

Great comment Harry. I didn't say this would be easy.

Anonymous said...

Yes James, great piece of writing. Timely too. Those of you in New York City not in the Unity club may not realize that very soon, the NYSUT officers will be holding their first statewide convention in Buffalo May 1-2 of this year. This will be a real test for them as it is now nearly a year since they staged the UFT coup and essentially took over the state organization. Expect to see an array of phony and "inspirational" videos showing all the amazing actions the officers led in going after this Democratic Governor. It will be like those pep rallies we all dreaded in high school. What will be absent from this show will be any acknowledgement that these exact officers, along with Randi and Mulgrew, were what created and sustained Cuomo in the first place and along the way, it was these dishonorable leaders who forced a Working Families Party endorsement of Cuomo. These were the same leaders who sat on their hands and stood out of last year's historic governor's election when he had already done such damage to our profession and our public schools. And it was the current executive vice president, Mr. Andrew Pallotta who unilateraly gave ten thousand dollars to Cuomo in December of 2013 when he had the brilliant idea of buying a table at this exculsive fundraiser and brought two of the current officers with him to publicly support the governor. What was our Andy thinking? I can tell you that there are many of us NYSUT leaders and members who would have a hard time deciding which Andy is worse. I will be at the convention along with many likeminded people who will shout down the video show and demand that these officers be held accountable for their duplicitous behavior and more importantly that we have an honest and open discussion about how this love affair with the Democratic Party has to end. A new caucus has been formed at NYSUT to rival the UFT Unity Caucus. This caucus is the Stronger Together Caucus. I plan on joining the ST caucus to ensure that the work of the previous officers, the four who were brave enough to stand up to Mulgrew, Weingarten, and Pallotta and go after Cuomo before it was fashionable to do so. Keep writing James. You are connecting with many more statewide NYSUT members than you realize. PEACE.

James Eterno said...

Thanks for the support. Contact us off list if you like. I am a Stronger Together supporter (don't know if memberships exist yet). I went to the first meeting. I hope to be involved more. Good people. I was impressed.