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.