Just off the 101 freeway in downtown Los Angeles, a billboard advises teachers to “read this before costs another $1,000 on union fees.” The ad touts teacherfreedom.org, a site sponsored by the Koch-backed California Policy Center that provides guidelines on how teachers can leave their union, along with testimonials from people identified as teachers recounting how much freer they felt after leaving their union.
The signboard’s message is that the instructors’ union is a waste of cash, an inefficient implies to advance their interests. This is not an separated viewpoint. Labor’s declining fortunes over the past several decades have actually offered credence to the idea that they are outmoded institutions, and that traditional union strategies like striking no longer work. Current political beats like the spread out of “right to work” laws and last year’s Supreme Court judgment in Janus v. AFSCME only reinforced that conventional knowledge.
After this week, though, such billboards are less likely to find a receptive audience — and the gotten knowledge looks increasingly mistaken. That’s since 34,000 teachers learned firsthand that unions actually can get them what they want.
They did so by utilizing that standard union tactic: the strike. Performing together, teachers won what the school board had said was impossible: smaller sized class sizes, more nurses, counselors and curators — along with neighborhood problems that weren’t even expected to be on the bargaining table, such as cutting standardized screening, restricting student searches that lots of thought about racial profiling and increasing green space on school campuses.
Despite school board efforts to keep schools open, virtually no instructors crossed the picket lines. On the other hand, their union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), arranged four rallies of more than 50,000 individuals in one week, all while running daily pickets at 900 schools. Parents and community members backed the educators in their fight by marching alongside them, even as regional companies brought food to the lines, and local and national political figures spoke up on behalf of the cause. The mobilization captured school board officials flat-footed, while galvanizing instructors and their fans.
It wasn’t expected to play out like this. After last summer season’s Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, lots of forecasted the downfall of public sector unions. That choice permitted public sector employees to opt out of paying for the expenses of negotiating and imposing union contracts from which they benefited. The ruling was expected to defund unions by enabling employees to withdraw their financial support while keeping unions’ responsibility to represent them.
In the wake of the ruling, a number of anti-union groups arranged a collective nationwide project to motivate employees to leave their unions. It includes billboards like the one on the 101 highway, as well as targeted mail and email messages, and even door-to-door canvassing. “We understand there are 10s of thousands of educators who chafe under the left-leaning management of these unions,” stated Jami Lund of the Flexibility Foundation. “Making sure they know they now have an choice will certainly have its impact.”
So far, it hasn’t. While it is too early to discern long-lasting impacts, initial results suggest that many unions have persuaded more employees to opt in to union subscription rather than having more individuals decide out.
Much of this convincing has been the result of the kind of client, one-to-one organizing that rarely makes headlines. But victories like the L.A. instructors’ strike are a far much better recruitment tool. That’s since they program workers the power they have when they fight together. As Peg Cagle, a mathematics instructor at Reseda High School, informed the Nation of the strike, “After decades of sensation invisible, the reality that you actually feel like you are being heard, that your voice is rising above the fold, if you will — you have got a possibility that in some way, someone, may be listening and someone might in fact pay attention.”
Especially in a context where employees’ incomes have been slipping for decades, and couple of feel much control over their lives at work, that kind of program of cumulative strength transcends the narrow self-interest of the anti-union forces’ “save your loan!” message. You can’t put a cost on regard.
For unions, the L.A. teachers’ triumph offers another essential lesson: strikes work. Once again, this goes against today’s conventional wisdom, which holds that corporate debt consolidation, financialization and restructuring have rendered strikes ineffective. In the L.A. teachers’ case, they were not merely up versus the school board. They were also taking on rich power gamers like Eli Broad and the Walmart household successors, who had spent 10s of millions of dollars getting their school board candidates chosen to produce a pro-privatization, pro-charter-school bulk on the board.
The Los Angeles strike dealt a problem to that program. It did so by shifting the battle over public education from the conference rooms and the tally box, where the rich might effectively purchase the results they wanted, out to the schools and streets of Los Angeles, where they were outnumbered. By going straight to the people, the strike located UTLA as a voice for the city’s schools and communities, not simply a narrow “special interest” looking out for its own members.
This was no accident. It was the result of years of mindful preparation and intentional organizing — again, the kind that hardly ever makes headings. After taking power in 2014, a reform leadership set about changing the union and preparing for a strike. They developed an arranging department, a political department, a research study department and a parent/community division. Working with teachers in every school, they set up Contract Action Teams (CAT) made up of union volunteers and moms and dad agents. With a 10- to-1 member-to-volunteer ratio, the Felines produced a bottom-up infrastructure that might inform and organize the membership, while involving parents and neighborhood allies. That’s the kind of company that was needed to make last week’s mobilization possible.
The L.A. instructors’ strike shows that with the right planning and company, strikes can win. Not just that, however they can win things that would otherwise be difficult. Far from an outmoded method, they can kind the basis for labor’s revitalization.
Following L.A.’s example, instructors in Oakland, Denver and Virginia are likewise gearing up for strikes. They will be building off last year’s momentum from the “red state” instructor strike wave, as well as recent private-sector strike wins like that at Marriott hotels.
While these mobilizations provide factor for optimism, it remains important to keep them in viewpoint. Just recently released figures from the Bureau of Labor Stats show that unions continued their decades-long decline in 2018, dropping to 10.5 percent of the nonagricultural labor force. The recent stirrings have yet to shift labor’s fortunes on a more comprehensive scale. In addition, the Janus decision might accelerate subscription erosion over time, particularly as older union members retire and are changed by younger workers who have to be convinced to join the union.
But to the level that a turn-around is possible for labor, the L.A. instructors show the path forward. Systematic work environment organizing, paired with a broad vision and determination to battle for it, will not win every time. But it’s the only way that labor stands a possibility.