It is no secret that organized labor has been in a long, slow death spiral since the Reagan Administration. Union membership in the private sector has fallen to below 7%, reduced to levels not seen since the passage of the Wagner Act in the 1930s. Union leadership has largely been paralyzed into inaction (or misguided action) as all hope was placed in a disastrous multi-decade effort to funnel all energies into a busted two party political system where Republicans, hell bent on the destruction of organized labor, are pitted against Democrats, who are unwilling to take any major steps to save it.
Not content to stop with the decimation of private sector unions, the wealthiest most powerful individuals turned their attentions toward the public sector. They recognized that to gain complete control of the nation's political system and wealth, they needed to declare complete war on all of organized labor. Led by the Koch Brothers and ALEC, they took that war to Wisconsin. And when thousands of union members and working families assembled to fight the blatant attack on workers, union leadership told the assembled masses to go home, and vote. They funneled the collective energies of the movement, and angst of the working class, right back into the system so perfectly designed to keep them from exercising any real power.
Now, similar laws have been passed in Iowa, despite no calls from citizens for them, and despite fierce, and complete opposition to them. At first, it appeared as though the joke was on the Republicans who passed the laws requiring certification elections prior to bargaining new contracts, because almost every public entity in the state of Iowa won their recertification votes. But now, as bargaining with school districts is underway, no one is laughing...
Many in labor believed that with decent elected officials on school boards and other local entities, that bargaining under the new laws might not be so bad. As the examples above have shown, they were sorely mistaken. The collective benefits and rights that have been negotiated over the bulk of the last half century are being unapologetically dismantled and shamefully stripped away. Collective bargaining agreements that were 80 or 100 pages long last month, are being reduced to 1 or 2 pages of meaningless garbage, unworthy of the ink wasted on printing them.
Iowa teachers, in particular, are largely shell shocked, but some of them are beginning to awaken to the new realities. In online forums and coffee shops and homes, small groups of teachers are beginning to do something they haven't done in over a generation; they are starting to organize. And many of them are even beginning to use the only word capable of saving the movement. STRIKE.
Some still cling to hope in the process or the next election cycle, as they are hesitant to do anything that might harm their students or their beloved districts. But others still are coming to terms with the fact the parents in their school districts have elected the people who are destroying their lives, and while those parents did not advocate for these new ALEC written laws, they did nothing to stop their enactment. The message from the communities and Republicans has largely been that firefighters and policemen and heroes, worthy of collective bargaining rights. Teachers on the other hand, are a public nuisance, ranked slightly above uncollected garbage.
Among Iowa teachers, the arguments that they have to remain loyal to their districts are fading. The realization is also setting in that as goes their power as a collective, so goes their ability to protect their students from the various privatization schemes pushed by the rich, that will further erode Iowa's public education system.
Some still argue that a strike will cause irreparable harm to their union, with fines assessed at $10,000 per day, but others are wondering what good it does to maintain an organization that now lacks even the ability to file a simple grievance on their behalf.
In Iowa, collective bargaining laws were passed decades ago, in part, to end strikes by educators. The embarrassment of teachers sitting in jail cells because of "illegal" strikes was too much to take. It made the governor look bad. The tradeoff was, collective bargaining rights, grievance procedures, and binding arbitration, and educators agreed not to strike. In short, the deal is now off.
The other argument losing steam is that strikes are illegal. Yes. They are. They were illegal when the teachers held them so long ago to earn the rights inherited by this generation. It was illegal when Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. It was illegal when the black men sat down at that lunch counter. And it is illegal yet today. The only thing that has changed is the courage of the individuals in this generation of workers. Or has it?
Workers are growing weary. They are growing tired of dying the death of a thousand cuts that is being perpetrated upon them, and they are growing impatient with unions and union leaders who are unwilling to lead them to more meaningful direct action.
Even as Iowa educators begin the process of awakening and the realization that their labor is indisputably their own, and their right to withhold their labor is inalienable, regardless of law or threat of consequence, Florida educators are facing another prong of the Koch/ALEC attack, with pending legislation that will automatically decertify any union with less than 50% dues paying membership. And even before enactment, their union is using the 'S' word publicly.
In short, the Koch Brothers and ALEC might just be accomplishing what we in organized labor have failed to do since the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, awakening the sleeping, slumbering giant, that is the true potential of the organized, radicalized, pissed off masses in America. If they succeed, then every working family in the nation might just have to send a handwritten thank you card to the Koch Brothers, ALEC, and their corporate cronies in the GOP AND Democratic parties for making it happen. In turn, the private sector union movement might owe a huge debt of gratitude for educators teaching the entire movement how to finally act like unions again.
If you follow me, I haven't posted in a while. But I have been doing some reading, and if you are among those groups of working people, or labor leaders, meeting and talking about things and need some inspiration, I recommend the two following books:
Jane McAlevey has produced a great organizing model study of the CIO years that produced the successes of the modern movement, and includes an in-depth look at how the Chicago teachers organized to win their strike, and control of their union.
Srdja Popovic has written an entertaining manual on the non-violent tactics employed by the leaders of the Serbian revolution (he was among them). And while it may not seem like it applies, there are many brilliant philosophies and tactics that translate easily to any people's organizing efforts.