The power of mobilizations of public workers

BY:Anita Waters| December 18, 2019
The power of mobilizations of public workers


Editor’s note: This article responds to the November 2019 discussion question on political independence, working-class leadership, and the fight for democracy.

Where do we find working-class leadership in our current political climate? Organized labor is the most obvious place. Trade unions and other workers’ organizations are in the forefront of the struggle for democracy. Where unions are strong, more people vote in elections, join political organizations, and protest policies that increase inequality. Mobilization of workers through effective leadership is the best way of protecting and promoting working-class interests.

This is especially evident in the organization of public workers. A much higher percentage of public workers (33.9% in 2018) are organized compared with workers in private companies (6.4%). Attacks on public workers’ unions, such as the disparagement of teachers’ unions in the documentary Waiting for Superman (2010), the anti-NEA rhetoric of Chris Christie and Rahm Emmanuel, and ALEC anti-teacher initiatives, awakened a new militancy among unions throughout the last decade. Besides the quantitative increase in union activity, there is a qualitative increase in political engagement through organized labor.

In Columbus, Ohio, we have experienced attacks on public workers’ unions as well as the militant and effective fight-back of public workers. In the early months of 2011, the Republican state legislature debated and ultimately passed Senate Bill 5, which effectively denied public workers all rights to organize. During the debates, public workers and their allies in other unions and from the community came together in a series of impassioned protests at the statehouse in frigid weather.

When the measure was signed into law by Governor John Kasich, the uprising of teachers, fire fighters, and police was immediate and unified. A referendum campaign was launched to offer voters a chance to repeal the measure. About 300,000 signatures were required to put it on the ballot, but organizers collected almost 1 million more signatures than necessary. The measure appeared on the ballot in November 2011, and Ohioans voted to repeal the law, 62% vs. 38%. The intensity and passion of the struggle to defeat SB5 is worth remembering—I recommend this moving video made by the AFT. Labor emerged victorious, and celebrations were fierce.

The effervescence of the SB5 fight seemed to carry over through the next year. In the 2012 presidential campaign, many of the same volunteers who had protested SB5 and collected signatures for its repeal were, without missing a beat, volunteering for Obama, Sherrod Brown, and others. Two years later, 300 teachers in Reynoldsburg, a suburb of Columbus, went out on strike for two weeks. Parents, students, and the community came out to their rallies to lend their support. Labor militancy and community engagement against the school board mobilized voters in Reynoldsburg, which made history last November by electing the first Bhutanese-American city council member.

Even through to the present, recent marches and rallies in support of the Columbus Education Association, the American Association of University Professors, and others show that solidarity among public workers’ organizations is still strong.

Across the nation, teachers have led in labor militancy. In the 2019 elections in Kentucky, the incumbent GOP governor had notoriously disparaged teachers, and analysts say that sympathy for teachers was one reason that Democratic challenger Andy Beshear defeated Bevins, in a state that Trump had won by 30 points. This isn’t the only evidence that the demonizing of teachers’ unions, so popular eight years ago, is over. Teachers enjoy public sympathy. Political scientist Alexander Hertel-Fernandez studied the six states in which there were teacher walk-outs in the Red4Ed movement, starting with West Virginia in 2018. He found that in the aftermath of each walk-out, teachers were more favorably covered in the media, and more people were interested in joining a union.

One reason for the uptick in people’s support for teachers’ unions probably lies in the demands that teachers are making in their bargaining with municipalities. Parents, students, and community members all recognize that better learning conditions (small class sizes, adequate physical facilities, and more support staff like social workers and psychologists) benefit the whole community. These kinds of demands were echoed in Reynoldsburg during their 2014 strike, in Columbus as its local union prepared to bargain, and in the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike.

Experiences with teachers’ strikes show that the militancy pays off. In the first of the Red4Ed strikes, West Virginia rank-and-file teachers rejected a tentative contract and engaged in a wildcat strike. Sociologist Jake Rosenfeld said the strike was “wildly successful.” The teachers won a 5% raise. A new board was formed to oversee health care, with a guarantee of three union seats on it. Finally, the Republican governor promised to reject various anti-union bills that had been introduced in the legislature. It’s no wonder that teachers elsewhere adopted similar strategies.

As we move toward our political work for 2020, we should be deliberate about the role that teachers and other public workers can play in working-class leadership. We can work to support the “Protecting the Right to Organize” Act (PRO Act), which restores labor rights to public worker unions that the Janus decision took away. In Ohio, we expect a state equivalent to the PRO Act to be introduced in the legislature. Working together locally on these initiatives will help build the leadership that will carry through to the electoral sphere in November and toward policies that begin to reflect working-class leadership.

Some sources:

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, 12 November 2019. “Teacher strikes have changed the political landscape across the US.” The Guardian

Jake Rosenfeld. 2019. “US Labor Studies in the Twenty-First Century: Understanding Laborism without Labor.” Annual Review of Sociology 45 (1), 449–465.

People’s World articles about teachers’ and other public workers’ strikes:

“Santa Clara County Public Workers Strike for Community Welfare”

“Oakland City Workers Rally to Fill Vacancies, Win Fair Pay, and Uphold Rights”

“Columbus, Ohio Teachers March for Better Schools, Say Strike Is Possible”

“Organizing to Win: Lessons of Ohio’s Wright State University Strike of 2019”

“Workers, Allies Lay Groundwork for Labor Law Reform Fight”

Image: Columbus, Ohio, teachers strike. Photo by Anita Waters, People’s World


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