Across the United States, unionized public sector workers - and especially teachers - have been under relentless attack from the corporate elite, their media and their political stooges. Newly elected Republican governors and legislators, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, have pushed outright union-busting measures stripping public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights. In Wisconsin, this assault was met by a tremendous and sustained mass mobilization of ordinary people.
The Democrats, by contrast, have sought to portray themselves as “friends of labor” who oppose Scott Walker-style union busting and believe in workers’ rights. But in Illinois the Democrat-controlled legislature has passed a bill directed at the teachers’ unions that, with only one dissenting vote, aims to cripple the power of teachers’ unions to resist the onslaught of privatization and cuts. The bill, generally known in the media as SB 7, is now sitting on the desk of Democratic Governor Pat Quinn awaiting his signature.
A Gift to the Billionaires
SB 7 would severely restrict the right to strike for Chicago teachers, requiring not only that 75% of the entire membership vote in favor (i.e., not just 75% of those who vote) but also mandating a complex process of notification, mediation and “cooling off” that would all work to management’s advantage and decrease the potential effectiveness of any job action.
The bill also effectively ends the use of seniority in determining layoffs across Illinois (although Chicago may be exempted). Instead, layoffs will be determined by “performance” which in turn will be measured by high stakes tests. Without seniority, it will be possible to target “troublemakers,” union activists and veterans generally for layoffs.
Other provisions would allow for lengthening the working day and year without any obligation to increase teachers’ pay; making it easier to fire teachers for “poor performance” based on test
scores; and removing the unions’ ability to appeal breaches of their contracts to the Illinois Labor
The Position of the Unions
Given the content of SB 7, it is in no way surprising that advocates of corporate education reform have been delighted about this bill.
In this context, it is outrageous that the top leaders of the Illinois teachers’ unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association, initially all endorsed SB 7! What was especially disturbing was the endorsement of Karen Lewis, who won a resounding victory last June to become the President of the CTU at the head of the dissident Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) slate.
Socialist Alternative welcomed Lewis and CORE’s victory because they opposed privatization of the schools, President Obama’s Race to the Top program, and undemocratic business unionism. CORE’s positions were in marked contrast to those of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who has turned negotiating sellouts into an art form, but we also emphasized that the new leadership of the CTU would immediately come under ferocious pressure and that mistakes were possible and even likely.
The Perverse Logic of “Negotiating Concessions”
By the start of this year, it was clear that something was amiss. Politicians who had received significant campaign contributions from billionaire education “deformers” (funneled through “Stand for Children”) brought forward the Performance Counts Act, a frontal attack on the teachers’ unions that went even further than SB 7. In desperation, the union leaders agreed to negotiate a new piece of legislation in exchange for taking Performance Counts off the table.
Lewis then went into the room with the corporate politicians and walked out several months later with the SB 7 abomination. Of course, it has been claimed in defense of SB 7 that some of the
most onerous elements of Performance Counts were removed, but the outcome is still a vicious
attack on union rights. Unfortunately, working with management to institute concessions has been the approach of most U.S. union leaders for decades.
Obviously, unions have to negotiate with the bosses and even fighting unions will sometimes be forced to make concessions, but this should only occur as a last resort. For a start, when faced with an attack on union rights like SB 7, union leaderships should mobilize the membership around clear demands to defend their interests and fight for better conditions, pay, benefits and rights. This can involve a range of tactics, from lobbying and protests to mass civil disobedience and strike action.
What the example of SB 7 shows is that it is not enough to replace self-serving bureaucrats like former CTU president Marilyn Stewart with “well-intentioned” leaders. We need new rank-and-file leaders with an outlook based on representing the whole working class and struggling against corporate America and their puppet politicians.
A Class-Struggle Policy
CORE and the CTU did partially reverse course once the full dimensions of the bill became known. There was clearly a lot of anger among union activists. Still, the union’s House of Delegates unfortunately voted only to demand certain changes to the bill rather than opposing it outright. This weakened the union’s ability to mobilize its membership and to arouse the wider labor movement against this threat to union rights. In the end, there were no street protests against this bill, and the opposition and anger of the rank and file came out more like a whimper than a roar.
The worst sort of defeat is a defeat without a fight. It is urgently necessary to discuss the lessons of the SB 7 debacle.
Building an effective wider resistance to the attacks on jobs, services and public sector unions requires discarding the long-standing “political strategy” of the union leadership. We should no longer give political support to “friend of labor” Democrats (or Republicans) and then try to call in favors. Rather than aligning ourselves with one political wing of corporate America, we must seek our allies in the broader working class.
This also means being prepared to use the strike weapon even when it is illegal. The public sector unions and particularly the teachers’ unions only won recognition after a series of strikes, many of them illegal.
It must also be said that the difficulties faced by CORE in the last period are not isolated. The reform leadership of the United Teachers Los Angeles initially elected six years ago has also faltered. This is partly because, while it effectively mobilized the membership around a range of issues, it failed at a critical juncture to take decisive action against mass layoffs.
In particular it buckled in the face of a court injunction against the threat of a one-day strike in 2008 and wound up agreeing to seven unpaid furlough days to avoid further layoffs. Reform groups in other unions propelled into office because of discredited old guard, do-nothing leaders have also - for the most part failed to deliver on expectations.
Why is this? One can point out that the activist layer on which these reform groups have been based is extremely narrow compared to the past. This reflects the massive negative effects on workers’ consciousness of the whole period of corporate globalization from which we are only beginning to emerge. There is also a generation or two in the unions in this country who have almost no direct experience of real class struggle.
Good intentions, radical rhetoric and even union democracy won’t be enough to withstand the current offensive against unions, jobs and services. Experience in struggle and a class struggle approach will be necessary to withstand the pressure of this corporate avalanche.
But big events are now unfolding. The uprising in Wisconsin demonstrates conclusively that wide sections of the American working class are prepared to fight back against the never-ending attacks on their living standards and rights. Events and struggles will be the catalyst for creating tens of thousands of new fighters prepared to struggle and sacrifice to create a better future. Socialists have a crucial role to play in the discussion about the way forward and in educating activists about the history and lessons of the class struggle.