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Increasingly across the country, workers in different occupations recognize that their fates are linked. Low-skilled workers who are not paid a living wage share a common bond with teachers whose salaries and pensions aren’t keeping pace with the increasing cost of living. They also see a widening wage gap between them and their bosses. Fortune magazine reports that the “average CEO of a large U.S. company makes 271 times the wages of the average worker,” up from 10 times in 1960. And business leaders get a hand from conservative lawmakers. Right-to-work laws, on the books in 28 states, outlaw collective bargaining agreements (contracts between employers and unions).
Any group that successfully increases its wages automatically casts the die for others.
When West Virginia Governor Jim Justice signed legislation to increase teacher pay by 5 percent earlier this month, ending a statewide teacher walkout that closed schools in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties for nine days, other teachers took notice. Teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona are considering strikes for an increase in pay, and in Kentucky, teachers are protesting a pension reform bill; all four are right-to-work states.
However, when students stared down the NRA and forced statewide gun control legislation in the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, workers in other occupations took note. Students across the country walked out of schools on March 14 for 17 minutes to pay tribute to the 17 victims of the mass shooting. Suddenly, workers in non-educational occupations woke up to the fact that we can organize around progressive causes in schools and that the actions of its students and teachers can trigger change beyond education. Some realized that attacks on the organizing power of schools, i.e., teacher unions, are a deliberate attempt to weaken progressive causes, workers’ rights more broadly, and women’s power — for teaching remains an overwhelmingly pink profession.
The union membership rate in the U.S. was 10.7 percent in 2017, encompassing 14.8 million workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent with 17.7 million union workers. The rate for public-sector workers was significantly higher at 34.4 percent with 7.2 million members than the private-sector rate at 6.5 percent with 7.6 million members.
With the proliferation of the “gig” economy, which emphasizes the kind of individual contracting that underpins ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft, the need to organize around worker rights grows ever more pressing. It’s simply harder to identify the concerns of separate individual contractors and organize around their collective rights without a union of some sort.
In addition, schools show how the women’s, labor and Black Lives Matter movements are inextricably linked. We witnessed the damage when summary firings were the reform du jour of charter advocates, and teachers lost union protections in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in Washington, D.C. under Michelle Rhee’s stint as chancellor, and in Newark, NJ, during Cami Anderson’s beleaguered tenure as the city’s school chief. Of course these majority-black workforces were replaced primarily by less-experienced white teachers. Entire communities were hurt across racial and gender lines, and black children lost effective role models.
And then there’s our corporate president who, along with his billion-dollar cabinet, including labor antagonist Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, would love to see workers’ voices muted around issues of fair wages and working conditions — especially among teachers’ unions who uniformly side with the opposing party.
Organized labor is needed now more than ever. It’s hard for an individual driver of a ride-sharing company to demand a raise from her employer or a lone teacher to negotiate a competitive retirement package. These workers need a voice at the table lest it’s left to employers to determine how much they are worth. But labor unions are at risk of losing significant financial resources to combat worker exploitation.
Last month, the Supreme Court heard Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, featuring Illinois social worker Mark Janus, who didn’t want to pay for union representation. Though not a member of the union, he is covered under the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and is obligated under the law to pay his share of covering the cost to represent him. A ruling against the union would lead to unions of all kinds losing revenues from non-members that are used to negotiate work hours, pay, vacation time and grievance procedures.
The Janus decision will also determine how much unions can spend to help seat or unseat elected officials.
“Deprive [the] four biggest public unions of non-member fees and the $166 million they spent on federal candidates in 2016 would drop closer to $55 million,” according to a Politico analysis. Let’s assume a conservative court votes, as anticipated, to end the practice of collecting fees from non-members. Labor will have less money to organize, in spite of greater challenges under a Trump administration.
Teachers’ unions represent some of the largest unions in the country, and they deploy critical boots on the ground during political campaigns. Their support of the Democratic Party goes well beyond education. This is one of the major reasons why, during his 2016 presidential run, former New Jersey governor, and Republican, Chris Christie said on national television that a national teachers’ union deserved a “punch in the face.”
If funding goes away, new strategies that involve schools must be developed. The academic and social skills that teachers instill in children, their importance to our economy and way of life, make teachers and students significant political players, even when they’re not invited to the collective bargaining table. If a school shuts down, the local economy has to adjust. Think about what happens in the north when schools close due to snow accumulation. People call off work; spending patterns, traffic and even energy consumption changes.
Teachers and students are harnessing that power to beat back the acute threats of low pay and gun violence. But they must also see their connection to a larger progressive movement. There’s an opportunity here to link up with other movements, such as gun control, to build a multiracial, cross-sector coalition that can counter the economic might of the corporate leadership.
When asked about the teachers’ strike in West Virginia, Steve Buford, electrical technician at Riverside High School in Belle, W.Va., pointed to how there is a broader mission. “I don’t think this is a strike or a work stoppage,” he said. “I think this is a movement for a better future for West Virginia.”
I am not advocating for cynically manipulating the idealism and passion of students and teachers to force change, at the expense of educating our children. But students don’t live in hermetically sealed schools — they live in communities. And we must help make sure they enter a just world when they graduate. Students and teachers are taking the lead to improve our society; we must support their efforts and follow their example.