School Strikes and Organized Labor: A Revival?

Analysis (May 2, 2018) Organized labor in the United States is in a crisis. We know this because Union membership is way down. We know this because the decline is documented.

We know the high point in Union membership was in the 1950s. It was also the moment that the United States had a wealthy middle class. This middle class, mostly white, was able to have one parent go to work, while the second partner, usually mom, could stay home and raise the children.

To clarify, this golden age did not extend to all groups in the United States. African Americans and Hispanic, for example, still lived in a divided, Jim or Juan Crow system of segregation. While some Unions reached for minorities to join and benefit from the movement, not all did. However, the people who benefited were able to live a middle class life, and send their kids to college.

Their children, in many cases, got that college degree, and moved on from the working class to the middle class. The educated group that also learned to despise the same exact Union movement that allowed their parents to give them a better life. It was not just them. Their parents forgot that they were working class, and that as such, their new status came from the same unions that fought for good contracts, with solid middle class wages and pensions.

The Second Red Scare also started to paint Unions and Union bosses as reds, not to be trusted. Industry started a long game to discredit unions and expand right to work laws across the country. The Powell Memo of the 1970s was an expansion of these efforts.

The Powell Memo is one source that started the war against those that Lewis Powell perceived as against the free enterprise system. He wrote:

The sources are varied and diffused. They include, not unexpectedly, the Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic. These extremists of the left are far more numerous, better financed, and increasingly are more welcomed and encouraged by other elements of society, than ever before in our history. But they remain a small minority, and are not yet the principal cause for concern.

The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.

While he did not directly mention unions, they were part of the system of resistance that Powell identified. Some of the talking points remain to this day, and are expected from the right wing.

In 1972 Unions were already on a slow decline. Part of it were the House hearings in the 1950s, led by Robert Kennedy. However, this process would gain speed in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration. This administration went to war with organized labor, never mind that it was this white working class that was key to his victory against Jimmy Carter.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has this had date on union membership, starting with the Reagan administration:

The number of employed union members has declined by 2.9 million since 1983. During the same time, the number of all wage and salary workers grew from 88.3 million to 133.7 million. Consequently, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent in 1983 and declined to 11.1 percent in 2015.

In 2009, there was a sharp decline in the number of workers overall and in the number of union members. The number of wage and salary workers declined by 4.9 million from 2008 to 2009, and the number of employed union members fell by 771,000. However, the union membership rate was 12.3 percent in 2009, essentially unchanged from 12.4 percent in 2008.

The weakening of organized labor was a policy goal by American industry. Never mind that the peace that they enjoyed in the work place was profitable for all. This temporary reprieve saw increasing efforts to curb labor, including the spread of Right to Work laws, that are meant to weaken labor by preventing labor from collecting fees from all workers it ends up representing.

Then there are legal cases, such as *Citizens United,* which make money speech. Well, not all money, since Unions are not allowed to do the same as industry, and are at a clear disadvantage.

Declining union membership, and stagnant wages are leading to a generation radicalization of a population. People know there is a problem, even if as of yet, they cannot put their finger on it. This was one reason for the Occupy movement, more on this bellow. However, we find ourselves with a general brush fire, of wildcat strikes.

The strikes started in West Virginia. Teachers walked off the job demanding better pay. It was quite, people could not pay their bills. The strike did not span a single school, or a district. It spanned the full state. This strike also lasted for two weeks, and was not authorized by Union leadership. This is a critical point, since it possibly marks the end of peace between management and labor.

The strike came to an end when Governor James C. justice signed a bill increasing pay by five percent. It was a success, and it became a model for teachers in other states.

The House of Delegates said that there would be a real cost in order to meet this increase in wages:

Unlike a previous proposed raise that was backed by Mr. Justice and the State House of Delegates, the deal reached on Tuesday had the support of Mitch Carmichael, the president of the State Senate. Mr. Carmichael said the deal would probably lead to painful cuts in other parts of the state budget; another Republican senator, Craig Blair, said in a conference committee that Medicaid would be among the areas cut.

”These things come at a cost,” Mr. Carmichael said.

But as he signed the bill, Mr. Justice tried to dispel the suggestion that the pay raise would come at the expense of Medicaid recipients.

There were symbols as well. Some going back to another time, when organized labor used to be far more ideological. The teachers wore red t-shirts during these wildcat strikes. These are not authorized, or agreed upon by Union leadership. People who participate in them have no legal protections, and could go to jail. The protection teachers had was not just unity in numbers, but the fact that there were already too many positions that were not filled. So firing people was not going to work. It was a textbook example of workplace solidarity.

Those shirts have become a symbol of what was to come as strikes spread to Kentucky, Colorado, Oklahoma and Arizona. These strikes have similar motivation. Public education is a public service, paid with local property taxes. When taxes are cut, services, including education, will be cut. The threat in West Virginia that the raise of teachers wages would lead to cuts in Medicaid is a classic of Peter to rob Paul. It is a way to turn the population against the strikers, and it has not worked.

Pay for teachers, as pointed out by Forbes, has declined. They write:

First off, the teachers have a legitimate concern. Teacher pay is mediocre for college-educated professionals, and has fallen over time. Teacher pay declined by two percent in real terms (after adjusting for inflation) between 1992 and 2014. According to data tracked by the National Education Association (NEA), in 2016–2017, the most recent year for which data are available, average teacher pay nationally was $59,660. In the states where teachers have walked out, average pay is generally substantially lower than that. For instance, Kentucky’s teachers rank 29th nationally at $52,338; Arizona’s teachers 44th at $47,403; West Virginia’s 49th, at $45,555; and Oklahoma’s 50th, at $45,292.

The profession is not appreciated either, as learning and expertise is debased. Teachers are blamed for many ills in society. Yet, this time they are getting popular support. There are good reasons for this. Parents do get it. They want a good education for their children, and they see teachers who at times have to work two, three and four jobs to make it. This leads to teachers that cannot pay as much attention as they used to.

Books are also falling apart, and are out of date. Classrooms are in shoddy states, and lack of maintenance is leading to a few issues. Some schools do not have money for heat in the depth of winter either.

These strikes though are repeating historic patterns we saw in the far past, before labor got any legal standing:

The strikes are unique in that they are not being called for by the leadership of the unions, but often through direct appeals of rank-and-file members using social media and their own personal networks to organize across entire states and now the country.

Social media has been used to prepare people for striking and to communicate ideas. We are seeing the beginnings of a movement, as people decide to stand up. Most of this is also happening in deep red states that have implemented austerity cuts across the board.

The first rumbles that something was amiss were seen during the Obama administration.

Wisconsin workers went on strike in 2011 against Right to work legislation, but support was not that wide spread. Their strike ultimately failed. However that is only the case if you look at Wisconsin narrowly.

The Occupy movement spread like wildfire, not just across the United States, but also Europe. For example, in Spain the Indignados used the same tactics of occupying public spaces. All these protests were a reaction to neoliberal policies that took wages and power from working people. These strikes are a clear reaction to general austerity that have cut public education to the bone and reduced wages.

The Fight for $15 is the other major indicator that something is amiss. All these, in the agregate, a movement start to make.

The fact that these teacher strikes are not organized by Union leadership is also an important marker. It tells us that union leadership cannot act, or will not act. It is likely a mixed bag. Some of it is that leadership was coopted by the political system. The other is that in right to work States it is more difficult for leadership to call a strike.

This brings us to these laws. They have weakened organized labor. There is no doubt on that. However, as working and salary conditions degrade, members are faced with a decreasing standard of living, they are becoming increasingly radicalized. This is a pattern we are seeing across the board. We may very well be at the dawn of a revitalized labor movement. After all, there is a growing awareness that people are working class, not members of a fuzzy middle class.

It is also another sign that the country is seeing a political realignment towards populism. If Democrats take this for what it is, they will embrace anew policies that echo the New Deal. This includes strengthening the hand of labor.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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