Friday, March 16, 2012

Lessons from the US - when unions don't strike to contest unjust laws

In my previous blog post, I listed the numerous times that both legal and illegal strike action was taken by Canadian unions and by BC teachers. Illegal strike action has been critical in advancing basic union rights including the right to strike itself.

What happens when other strategies are used? For teachers, recent struggles in the United States provide a warning on the consequences of not taking job action, and instead looking to public relations, the courts, or the next election. Just as here, many US teacher unions have been subject to attacks not just on wages and benefits and working conditions, but also the most basic protections such as job security and the right to organize and strike. A variety of strategies have been employed including recall campaigns, waiting for the next election, legal protest actions and campaigns, and the courts.

In the US, governments are willing to use whatever means they have to intimidate and coerce teachers and their unions (just as Bill 22 does to BC teachers). A planned one day strike by Los Angeles teachers was called off after a judge ordered that teachers would be individually fined up to $1000 each. In Chicago, a recent state law requires a 75% vote for any action and bargaining cannot include working conditions. This makes it more difficult to take action, but we also need to learn what happens when this deterrent is effective in making workers look to other, less successful, strategies.

New York teachers went to court to try and prevent the publication of so-called "value added" teacher evaluations. They did not succeed. Instead,  the Mayor is closing 33 schools, firing all the teachers and forcing them to reapply for their jobs.

In Wisconsin, after a huge display of anger by hundreds of thousands of teachers and other public sector workers and citizens, the union movement failed to call for strike action. While the recall campaign against Governor Walker was successful, one year later it remains to be seen what the outcome of the new vote will be and whether or not even a Democratic replacement would repeal the anti-union laws. Meanwhile workers are living under the new law. The Democratic candidate is well know for herself wielding concessions from public sector unions when bargaining for government. Moreover, it is a Democratic government, under Barrack Obama, who continues to push for corporate school reform through the promotion of Charter schools and the "Race to the Top" program that seeks to eliminate teacher seniority rights (called tenure in the US).

Electoral strategies have succeeded in raising the issues in the public eye, but they have not succeeded in reversing the corporate reform agenda or the position of the so-called labour friendly Democrats. As one commentator reported:

Back in 2010, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT), lashed out at President Obama who she said was part of the “blame the teacher crowd” of education reform.
“I never thought I’d see a Democratic president, whom we helped elect, and his education secretary applaud the mass firing of 89 teachers and staff,” she said – referring to the firing of all teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island earlier that year.
Last month, the AFT executive council unanimously voted to endorse Obama for reelection.

Obama and the Democrats have continued the agenda begun by George Bush under the No Child Left Behind law. They have refused, despite financial and organizational support from teachers and teacher unions, to acknowledge the failure of these reforms and their pro-privatization consequences. The electoral strategies of teachers' unions in the US have largely been a failure.


  1. So forget Phase Two, no extracurriculars or bell2bell; we need to get busy at the AGM.

  2. I agree that the way forward right now for us is to strike illegally.

    That being said, I think a good long term strategy is for the union movement in BC to wake up to the fact that we DO have recall legislation and we DO have a referendum legislation. We should start organizing ourselves to use it. Not now, because we can't do two things at once, but for later.

    The use of recall legislation is obvious. As for referendums, Some things I think are worth trying for are:

    (1) Make referendums easier. Not only through lowering the number of signatures needed, but also invent a secure online signature and voting system. (Also make it so you can't have referendums on human rights issues such as abortions and gay rights. Apparently it is exhausting for gay rights activists in the states to have to continually deal with constant referendums on gay marriage in the states)

    (2) Make any legislation passed in parliament challengable to a referendum of the voters. Again a secure online voting and signature system is needed. Everyone should get a voting card to "signature" and vote with only once, and your signature and vote is printed out in a government facility so that you can go check it. People independently verify the computer totals through counting the printouts until everyone agrees it is secure. After you cast a vote online there should be two things printed. Your vote with a code on it so nobody but you can know how you voted, and two, your name with a code on it that only you can go and get. Then you can go find your vote with your code that you picked up to verify your vote was cast correctly.

    (3) Tax the rich. eliminate sales tax and replace it with progressive taxes.

    (4) Proportional representation.

    (5) Better education legislation

    (6) Better healthcare legislation.

    (7) Make the government sponser annual meetings so the population can bring legislation it finds important that politicians aren't.

    Unions have meeting space, money, and tons of members that can communication with each other. If we were to use this infrastructure to start trying to organize a referendum campaign for say, this summer, (After all this is done with of course) we might be able to pull it off. Even if we don't, it's worth it to let people know what is possible.