When will it be time for labor to fight?
On March 13, representatives of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) voted overwhelmingly to hold a vote on a one-day strike on May Day. Members began the week of voting on March 22--ballots for the 5,000-member local will be counted on April 1. Here, SEA membermakes the case for other unions to make plans to strike on May Day in support of immigrant and union rights.
WE ARE living in strange times: On the one hand, a silver-spoon-fed billionaire and racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, reality TV boss maneuvered his way into the presidency of the United States. On the other, we witnessed the largest day of protest in U.S. history when millions of people rose up to demonstrate against him a mere one day after he was coronated.
The Womxn's March on Seattle shattered my expectations, with nearly 200,000 people protesting. It showed me that we are entering a new period--where more and more people want to fight back. All across the U.S., the day revealed mass anger and opposition to Trump's hate-filled agenda, a sentiment that has been building as workers have seen their standard of living eroded in this country for a long time now.
In their blitzkrieg of policy proposals, the emboldened right wing announced a bill to bring a right-to-work (for less!) law to the entire nation. The effect of this would cut union finances severely. In addition to that, another case like the Friedrichs case, which came before the Supreme Court last year, is on its way to the Supreme Court. It would also eliminate agency fees for public-sector unions.
Other bills and cases dreamt up by the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the right-wing, billionaire Koch brothers wait in the wings. These attacks are part of a decades-long effort to destroy organized labor and drive down the standard of living for U.S. workers.
Historically, unions have been one of the main vehicles for ordinary people to make change, albeit inconsistently for certain groups of people, particularly women, people of color and immigrants. Indeed, right-to-work laws have racist roots in the Jim Crow South.
Unions have been in decline for decades now and are at historically low membership levels. The wealthy right wing has argued, among other things, that unions are unnecessary and irrelevant. So I pose this question to the labor movement: Are we?
What will it take to win millions of people to the idea that unions are still very much needed? How can we oppose people with untold wealth that are gunning for both unionized and non-union workers alike?
I would propose that the solution is not retreat, but bold action.
IN SEATTLE, it wasn't easy, and it took time. Myself and other social justice educators have been building the Social Equality Educators (SEE) reform caucus in the SEA for eight years now. We've argued inside the union for more direct actions and militancy against the attacks on public education and our union from the corporate education reformers.
It wasn't easy and it took time. Sometimes we lost the vote and had to go back to the drawing board, but the process of continually raising the question of what more can we do to fight back planted the idea in members' and the community's minds, and it started to grow.
The SEA went on strike for the first time in 30 years a little over a year ago, and in so doing transformed not only ourselves and our students, but the city as well.
Over the years, we heard many arguments against striking--"It's divisive!" "It'll anger the parents and the community!"--but the strike had the opposite effect. The reason it had such an impact is that thousands of people saw that we were passionate and willing to take a stand for what we needed and believed in.
I feel that we are in a unique historical moment where the anger at neoliberalism and Trump, the hope and confidence raised by the Women's marches, and the overreach of Trump and the right wing has led to a massive expression, most notable in the women's marches after the inauguration. I think there could easily be a nationwide strike if only the union leadership had the guts to call one--but they will not.
We rank-and-filers have to start raising the question. It may not happen today, but if we don't raise it now, we won't be ready to do so when larger threats against unions come to pass.
Given all this, in February, I proposed, and the SEA representative assembly unanimously adopted, a motion asking the National Education Association, our parent union, to call for a one-day strike on May Day. Then, this month we passed a motion overwhelmingly to put a strike vote to the general membership.
All the February motion called for was a letter asking the national union to consider it, but it raised the question. The next month we were debating about striking.
The language for the SEA motion is below. Take it, emulate it or adapt it to what you think you can raise in your union. A member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Seattle passed a motion calling for the union to mobilize its members for the May Day march and events in general--not for a strike, but it marked a step forward for his union.
If you cannot pass or even introduce a motion, circulate a letter to the same effect around your union or workplace and gather signatures to be sent to your local and/or national union. Every small step we take now helps build to something bigger in the future.
We face emboldened enemies and our response must be equally bold. The time to fight back is now. Hesitancy will only further embolden our opponents and weaken our ability to fight. We need to make it known to our union leadership and to our enemies that we're ready to fight. You might be surprised by the response. I think, given the national mood, you'll get there way faster than we did here.
Sample Union Resolution
Whereas, national right to work legislation has been proposed in the U.S. Congress, threatening our union's very existence, and
Whereas, the Washington Senate proposed an education budget that trades our union rights for a sub-par increase in funding, not nearly meeting the demands set forth by the McCleary decision, and
Whereas, unions have been at the forefront of defending workers against corporate erosion of wages and benefits, and a weakening of labor's ability to stand up for workers' rights comes with a concomitant loss of the community's rights as well,
Therefore, be it resolved that the SEA will propose in writing to the Washington Education Association (WEA) and the National Education Association (NEA) that they call upon their affiliates to go on a one-day strike in order to strengthen our ability to take a stand for both workers' rights and the paramount needs of our students on May Day, May 1, 2017, should other AFL-CIO labor unions put out a call for a strike that day or another deemed more appropriate by the labor movement,
Be it further resolved that the SEA ask the WEA and NEA to notify all their affiliates in writing of this conditional call and, when the time comes, prominently display the call on its websites.