Organizing to spread the labor rebellion

April 5, 2018

Lee Sustar looks at the workers' struggles and labor movement debates that will shape the discussions at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago from April 6-8.

IT'S THE biggest labor rebellion in decades--and nearly 2,000 militants and activists are coming to Chicago to strategize on how to spread it further.

The biannual Labor Notes conference, set for April 6-8, will be shaped by teachers' strikes and actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and rumblings of another walkout in Arizona.

The meeting will be a crucial opportunity to network, discuss next steps in the teachers' resistance and debate how to rebuild labor's militant and socialist traditions. The lessons of that history are more important than ever, as employers take advantage of the right's attempt to drive wedges into the working class through racism, sexism, homophobia immigrant-bashing, Islamophobia and more.

The timing couldn't be better. Labor Notes conferences--organized by the monthly publication of the same name since its founding in 1979--have been aimed at building networks of militant unionists.

Union democracy, a rarity then and now, was a central focus of that project. Labor Notes conferences were launched on the basis that unions controlled by their members would be essential in taking on the anti-labor backlash from employers, who had the government behind them.

Striking teachers and supporters build solidarity in Oklahoma
Striking teachers and supporters build solidarity in Oklahoma

Four decades later, the employers' offensive against unions has continued unabated--and with a few notable exceptions, the bosses have gotten their way, with the 1981 firing of more than 10,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) setting the agenda.

Workers have scored some important victories during that time, including the 1997 UPS strike, several strike wins at Verizon and its predecessor companies, and the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012.

But these were exceptions, not the rule--and what used to be called Big Labor is now at a critical stage.

Union membership in the private sector was just 6.5 percent in 2017, compared to an estimated 33 percent in the mid-1950s. The remaining union stronghold in the public sector--where 34.4 percent of workers are organized--is endangered by the forthcoming Supreme Court decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case.

The conservative majority of justices is expected to issue a ruling that will impose "right-to-work" provisions for government employees, mimicking laws in 28 states that bar unions from charging "agency fees" to non-members to cover the costs of representing them.

EVEN SO, with 14.8 million members, unions constitute a unique mass force in U.S. society. They are working-class institutions, and their very existence is a challenge to the constant drive by capital to increase productivity and boost profits.

In the boom years following the Second World War, business and government tolerated unions. They were willing to grant concessions and engage in "partnership" with union leaders, who secured their relationship with employers by driving communists, socialists and militants out of the unions.

The return of economic crisis in the 1970s changed that dynamic, with employers launching an effort to roll back union gains. They were assisted in this effort by politicians of both major political parties--from Ronald Reagan's direct union-busting to Bill Clinton's and Barack Obama's pursuit of anti-labor free-trade deals and broken promises to pass pro-union labor law reform.

While employers went back to old-school tactics, union officials tried to recreate the old "partnership" with employers and revive their clout within the Democratic Party.

That was the program--with some variations--of the AFL-CIO "New Voices" leadership change in 1995 and the breakaway Change to Win federation a decade later. Both failed. Membership continued to decline, and strikes have flatlined at historically low levels for more than a decade.

Now, the teachers' strikes are pointing to a different way to revive labor--not by changes at the top, but militant action from below.

In reviving the strike weapon, teachers are showing that workers are most effective when they are willing to use their power to withhold their labor.

While teachers don't usually face the same threat of strikebreakers encountered by unions in the private sector, they do risk injunctions, fines and jail. West Virginia teachers faced all that down and pressed ahead with their struggles--and when leaders of their two main unions expressed support for a sub-par deal, educators responded immediately and kept the schools closed in all 55 counties.

Oklahoma teachers, who also lack collective bargaining rights and are majority nonunion, have launched a strike even after right-wing state legislators forked over a raise that--while sizeable--was dismissed as too little and too late. Kentucky teachers walked out to fight an attack on their pensions--the law be damned.

The teachers' strikes also point toward a strategy for public-sector unions to survive if the Janus Supreme Court decision comes down as expected.

The mainstream labor movement organized weak protests around vague slogans of "freedom" as the Janus case was being heard, but West Virginia teachers showed it was possible to strike--and win--in "right-to-work" conditions.

CERTAINLY, JANUS will be used by labor's enemies to inflict as much damage as possible on public-sector unions, and the struggles ahead will be challenging. But militant collective action can defend public-sector unions--after all, it was illegal strikes that dramatically expanded their size in the 1960s and 1970s.

Back then, the upsurge in strikes and labor militancy was closely tied to wider social struggles. The Memphis sanitation workers strike--which Martin Luther King was in town to support when he was assassinated 50 years ago--was propelled by the civil rights and Black Power movements. The women's movement helped drive the wave of teachers' strikes and unionization in the same period.

A revived and organized radical and socialist left was an important factor in many of those labor battles.

Socialists in the labor movement of the 1960s and 1970s were attempting to overcome the isolation from unions imposed on them during the McCarthyite anti-communist purges in the 1950s. A strong socialist current--the Communist Party, Socialist Party and Trotskyist organizations--was indispensable to the epic labor victories of the 1930s and 1940s.

In recent years, the Labor Notes conference--which for many years banned socialist publications from circulating at the event--has taken up a discussion of the role of socialists in the labor movement, in history and the present day.

While panels on social justice unionism have been fixtures of the conference for many years, there hasn't been much exploration of the socialist case for working-class political organization that will challenge the Democratic Party.

Now, in the wake of the Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, socialism has re-entered mainstream political discussion in the U.S. for the first time in decades.

This has raised the question of how to rebuild a socialist current in the unions that can promote militancy and union democracy, and make the case for independent working-class politics.

These aren't abstract questions. A look at U.S. labor history reveals how socialist organizations focused on building rank-and-file power have been able to help generalize labor struggles like the teachers' strikes of 2018.

Certainly, working people don't have to be socialists--or even political--to go on strike. But the historic role of socialists has been to create networks and organizations of the militants who emerge in those struggles, both within and across unions.

That's because socialists see the fight to build our unions as part of a broader project of the emancipation of the entire working class--the transformation of society to build an economy based on human need, rather than profit.

That prospect may seem distant from the struggles at hand. And as the Labor Notes conference agenda shows, there are many urgent battles for the unions.

But at a time of political crisis, when employers and the right are driving down working class standards, it is essential for socialists in the labor movement to bring their political perspective into the unions. Our fights today have to be linked to the struggle for justice, equality and the liberation of the oppressed.

Further Reading

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