A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

A Remnant of a Labor Movement

The President of the AFL/CIO used to be a presence in American households. When I was a kid, I knew who George Meany was from his frequent appearances on TV and frequent stories about his thoughts on world and domestic affairs in the newspapers. I strongly suspect that were we to ask today’s k-12 public school students who Richard Trumka is, few would have any idea who he is. Neither would most know anything about the AFL/CIO. How many Americans realize that Mr.Trumka was re-elected on Sunday to another four year term as President of the AFT/CIO. Judging from the very sparse news coverage, it no longer seems to matter to Americans who heads the remnant of the American labor movement.

This unhappy state of irrelevance is the result of the catastrophic failure of America’s unions to respond to the transformation of the American economy from one centered on manufacturing to one increasingly service oriented. When I was young, 35% of the American workforce was unionized. It is no exaggeration to suggest that what we think of as the middle class today was union made. Today, something like 5 or 6% of the private sector workforce is unionized. Public sector unions that were growing have come under right-wing assault. Should the Janus case before the Supreme Court wind up with the loss by public sector unions of agency fee, the best guess is that 30% of public sector union membership will be gone.

Surely part of the solution to the wage stagnation American workers have been suffering is the expansion of worker bargaining power. For that to happen will require the election of political leaders who understand the connection between the expansion of worker rights to organize and bargain collectively and closing the inequality gap in this country. Unfortunately, too many of our Democratic leaders are reluctant to challenge the corporate interests hell-bent on destroying our remnant of unionism. We have arrived at a point in our history at which many workers saw Donald Trump and an ultra-right-wing Republican Party as greater defenders of working people than the party of Franklin Roosevelt. Unless and until that changes, until there is a political movement in this country on behalf of all working people, a movement that seeks to balance the power between workers and the one percent who own almost everything, I fear the union movement will continue to sink into increasing irrelevance.

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Victory and Defeat

Labor circles are ecstatic at the withdrawal of Andrew Puzder from consideration to be the next secretary of labor. To the best of my knowledge, he is the most anti-labor person ever to be nominated to a cabinet position that was created to see to the welfare of working people. While his company has repeatedly been found to be in violation of various labor laws, from failure to pay overtime to wage theft, it doesn’t seem to me that the Republicans who turned against him were motivated by this. Neither does it seem that his having employed an illegal alien did him in. Much more powerful was the release of the Oprah interview with his former wife in which she describes his battery of her for no reason of which she was aware. Take it to the bank, the Republicans who turned against the Putz factored into their response an energized female electorate that is organizing to defend their hard-won economic and social gains. The Women’s March was just the beginning, and at least some of the Republican sense that.

While we celebrate the defeat of this Trump nominated scumbag, let’s not lose sight of a significant loss for labor yesterday. Almost three quarters of those eligible to vote in the election at the Boeing plant in South Carolina voted against joining the Machinist and Aerospace Workers. The Boeing Company’s move to South Carolina to escape union wages and working conditions in Washington State seems to have clearly paid off. Organized labor remains unable to break into the South. Added to that problem is the fact that many organized workers in the construction trades back the President out of a belief that they will see more work as he unfolds his infrastructure proposals. Our labor movement, if that’s a proper term anymore, is as fractured as the politics of our country to the detriment of working people, both organized and unorganized.

What’s needed is an imaginative agenda and new leadership to sell it. That agenda needs to embrace proposals to concretely deal with the effects of automation on employment, the right of all Americans to a defined benefit pension, workers’ stake in climate change, truly universal medical care, a guaranteed minimum family income and other steps forward on the arc of taming the exploitative nature of a capitalist economy. In our teacher education circles, people are fond of quoting Al Shanker that,” You can’t fight something with nothing.” Today’s labor movement is attempting to do just that. It is a very significant factor in its lack of success.

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