A Teachable Moment

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

ConCon Gave Us an Organizing Success

The vote against holding a constitutional conventional in New York was over 80 percent – 80 percent! That massive outpouring of voters is largely attributable to the efforts of the state’s unions that both educated their memberships to the dangers posed by a convention and organized them to work against it. The work to defeat the convention was the best union organizing we’ve seen in a long time. It should serve as an example to a weakened labor movement of what can still be done when memberships are led to take on difficult issues that threaten them.

The kind of effort that went into the defeat of the constitutional convention can and must be replicated to insulate ourselves from the threat of the loss of agency fee and due s deduction. Why hasn’t every public sector union developed an organizing campaign against the worst possible outcomes of an adverse decision in the Janus Case currently before the Supreme Court? Why aren’t plans in place to protect our unions from the loss of dues deduction? Why do we appear to be accepting the conventional wisdom that says that public sector unions can expect to lose upwards of 30 percent of their membership from an adverse decision in Janus?

Before I left office in my local, I started a process of signing members up each year in anticipation the real possibility of losing agency fee. My local has continued that process. Should we lose agency fee tomorrow, 100 percent of our members are signed up for next year. The card signing process in addition to protecting the local has served to educate members to the ongoing threat from the so-called Right to Work Movement to eviscerate what remains of our labor movement so as to strip from American workers the rights and protections a century or more of union struggle has provided. It is additionally empowering to a membership to know that they have collectively worked to protect themselves. That membership success makes it easier to organize the next collective effort.

The constitutional convention issue awakened the organizing talents of our unions. Those talents must now be unleashed on the continuing existential threats before us.

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The Janus Case

As expected, the United States Supreme Court has taken the Janus case, a case testing whether the court’s conservative, anti-labor majority, will strike down a previous court’s precedent Affirming public sector unions’ right to collect from non-members the costs associated with bargaining and maintaining their labor contracts – the so-called agency fee. This case, like others, is part of a well-financed movement to destroy what is left of the American labor movement and making the United States a right-to-work country.

While the threat posed by the previous Friedrichs case prompted some fear motivated attention to membership organizing, I’m sorry to say that a loss in the Janus case will have catastrophic consequences for most of the education unions in the country. I have come to the view that agency fee was one of the worst things for our movement. Ironically, we put a great deal of political and bargaining effort into achieving it only to have it weaken us. With dues automatically pouring in, the pressure to engage membership grew weaker and weaker. More and more of our unions’ energy was focused on political work and hardly any effort was consistently made to build the capacity of local memberships to fend for themselves.

While I’m glad to see our unions recognizing the need for internal organizing, the fact it that it is a painstakingly slow process. It can’t simply be turned on when we need it. It’s built day to day and maintained day to day. It builds from daily reminders of the common fate of the members. It develops from the little day to day workplace victories that build confidence and pride in the growing sense of power of members. It’s magnified when management is forced to yield to a demand. It was our union’s birthright which we foolishly abandoned.

Janus is the name of the Roman god of beginnings and endings. What an ironic name for a case that may well determine the future of our labor movement.

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Fredrichs Might Just get Us Back to Organizing

There is justifiable fear in public sector labor ranks of an adverse decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Friedrichs Case to be decided by the end of the court’s current term. The case turns on the claim of a California teacher that that her constitutional rights are being violated by having to pay an agency fee to her union, a union she does not belong to and which she does not support. Until now, the Supreme Court has held that while public sector workers have a right not to belong to the union in their workplace, they nevertheless have an obligation to pay for benefits they enjoy as a result of the union’s work. They do not, however, have to pay for the political or ideological work the union does. Fredrichs claims that she should not have to pay anything to an organization to which she does not belong and that doing so violates her constitutional rights. Should she prevail, our teacher unions project a severe loss of revenue, the belief being that many members will opt out of membership if they do not have to pay an agency fee instead.

Frightening though a union loss in this case will be, the shock just might be what’s necessary to breathe some energy into a movement that for too long subordinated organizing to political action. Local unions like mine, that have tried to maintain their organizing capacity while many around us disarmed, are already planning for an adverse decision. We will prepare for the worst possible decision, one that does away with agency fee and requires us to sign up our membership each year by signing them up in advance for next year. In doing so, we will have a twofold purpose. Most of our members will have no problem signing, thereby ensuring that the flow of dues necessary to support the essential work of our union will be uninterrupted. We have staff and bills that must be paid. Those who balk, and there may be some, will self-identify as the people we have to talk more to and win over to our cause. In those conversations we will no doubt learn of grievances these people have with our union and its leaders, grievances that often could be fixed if we only knew about them. While we always try to engage the members in the importance of our union, we are doing so now with a new sense of urgency. Those unions that don’t will not survive an adverse Supreme Court decision. Yesterday, I attended a meeting at which some local leaders expressed the opinion that their local unions would lose forty percent of their membership. If that’s true, they have not a second to lose.

While I’m on the subject of organizing, I came across a very interesting interview with Jane McAlevey a noted labor organizer. Her thoughts, particularly those related to the centrality of our education unions to a revitalized labor movement will be of interest to many of my readers in our movement.

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