Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Chicago teachers are angry. But protests are not enough

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

This video above gives a glimpse of the frustration and anger that is seething beneath the surface of US society.  This example points to the crisis in the public school system as the 1% and its political parties, both Democrats and Republicans move to privatize, in other words, eliminate, public education entirely.

Most of the teachers above are most likely members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The CTU has 30,000 members affiliated to the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) with some 100,000 members and 200 local bodies across Illinois according to the union’s website. The IFT is also affiliated to the national American Federation of Teachers  (AFT) with 1.6 million members. The AFT is affiliated to the National AFL-CIO, the largest national workers’ organization with some 12 million members.

As an AFL-CIO union, the CTU is also affiliated to the Chicago Federation of Labor. This body has some 300 different unions affiliated to it representing half a million workers.

In every major urban center there is an organization union structure like this. In California where I live, the California Labor Federation of the AFL-CIO has two million workers affiliated to it. Los Angeles with an economy larger than most countries and a critical hub of economic activity for the entire US, the LA County Labor Federation has 300 locals representing more than 800,000 workers including dockworkers, LA is a major US port.

I share these details primarily for our younger readers, and some I’ve discussed with who, through no fault of their own primarily, have little knowledge of the potential power and extent of the organized workers’ movement and its rich and vibrant history. Unfortunately, most workers, including union members are in the same position.

I know that young people who have never been in a union (Fewer than 7% of US workers are organized compared to 35% at the time of the AFL-CIO merger) would be very excited to be at one of these protests. The feeling of power we get when we are together on any issue is positive.  The usually full-time labor officials will be making fiery speeches, raising slogans about how strong the union is and how when we are united we will never be defeated and other slogans; any normal person would be impressed.

The problem for most older union members and supporters is we have heard all this talk from paid officials before.  We have attended hundreds if not thousands of similar rallies over the last 40 years as strike after strike has gone down in defeat and concessionary contracts have been hailed as victories by our leaders.  When any genuine opposition has arisen from within the ranks of organized labor that wants to wage a serious fight back against austerity, the union hierarchy and its army of paid staff move in to undermine it.

Those of us over 40 have witnessed an erosion of our living standards, wages and benefits that took decades of heroic struggle to win.  We have seen massive police assaults during strikes like the Hormel strike in the 1980’s, the Teamster Newspaper strike in Detroit and other battles.  The most difficult aspect of this has been that almost to the last man and woman, those at the helm of these organizations like Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey of the CTU have failed to support these struggles in a serious way, and have, in some cases, collaborated openly with the bosses including firing dissidents as in the case of the Freightliner strike in Cleveland NC.

In the video we hear militant speeches from labor officials. But after a while and as our wages, benefits and rights continue to be eroded, these speeches get a little old. The leadership understands the anger that is present so they speak to it but in actions, they act to contain it. If we pay more attention to what these officials say in the mass media or on TV we can see that they actually have a different approach.  I commented on what the CTU leadership Lewis and Sharkey say in earlier posts.  Compare what they say here   and here when they are talking to the big business press.

Do these words indicate any serious desire of CTU president Karen Lewis to fight back on her members behalf when she announce in the media: “We understand that there is a serious financial problem and we are willing to work within that framework. We accept that there will be a 0 percent raise. But give us something to make that 0 percent feel better.” They do not.

In the video a few rank and file workers refer to the “Rahm dictatorship” But in the piece at the first link Lewis claims maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all, he’s just doing what he’s told.

Jesse Sharkey said on WGN Radio, “We don’t think it’s a good time to be asking for big raises or really expensive reforms.” How many times do we hear that from a union official? It’s never a “good” time.

What CTU president Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey, the CTU VP, are doing with these comments is assuring Rahm Emanuel, the CPS board and the bankers, billionaires and their politicians that they understand their plight and that they are willing to make a deal with their members livelihoods. In the video, Jesse Sharkey talks about fighting back, that there is plenty of wealth. He attacks the bankers and moneymen.  That is at the rally, speaking to angry members. But in the mass media, he announces it’s not the time and that the teachers should be realistic and not ask for “expensive reforms”; two speeches for two different audiences.

It is these empty radical phrases on the one hand in the face of a reality that includes layoffs, cuts in education and other public services that has left so many union members demoralized.

These protests don’t work. I have been on hundreds of protests like this singing “We are the union mighty, mighty union” as strike after strike went down in defeat not due to the willingness to fight on behalf of the members but on the failed policies of the union leadership at the highest levels. I was at a picket line not long ago here in California where the leadership of one of the unions was escorting their members across the line along with the management and police because the two leaderships were in a dispute over procedures.  One official claimed the workers earning $12 an hour were asking for too much to bring them up to $20 over 5 years.

My reason for beginning with some details about union structure and membership is to encourage younger readers to understand that despite years of defeats and a low union density in this country, the organized working class has huge potential power. Our weakness lies not in our numbers and structure so much as the heads of organized labor actually have the same world view as the bosses. They accept we have to compete with each other and worship the laws of the market which is why they won’t bring this potential power of organized labor to the negotiating table and the streets.

For us, we must demand and fight for what we need to live a productive, decent and secure life as human beings and that we receive the benefits of our labor both past and present in the form of fully funded education at all levels as well as free or affordable mass transit, affordable shelter, free health care on demand and all the other needs of a civilized society.

What is the point of belonging to national and state organizations if we don’t unite against the 1% and their austerity agenda? The potential power of workers is such that an all out stoppage in Chicago and LA alone would bring this country to a halt and would inspire millions of working people and the middle class suffering under corporate dictatorship.

We must defend our unions; our ancestors built them. But any move to change make them genuine fighting organizations and not simply protest outfits will be met with resistance form the present union hierarchy and their army of paid staff. This cannot be avoided, it is inevitable that if union members want to seriously fight against austerity we will come in to conflict with the trade union hierarchy whose strategy is concessions.  But fight we must. In some cases, small groups of activists can make a difference as in Chicago where they prevented a couple of charter schools from opening despite the actions of the union leaders.

Finally, we must reject the idea that we are weak. Before the CIO emerged and what laid some of the conditions for its emergence were the three General Strikes that took place in 1934, Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco, industrial workers were unorganized in the main. The factory occupations at GM culminating in the 44-day sit down strike in 1936-7 also changed the face of American society.  Some 12 million workers joined union in the 1930’s. We are potentially far stronger today. That's what both the 1% and our own union leaders are afraid of.

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