Will Losing Friedrichs Result in Better Unions?


Facsimile of an IWW stickerette with artwork by Ralph Chaplin. March 1916

So, as you know, I’m pessimistic about the outlook of the pending Friedrich’s case (what probability would you assign to Friedrich winning the case? Vote here!) It’s not the outcome I want–but I’m afraid that it’s likely the outcome we will get. Meaning that teacher’s unions will lose a large source of funding and thus, power.

If you pay any attention to the history of US public education, or of labor in general, then you most likely have some understanding of why unions matter. Unfortunately, however, there are a newer generation of workers and teachers who may not see this.

Increasing disengagement presents a large problem for unions, especially as our economy and workforce undergoes increasingly volatile shifts. And let’s be honest–most unions haven’t demonstrated the greatest sense of urgency in trying to adapt to changing conditions. My local union, the UFT, for example, has more than half of its voting during elections come from retirees. And the union leadership seems to think that simply asking teachers to promote or comment on policies and proposals they’ve already created is somehow democratically elevating teacher voice.

Speaking personally, I rarely engage with my union because I’ve found other avenues to have my skills and voice applied in ways that can further my profession. But I at least understand the need for professional solidarity when it comes to collective bargaining for decent wages and working conditions. Without solidarity and collective bargaining, individual workers have little sway in gaining concessions from either governments (such as the mayor or superintendent) nor private interests. I am therefore supportive of my union, at the very least, for providing a necessary counterbalance to government and private financial interests.*

But maybe losing the Friedrichs case might prove to be the tough medicine that will force unions to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of our times, like Peter Cunningham suggests.

Or perhaps there may come a day of reckoning, when the future labor force has been Uberized completely, and all jobs made temporary and contracted-by-the-hour, that a few teachers will awaken to discover their previous rights have been sundered, that they are working (even more) inhumane hours, in inhumane conditions, with few protections. And they may then gather together to hold a discussion about how they might leverage their collective power to gain concessions from those who hold the cards. And they thus may relearn the meaning behind the word “solidarity.”

We will see. In the meantime, if my state, NY, the birthplace of collective bargaining and Al Shanker, becomes a “right-to-work” state, I will choose to continue to give my “agency fees” to my union.

 

*It seems to me like both unions and government have increasingly ceded power to private interests. But to be clear, I’m not anti-privatization. I believe in public-private partnerships.

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