LA Teachers Are Evidence Unions Are Unstoppable

Some believed, favorably or otherwise, that the landmark Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCMEcase the Supreme Court decided in June would signal the death knell for public sector unions.

That fear is not baseless considering the Court decided to strip bargaining power from America’s workers, undermining their ability to unify around better wages, benefits, workplace protections and standards for working families–basically turning the entire workforce into a “right-to-work-for less” sector, fulfilling a dream Republicans and right-wing groups have shared for decades.

But the American labor movement has famously survived attacks for decades.

Today is no different.

We need not look much further for encouragement than to America’s public school teachers.

After educators in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado, and West Virginia struck at the beginning of 2018 for better pay, better funding, and the rights they and their students have been denied too long, there have been more headlines focusing on public education in the age of Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Now Los Angeles teachers have picked up the mantle.

They are striking for the first time in 30 years for smaller class sizes, better pay, more nurses, counselors, and librarians.

Lincoln High School special education teacher NM Windman said:

“[There are] close to 40 students in most classes, which is unteachable. These students have exceptional needs, and we just can’t meet them. And it’s just progressing, getting worse and worse. Unfortunately, our district is allowing that to take place.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District has proposed a six-percent pay increase over the first two years of a new three-year contract. The union, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), however, demands an immediate 6.5% raise.

More importantly, they are pushing back against a privatization movement responsible for the expansion of charter schools–private schools funded with public tax dollars.

This is not surprising considering the district’s new superintendent, Austin Beutner, is a former Wall Street investment banker, someone the UTLA describes as an “out-of-touch billionaire” and a “corporate downsizer” at odds with public schools’ core mission.

Beutner has proposed splitting the district up into 32 “fiefdoms,” and would prefer to put a $1.86 billion reserve toward transitioning students into charter schools.

Stacey McKenna is the parent of a Mulholland Middle School student. She supports the teachers, stating:

“They are not asking for anything unreasonable. Smaller class sizes, more support staff like librarians, counselors, nurses–staff we used to have at school all day, every day, and now get maybe one or two days a week if we’re lucky. Profit isn’t everything. There are more important things out there, like educating our kids.”

Corona Elementary School teacher Stephen Altamirano added:

“People like to say we’re out here for the money. But in reality, if we wanted the money we already got that. We’re here because we’re trying to get what’s best for our kids.”

One in five American educators works a second job.

Despite more qualified individuals entering the profession, teachers are getting paid 5% less than they did a decade ago, according to Michael Hansen, director at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

54% of teachers have master’s degrees, a 49% increase since the 2008 recession. The percentage of teachers holding doctoral degrees increased as well in that amount of time, from 2.5% to 4.5%.

Similarly educated professionals in other fields could expect 20% to 30% more pay.

That gap is wider than in any other developed country.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports that the relative wage gap (regression-adjusted for education, experience, and other factors affecting earnings) for public teachers, has ballooned since the mid-1990s. In 1994, the disparity was 1.8%; in 1996, it was 4.3%. In 2017, it hit a record 18.7%.

Thanks to strong collective bargaining, many school districts are offering better compensation packages than other professionals enjoy; however, those benefits are not enough to offset the expanding wage penalty. In 2017, the total teacher compensation penalty hit a record 11.1% comprised of an 18.7% wage penalty and a 7.6% benefit advantage.

Janus challenges public sector unions’ ability to collect fair share, or “agency,” fees–dues– from employees who receive representation and bargaining services unions are required to provide.

Now a reality, the assault is being elevated to the next level.

Conservative think tanks have been contacting union members via direct marketing campaigns to persuade them to stop paying their dues.

Fortunately, the unintended consequence of Janus is that, like Donald Trump’s election in 2016, it has mobilized Americans.

After public sector unions dodged a bullet with the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, most engaged immediately to mitigate the damage they foresaw coming in the future.

According to a piece in In These Times:

“Public-sector unions have been hard at work to re-engage members and convince them not to opt out. These initial efforts have been successful, with far lower opt-out rates than feared, some below 1 percent. The unions are benefiting from a favorable climate: Approval of labor unions is at a 15-year high, and a majority of Americans view unions positively.”

CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens boasts:

“I’d like to think this is backfiring on all the corporate anti-union forces that cooked this up.”

AFSCME president Lee Saunders added:

“Anyone writing our obituary is going to be sorely disappointed. We don’t believe we are going to get hurt nearly as badly as people thought by Janus.”

This doesn’t mean Janus is meaningless and we should ignore the damage it is still doing to union memberships in some instances. Some organizations did not anticipate Janus’ impact until they started losing members.

But if anything can be said for why the LA teachers’ strike is so vital, it’s an indication that collective bargaining in America is still a force with which to be reckoned.

This is not a fight anti-union advocates will win.

Despite some Pyrrhic victories over the decades, they never have.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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