Monday, September 07, 2020

Union 101

It's Labor Day, and we are labor. Yet there's no labor section in the newspaper, online or off. We don't study labor history in school. Worse, a whole lot of members see it as a pair of glasses every other year, and the odd chance to ask the chapter leader why there's no toilet paper.

When we were contemplating a strike, a chapter leader told me, "We’re sending draftees onto the coast of Normandy and they’re in the landing craft asking, “What’s a war?” 

I feel that way sometimes when I try to explain to people exactly what union is, what it does, and what it means. The United Federation of Teachers hasn't been on strike since 1975. I know only a handful of people who were involved. 

I started in 1984 and of course I've never been on strike. Nonetheless I was ready for this one. A member texted me, "I will be a SCAB," with the letters in caps like that. Why? Loss of pay. Inconvenience. As though it were convenient for me, or for anyone. That was antithetical to everything union is and stands for. I could not take that in stride. (Evidently, though, I was expected to.)

My generation of teachers, as well as all those who've followed us, have never really been asked to make a personal sacrifice, e.g. go on strike. This is absolutely dangerous, because there are forces in this country right now that would happily strip us of all our rights, and go out for drinks afterward.

For me, there was no question. I'm ready. You want to penalize me? Penalize me. For others it was tougher. Some people said, "Oh, those young teachers don't know." But I know young teachers who were absolutely ready, and older ones, like the aforementioned, who were not. It's about what you know, what you feel and believe, not how old you are.

Union means coming together as one. It means when a mayor faces one of us, that mayor faces us all. It means that when your principal calls you in to discipline you, there are rules to follow. It means we have help, beginning in the form of a chapter leader, to inform the principal what the rules say. It means the rules will be enforced, though some systems are pretty rickety, and it can take some time. Sometimes we can go above and beyond to figure out ways to deal with that. 

Of course, I don't want to lose pay either. But however you may feel about it, it's union that's largely guaranteed us a rate of pay.We have a contract, for all of us, setting our hours, compensation, and our working conditions. Some states, like Florida and Texas, give individual contracts. Lots of us, maybe most of us, don't know that. There's no such thing as collective bargaining down there. Union there is not the same as union here. 

Of course they had strikes in red states. Conditions are abysmal. There are teachers who have to choose between going to the dentist or buying medicine for their kids. Make no mistake, that's the Trump vision for us. Although they're fighting to get much of what we already have, we can't afford to take it for granted.

What we have didn't come to us by magic. UFT members before us went out on strike to procure our rights. A big right, for us, is collective bargaining. I've heard UFT founders speak of how they gained that in their first strike. We get to sit down with the city and negotiate. This is very different from what teachers have, say, in charter schools. If you want to experience the lack of rights in Florida or Texas while remaining in New York, go work for one. You might get a contract for a year, and then if they don't like you at year's end, you're off looking for another charter. 

The question then comes back to us. How many of us know what Labor Day even means? Sure, it's a trip to the beach, at least when we aren't fighting a pandemic. It's a day off, which is great. But how did we get that day off? How did we get weekends? Why don't we have six-year-olds working in factories anymore? 

We need to know the answers to these and many other questions. We need to have an informed membership. Union activity has to be more than a pissed off comment to your chapter leader or on some blog like this one. You want to blame leadership, fine. But we need to do more than that. Complaining won't help us understand where we came from, and it won't get us where we need to go either.

There's a need for union that stretches well beyond the UFT. And it's kind of on us, as the last bastion of vibrant unionism in these United States, to not only understand our own union, but to improve it, and educate other Americans why they need it too. 

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