Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Fierce Resistance: Public Workers Have Had Enough

I'm sure you remember this old saw: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I'm sure that there are some reaction deniers out there, but for the most part this is settled science. And that's exactly why those who see the end of public unions, or indeed unions in general, in their rear view mirrors had better watch the road in front of them.

For the uninitiated, or for those unlucky enough to be represented by a labor union, the conversation wherein truth speaks to power will get very loud, most likely during the final week in June when the Supreme Court will render its decision in the Janus case, which centers on fees that are charged to people who don't join the union, but get the benefit of having it represent them during collective bargaining. For example, if you are a teacher in a public school in New Jersey and you don't want to join NJEA, you will still pay anywhere up to 85% of the association dues because the local NJEA affiliate will bargain on your behalf and, well, that costs money.

The Janus case, which is being pushed by right wing groups, is challenging those agency fees as unconstitutional because they say that workers are being forced to support speech they don't like, what with most associations being fairly liberal and contributing to Democratic candidates. The odds-makers are betting that the present Supreme Court will throw out 40 years of settled law and rule that unions cannot force anyone to contribute for their bargaining. The thinking among those right wing groups is that the public unions will then fall apart, go bankrupt, lead to the demise of public...everything and put the Democratic Party at a dangerous disadvantage because it would be robbed of union support.

A decision against agency fees would be terrible for working people, but let's go back to the equal and, more important, opposite reaction that's likely to take place.

If the right thinks that this will be the end of public unions, then they haven't been paying attention to West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, where teachers in these decidedly union-bashing states are walking out over pay, benefits and the lack of respect they're getting from know-nothings who think that just about anybody can be a public school teacher or worker. Years of Republican rule have sacrificed budgets on the altar of tax cuts and anti-government free-market gobbledygook about school choice and the money it robs from public education. Teachers have always noticed the effects and now parents are too. The results are not encouraging.

And if the GOP doesn't watch out, this movement will spread to other states that, until now, have been all quiet on the union front. In fact, a look at that list will illustrate just how much the GOP has to lose in a labor war, since the states with the least effective unions traditionally vote Republican. You can only push people so far, and the truth is that many teachers in these states need to also get second jobs in order to pay the bills. That's not an effective social contract.

But it doesn't end with teachers. Public workers throughout the country are being stigmatized because budget cuts have rendered local and state governments less effective and less able to respond to the needs of their citizens. This has been a major aim of the Republicans going back to Reagan, that is, to cut government spending so that people would attack its credibility, and the process has been disgracefully effective. State and federal workers have been furloughed and caught in battles between legislators resulting in government shutdowns to the point that many good people have left the field.

This cannot continue, and the reaction has already begun. Public unions will not go away. They will adapt and continue because they represent worker who do vital jobs. And all of the talk about how the president is on the side of workers has been exposed for the empty nonsense it's always been.

As a public school teacher in New Jersey, and an association president, I am represented by, and represent, an organization that has my interests at heart. But I was thinking the other day about how far I would go if those rights and benefits were in danger.

Would I walk out? Yes I would.
Would I strike, which is illegal for teachers in New Jersey? Yes I would.
Would I go to jail? Yes I would.

And I work in a state where public worker salaries and benefits are comparatively high.

Anger and frustration have a funny way of altering people's behaviors. We are seeing the beginning of that.

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