Like many of my neighbors and co-workers, I am alarmed at the Republican project to cripple labor unions. Our political leaders – President Donald Trump, many state governors, and the now right-leaning Supreme Court – are engaged in a high priority campaign. They seek to defeat organizations that our grandparents’ generation fought for tenaciously and won against great odds. They aim to make organizing and collective bargaining difficult for unions in every way they can. But this year’s statewide organizing drives and voter rejection of “right-to-work” (RTW) laws show us that solidarity is alive and well across the nation.
Heavily underwritten by big corporations, their lobbying organizations, and wealthy individuals, the Republican assault has weaponized the Constitution’s “freedom of speech” clause to gut elected union leaders’ ability to finance their work on behalf of members. Trump’s two appointments to the Supreme Court have reversed decades-long precedents allowing union organizing and affirming that all who benefit from the improved wages and health and safety conditions should pay a modest fee to support staffing. Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent in the recent Janus case explains it all.Over the decades, 22 U.S. state legislatures have refused to pass right-to-work laws, including Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri. Since the control of the presidency and Congress passed to Republicans in 2016, and with the threat of the new initiatives, worker organizing has quickened. Prominent among them are statewide teachers’ walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, the latter two right-to-work states. Their movements reveal how poorly teachers are paid, with negative consequences for teacher recruitment and student learning. They attracted broad support among their peers and mobilized many parents to support their actions.
Iowa’s recertification election
Here are some heartening stories from mid-continental states. Let’s start with Iowa. After that state flipped to Republican control of statehouse and legislature in 2016, the legislature passed, and then-Gov. Terry Branstad signed, a law that curtailed bargaining rights for nearly all public sector workers. They forbade union negotiating for health insurance, pensions and teacher evaluation standards, and required public employee unions to hold recertification elections at the end of every contract. Yet in Iowa’s first recertification election last fall, covering nearly 500 worksites and more than 33,000 public employees, 90 percent of teachers turned out and 98 percent of those voted to keep their union.
Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, the latter two right-to-work states, organized campaigns this past year to take their issues to the public and legislatures. They were successful. In March of 2018, West Virginia teachers went on strike for higher wages. It took only two weeks of shuttered public schools for the Republican legislature to pass, and the Republican governor to sign, a 5 percent pay raise averaging $2,000 for teachers and other state employees.
In April, Oklahoma teachers took on their Republican-controlled statehouse and legislature with a walkout, rallies, marches and lobbying. Hundreds of parents joined the protests. One parent picketing at the Capitol was quoted as saying, “I’ve never been involved in politics before, but the conditions of my three children’s schools – aging textbooks, broken furniture – drove me to act.” She was willing to pay more in taxes if it meant adequate funding for schools.
The strike in Arizona
In May, Arizona teachers launched a statewide strike for higher pay, a grassroots effort of Arizona Educators United (AEU). Decades of legislative tax cuts and funding limits had savaged school budgets for wages and student services. Some 78 percent of Arizona teachers supported a strike. While the teachers didn’t win everything they sought, they wangled a 20 percent raise for all, worth $644 million from the Arizona state Legislature.
In addition, voters have fought back in statewide elections on right-to-work proposals. Legally, unions must represent everyone in a bargaining unit, whether or not they are union members. RTW laws undermine unions’ finances by preventing them from requiring that all of the workers who benefit from this representation pay their fair share of the cost. Just this August, Missouri voters nixed a “right-to-work” law on the primary ballot by a two-to-one margin. The Missouri vote was a bold popular rejection of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision.
Teachers unions have been important to our local schools. A couple of years ago, our Cromwell-Wright teachers union worked hard to demonstrate that compared to other Minnesota schools of our size, teachers were seriously underpaid. They held out. It took months. At a school board meeting, I watched their local president, Kathy Koenig, make a passionate case for better pay. They won. It has made a big difference to the quality of our teaching staff and our ability to hire and retain.
Democracy matters. Voting matters. Even in an age where money terribly slants the playing field. The most direct way to hold our state legislatures, Congress, and elected governors and president accountable is to vote. And in campaigns, to convey to candidates how important labor union laws and practices are to decent incomes, good working conditions and our social safety net, including adequate health care.
Economist Ann Markusen is an emerita professor from the University of Minnesota and lives with her husband, Rod Walli, in Red Clover Township, Carlton County.
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