Adapted from an article published in Dynamic magazine, in a series on basics of Marxism for young people.
Scanning the room at my first teachers union event, I could see that I was one of the youngest teachers in attendance. It got me thinking about my generation and possible explanations for its lack of representation. Were new teachers reaping the benefits of a union contract without understanding the decades of struggle that produced it? Was the union leadership resistant to change or out of touch? Were new teachers wary of unions or simply too overwhelmed by the demands of the job to come to a union meeting?
I still do not have the answer; it is likely some combination of all these elements. But I realized at that meeting how critical our generation’s participation is to the future of the labor movement, and that we have a vital contribution to make.
What’s a union?
One of the most important things that we can offer is our understanding of the role of unions. In its most basic form, a union is simply a group of workers who have won the legal right to negotiate over their wages and working conditions — a truly revolutionary idea for those who are used to the “what my boss says goes” conditions of a nonunion workplace.
But unions are more than just a written contract — the strength of that contract is entirely dependent on the strength and unity of the workers who fight for it and enforce the rights that they have won.
Last fall the school where I taught was undergoing construction. Teachers often conducted class with jack-hammering in the background (one day I had to stop teaching because I could not yell loud enough), and the school was literally falling apart around us. My mentor teacher came into his classroom one morning to find that a large chunk of plaster had fallen from the ceiling and shattered on the floor, leaving dust and plaster all over. Similar stories floated around the school for weeks; clearly the safe working conditions provision of the contract was being violated, not to mention the hazards to the health and safety of every person who entered the building. The school administration did nothing about it until the teachers finally got mad enough that they got together, filed a collective grievance and threatened to contact the local newspaper. In a nonunion workplace, who knows how long the problems would have gone unresolved?
I have often told this story to people who disparage teachers unions. The real union difference is not just in higher wages and benefits, but in something much more intagible — safety and respect, a sense of collective responsibility and power, and human dignity. Without a binding contract, workers are left at the whim of their supervisors and CEOs. A union contract not only guarantees rights and benefits, but also protects workers who take collective action at the workplace. We espouse democratic values in our society, so why should workers have to check their basic rights at the door of their workplace? This vision of unions, as a center of democratic and working class struggle, is one of the most valuable contributions that we can make.
The benefits of unions are rarely extolled in our media and schools, and many people have no first-hand experience with unions to draw upon. Anti-union mythology pervades our national culture as much as anti-communism — and that’s no coincidence. Who hasn’t heard the claim that unions are corrupt, that they protect lazy workers, that they are run by “old, white men” or are a relic of the industrial factory? While one could certainly find examples of unions (or any organization, company, school or workplace) that fit any of these qualities, these images are purposely distorted and dishonest. Companies spend billions of dollars each year to fight employees’ attempts to organize. Just like anti-communism, anti-union ideas are perpetuated in order to weaken and divide the working class and to distract people from seeking real solutions to the problems created by capitalism.
Are unions still relevant?
Some may wonder if the labor movement is still relevant when only 13 percent of the American workforce is unionized.
When unionized workers win victories, they help the entire working class. My friends who work at nonunion charter schools are well aware of this — they indirectly benefit from union contract struggles because their schools are forced to raise their wages and benefits to keep up with the standard set by public school teachers.
The power of unions comes from the fact that they are the organized voice of the working class. Working people participate in many kinds of organizations — churches, neighborhood groups, parent organizations, ethnic and cultural groups — and all of these provide meaning in people’s lives and unite people around common interests. Yet, unions are different. Unions unite workers based on their economic role, crossing lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status. Unions are the only institution in our society that pool the resources and power of workers on a mass scale.
As Marx and Engels argued in “The Communist Manifesto,” workers and unions are uniquely positioned in capitalist production to directly challenge the power of capital, and therefore have the inherent potential to be the leading revolutionary force in a capitalist society. They described unionization as a critical step in the development of workers into a politically conscious class: “Now and then the workers are victorious but only for a time. The real fruit of their battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers.”
It is in the process of struggling for basic rights and improvements that many people develop and deepen their sense of being part of a larger movement, part of the working class, and gain an understanding of capitalism. In other words, class consciousness does not develop out of abstract theories and lectures; it is something that people develop over time through their experiences and relationships with others involved in struggle. Someone may initially get involved through a contract campaign, then be recruited to door-knock during a city council election, then be elected to a leadership position, and then be sent to a swing state to do political organizing.
This brings me back to the question of why mostly older teachers were at my union event. I think a big reason is that the veteran teachers were involved in major unionization efforts of the 1960s and ’70s, and the consciousness developed during those struggles has lived on.
Our generation has some legitimate concerns about unions. The labor movement does have a history of exclusion, and sometimes leaders or sections of union membership have supported candidates, contracts or positions that seem contrary to building a broader movement.
But first, it’s clear that the makeup of the leadership and membership is changing—over the past 20 years there have been significant increases in the leadership and participation of women, people of color and immigrant workers. Some unions have made this a top priority, while others still have significant work to do. We should be encouraging the involvement of young people, women, people of color and LGBT activists, rather than isolating ourselves from this arena of major struggles.
Second, some criticisms of unions represent a misunderstanding of the nature of a union. A union’s most basic responsibility is to represent the membership. Unions represent a broad array of political attitudes — even some Republicans! Unions do not play the same role as political parties, and can set themselves up for disaster by taking positions that are more “left” than the general sentiment of their membership. Leaders of any organization need to be pushed, but this pushing is often only effective when it comes from the dedicated members or allies of that organization.
‘In the trenches’
Finally, the most essential message is that we need to be involved in whatever way we can and encourage the involvement of our peers and co-workers — whether as members, community supporters, volunteers or staff.
I have been involved in the labor movement in all of these ways. I wondered, as I left my job as a union organizer for a job where I would actually be a member of a union, if I would miss the excitement of organizing. In my first few months as a teacher, my main involvement was attending the union’s new teachers dinner and the holiday party. In October, my mentor teacher asked me to write an article for the union newspaper about why I believed unions were important as a new teacher. When the article came out, teachers I hadn’t met before came up to me and told me how much they liked the article and how encouraged they were to see a young teacher involved in the union. That was when I realized: this is something I never could have done as a staff organizer.
As a member, I can talk to my co-workers about issues at work and politics and, even though I am new, what I say carries so much more weight because I am “in the trenches” with them (or at least sitting next to them at the holiday party).
C. Webb is a first-year public school teacher and former union organizer.