Why We Strike

The Prospect talks to one of the thousands of teachers at the picket line in Chicago.

Frank Menzies started working in Chicago public schools in 2000 and is now the director of instrumental music at Jones College Prep, where he oversees the orchestra, concert band, and jazz group. He’s also the school’s head bowling coach. Menzies is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and one of the roughly 29,000 Chicago public school teachers that have been on strike since Monday. Why did you vote to go on strike? Many of the members in the CTU didn’t really want to do it, but we have understood that this is one of the mechanisms that is in place for union membership to try to bargain for a better deal. We are definitely in favor and desirous of a fair contract. The bottom line is the teachers did not really want to do it, but that [a strike] seemed to be one of the only avenues left to us to be able to try to get what’s necessary for us to have a fair contract. That’s the bottom line. The strike was brought about simply because teachers that love their students had no...

What Does Labor Need to Do to Survive?

In reporting my piece on labor’s future (" If Labor Dies, What's Next? "), I talked with a number of labor leaders and activists about their ideas for what unions need to do differently to survive—and make a difference—in today’s political economy. Here are my edited versions of four such discussions: Randi Weingarten Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers School districts are cutting professional development, increasing class size, cutting art and music education, and blaming teachers for not doing a good job at the same time that the poverty rates for children are increasing. We can complain about that, but we have to do something about that. We can’t just tell the districts and the legislators to do a better job. What we realized is we need to solve the problem. We have to focus on quality as well as fairness. Teachers need and want to share best practices with each other. They want to know how to make their lessons more robust. Education is going...

On Strike in the Windy City

Pictures from the brewing standoff between Chicago teachers and Rahm Emanuel.

Slideshow On Strike in the Windy City Twenty-nine thousand Chicago public school teachers walked off their jobs on Monday, after contract negotiations between the teachers union and the school board failed to produce an agreement. The Chicago Teachers Union is asking for a salary increase to compensate teachers for the city's newly implemented longer school day, smaller class sizes, and a de-emphasis on standardized testing.

Rahm's Wedge

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Put aside for a moment the particulars of the Chicago teachers’ strike and look at the broader picture. Rahm Emanuel is only one of a number of Democratic mayors and governors who are going after public-employee unions. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also at loggerheads with the city’s teacher union. In San Jose, a Democratic mayor and city council scaled back the city employees’ pensions (and so did city voters when they were asked to ratify that decision). In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has tangled with a number of public-sector unions. The battle between management and labor seems to have spread to the very center of the Democratic Party. To some degree, this is a predictable response to the fiscal crisis states have faced during a severe recession—something’s got to give, and a number of chief executives have said it’s union benefits. Nonetheless, a number of the chief executives who’ve taken on unions are from jurisdictions with lots of rich folks on whom they’...

GM's Hunger Games

The hunger strike is just the latest in a long history of labor tensions in Colombia.

(GDA via AP Images)
H asta la muerte ! “To the death,” chanted 12 hunger strikers outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. General Motors subsidiary Colmotores had fired the workers a year ago, claiming they were dismissed because of declining productivity. In truth, they were injured on the job and deemed no longer useful. On August 1, they sewed their mouths shut in protest. On August 6, Colmotores briefly sat down to negotiations with the workers, who formed the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL), but ended up walking out later the same day. Protests in the United States and Colombia soon sprouted— Martin Sheen and Noam Chomsky have been among the more well-known public defenders of the GM workers. Under mounting public pressure, Colmotores agreed to negotiations facilitated by the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on August 23. The talks, however, did not result in GM rehiring the workers or compensating them for lost wages. After...

Should Labor Boycott Charlotte?

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
The Democratic National Convention is less than a week away, and liberals are getting fired up. But at least one of the party's key constituencies isn’t quite so excited. That group is organized labor. Last July’s announcement that the convention would be held in the staunchly anti-union city of Charlotte, North Carolina—the least unionized state in the country—set off a firestorm of protest in the labor movement. A year later, dissatisfaction still simmers, and there's a case to be made for an unprecedented move. The message is simple: maybe labor should sit this one out. To a large extent, politics is about resources. How an organization decides to deploy those it has available says a lot about its values and priorities. So why would labor want to channel limited funds into bolstering a local economy organized around avowedly anti-union principles? By opting for North Carolina as a convention destination, rather than a swing state with stronger union infrastructure such as Ohio or...

Union Maid

Over the past several decades, at any number of public events I’ve attended, I never had trouble knowing when Joyce Miller was in the house. “Harold!” she would boom, her voice a friendly foghorn across a crowded room. Over the decades, she’d needed that voice to make herself—and the cause of women workers—heard. A founder and, later, the president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Joyce was a longtime official of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, a heavily female union headed by invariably male leaders who eventually made room for very talented secondary-level women leaders such as Joyce. In 1980, even the AFL-CIO executive council made room for Joyce, when she was elected to become its first female member. During the decades when middle-class feminism was on the rise, Joyce continually reminded everyone within earshot that working-class women faced doubly difficult challenges—entering, or stuck, in a workforce where “the feminization of poverty” (a term she employed as far back...

The Court’s Scott Walker Moment

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
On First Amendment Thursday, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court delivered an unsubtle warning to public employee unions: You are living on borrowed time. In Knox v. Service Employees International Union , the five—Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito—reached out to decide a question that was not argued or briefed; their opinion all but begs right-wing advocacy groups and public employers to use its emerging First-Amendment jurisprudence to take down public-employee unions and in essence find a Southern-style “right to work” law in the Constitution. In the days when right-wingers favored judicial restraint, this might have been called “judicial activism.” It is the Court’s Scott Walker moment. The case concerned the rules by which unions can assess “agency fees” payable by non-members who benefit from the unions’ collective bargaining efforts. Though public employees can’t be forced to join...

Post-New Deal America Needs Unions

(Flickr/Kheel Center, Cornell University)
One of the unfortunate consequences of the still more unfortunate failure of the unions’ effort to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker earlier this month is the gloating and schadenfreude that’s come forth from labor’s enemies. Some comes straight up, as in this column from Charles Krauthammer. Some comes with the caveat that private sector unions are fine in their place, but public sector unions have no place at all, an opinion expressed in this blog post from Chuck Lane. (I confine myself here to offerings from my Washington Post colleagues, but they’re representative of the breed.) As I noted in my response to Lane, it would be nice if these defenders of private-sector unions had bestirred themselves to join the battle for labor law reform in 2010, since under the current labor law, workers effectively have no protection from being fired when they seek to join a union. As it is, Lane, Mickey Kaus and their fellow union critics endorse private-sector unions in the abstract, but...

Public Employee Union Endorse (And Help) The Guy Who Supports Dictators

It's no secret that times are tough for public employees unions and that such groups need to foster support wherever they can. But in the effort to get pro-labor candidates into office, there may need to be some limits. For instance, regardless of his stances on workers' rights, one would assume unions would shy away from openly supporting a New York city councilman who's known largely for his support of human-rights-flouting dictators Robert Mugabe and Muammar Qaddafi—let alone spending money to campaign for him. But that assumption would be incorrect. Councilman Charles Barron is running in the Democratic Congressional primary to replace U.S. Representative Edolphus Towns. Two of New York's biggest public employee unions, District Councils 37 and 1707, have already endorsed Barron and now, according to the latest from Buzzfeed , their "federal parent union," AFSCME, is poised to spend money on the councilman's behalf. Here's how Buzzfeed characterizes Barron: The candidate, New York...

Wisconsin Recall: A Conservative Case for Election Day Registration

(Flickr/Katri Niemi)
As the nation waited for the Wisconsin recall results to come in, Twitter began to light up with conservative claims of voter fraud. "Please @ me with any stories of #WI #WIrecall voter fraud," tweeted conservative radio host and pundit Dana Loesch around 11 a.m . She noted stories on busing voters in across state lines and on supposedly suspicious high turn-out rates. "It's not 'fraud' if you didn't cheat enough to rob voters of the lawmakers they choose," she wrote. Others joined in. "@GovWalker needs to make sure he wins by an amount greater than the margin of fraud," tweeted @RickMoore. "Early results show #TomBarrett leading #ScottWalker amongst dead voters, illegal aliens and cartoon characters," tweeted @rovibe71. "Dems really need to embrace honesty for 'change' and rename themselves 'The Vote Fraud Party". [sic] Disgusting" wrote @Furrystoat. These tweets all arrived as news was breaking of huge turnouts around the state and pundits were speculating about a close finish. When...

The Union Fight You Might Not Have Been Watching

The fight around Wisconsin's public employee unions has in the national spotlight frequently over the last 18 months—culminating in Governor Scott Walker defeating an effort to recall him from office. But while most were at least a little familiar with the Badger State's turmoil around the right to organize and collectively bargain, few have watched the unfolding drama in Maine, where Governor Paul LePage has courted controversy in his discussion of the state's unions. The governor made headlines a year ago when he removed a mural, deemed too favorable to unions, from the side of the state's Department of Labor building. (In March, a federal judge ruled in favor of LePage's decision.) But the art was only the beginning. LePage has been in a protracted battle over a collective bargaining agreement with the public employee union Maine State Employees Association, which happens to be the biggest union in the state. Stateline has a great summary of the fights , which include various...

The Ongoing Triumph of Radical Individualism

A figure from a bygone era.
Scott Walker's victory in the Wisconsin recall has been gleefully hailed on the right as a death knell for American unions, and while that may be an exaggeration, there's no doubt that the labor movement is in a long and perhaps inexorable decline. How did it happen? One answer is that conservatives have of late found increasing success in a tactic they've used for decades: getting non-unionized workers to resent unionized workers for the better pay, benefits, and working conditions that unionized workers have used collective bargaining to obtain. This is only possible if you convince people to see everyone around them as not potential allies but as competitors in a zero-sum contest. Rich Yeselson offers a story about watching William Winpisinger, the head of the machinists' union, on television 30 years ago: As always, the conflict formula for talk shows eventually took hold, and Winpisinger received a barrage of hostile questions from Donahue's audience. So, he stood up—a big, bald...

AFL-CIO Tries to Claim Some Victories in Wisconsin

(Flickr/Sue Peacock)
After Governor Scott Walker's win in Wisconsin last night, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka decided to walk a strange line on today's press call. WaPo's The Fix has a post arguing that the call was about distancing the union from the recall effort, but to me the union president seemed eager to point to victories—a strange tactic in the face of a devastating loss. "The best-funded politician in state history spent more than $50 million to hold on to his office but he could not hold on to a majority in the state senate!" he said. True, it looks like the Democrats won a single Senate seat last night, giving them control of the chamber. But as I've written , that doesn't necessarily mean much. Barring a special session, the legislature isn't meeting again until January of 2013 —so Democrats will have to hold on past the November elections. Guy Molyneux, a pollster with Hart Research Associates, walked everyone through an election-night poll of 390 union members (as opposed to "union...

Just How Hard Was It to Vote In Wisconsin?

(Flickr/Katri Niemi)
Last night's Wisconsin recall resulted in more than just Governor Scott Walker's re-election. It also showed the tremendous difficulties some voters in the state faced simply trying to cast their ballot. While Wisconsin has had same-day registration since 2006, which helps more people get to vote, the state passed a controversial photo-ID law last year that put up new barriers. The most stringent part of the law—requiring residents to show a form of photo-ID—is not in effect thanks to a court injunction, but other elements of the law came into play yesterday as new and old voters arrived at their polling places. The Election Protection Coalition, a non-partisan group that helps monitor elections, received 1,300 phone calls on Tuesday alone, as well as an more than 500 the previous weekend. "That's remarkable," said the group's lead attorney for Wisconsin, Dara Lindenbaum. (Lindenbaum is employed by the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups in the Election...