The paradox of unions is that they are at once armies and democracies—an oxymoronic construct that means they can seldom be as efficient as a top-down organization, or as expansively deliberative as, say, an idealized New England town meeting. There no ideal equipoise for a union—some, in which member participation has atrophied, can be essentially autocrat; some are more democratic (although democracy can impede growth if members insist on making the union devote resources to servicing their needs at the expense of organizing new members). The better unions try to balance their dual roles, and that looks like what the Chicago Teachers Union did Sunday night.
As Chicago teachers union officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office were assuring Chicagoans that they had reached an agreement Friday afternoon on their contractual dispute, a judge a hundred miles north in Madison, WIsconsin struck down as unconstitutional that state’s hugely controversial law banning collective-bargaining rights for public employees. As I write, the text of the judge’s decision is not yet available, but since a ban on public-employee collective bargaining exists in many states, either the judge found new grounds to declare the law unconstitutional, or he declared it so for reasons not related to the constitutionality of such prohibitions.
Read the commentariat, or just subject yourself to the deafening consensus of enlightened opinion, and you have to believe that the beleaguered parents of Chicago’s schoolchildren are fuming at their city’s teachers' union, on strike now for a full week, and backing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to shape up the school district.
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 is president of the American Federation of Teachers
Imagine America without unions. This shouldn’t be hard. In much of America unions have already disappeared. In the rest of America they’re battling for their lives.
Unions have been declining for decades. In the early 1950s, one out of three American workers belonged to them, four out of ten in the private sector. Today, only 11.8 percent of American workers are union members; in the private sector, just 6.9 percent. The vanishing act varies by region—in the South, it’s almost total—but proceeds relentlessly everywhere. Since 1983, the number of states in which at least 10 percent of private-sector workers have union contracts has shrunk from 42 to 8.
Following the 2010 elections, a number of newly elected Republican governors and legislatures in the industrial Midwest, long a union stronghold, moved to reduce labor’s numbers to the trace-element levels that exist in the South. A cold political logic spurred their attacks: Labor was the chief source of funding and volunteers for their Democratic opponents, and working-class whites, who still constitute a sizable share of the electorate in their states, were far more likely to vote Democratic if they belonged to a union. The fiscal crisis of the states provided the pretext for Republicans to try to take out their foremost adversaries, public-employee unions.