A Future for Public Unions? Part II

Barry Bluestone | boston.com | June 11, 2012

Nearly three years ago, the Boston Globe published an OpEd I had written about public sector unions.  In that piece, I asked whether these unions would suffer the same fate of lost membership and diminished political clout to which my old union, the UAW, had succumbed. What happened in Wisconsin, San Diego, and San Jose last week seems to make that 2009 article more prescient than ever.  Yet there is a now chance for organized labor to win back some popular support in Massachusetts if it follows the lead of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA).  The Teachers Union has just banded together with Stand for Children to push for groundbreaking state legislation that will help make teacher performance rather than strict seniority the means by which teachers are assigned to schools.

Let me explain what has happened and why this could signal a new era for public unions in the Commonwealth.

When I was a summer replacement worker on a Ford assembly line in the mid-1960s, the UAW had 1.5 million members and was widely respected for its efforts not only on behalf of its own ranks, but workers everywhere.  As such, it had widespread political support.

By 2009, however, UAW membership had slipped to fewer than 465,000 as the auto industry collapsed.   I noted that most of its demise was due to the “extraordinary blunders made by the auto companies” themselves.  But the union was partly to blame.  “It failed to press the auto companies to build high quality, innovative cars that could compete with imports.  Often it insisted on job classifications and work rules that undermined efficiency and compromised the industry’s competitiveness.”

I asked back then, “Will public sector unions follow the same path?”   I equated the UAW and the auto industry’s disregard of their customers’ demands for competitively priced, higher quality, more fuel efficient cars with the apparent disregard of public unions for reforms that could improve the quality of public services.  Too often, union leaders seemed to flaunt their political power at the expense of building popular support for their cause.

What I feared back then is coming true.  Antagonism toward public unions is exploding. Governor Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin provides the exclamation point to the growing movement to weaken or destroy public sector unions in the U.S.  Sensing a growing wariness of unions, Mitt Romney’s attacks on organized labor have become ever more intense and shrill.  Even before Walker’s victory, the Wisconsin outlawing of the automatic withholding of union dues that led to the recall campaign was taking its toll.  According to the Wall Street Journal, one-third of the Wisconsin members of the American Federation of Teachers stopped paying union dues.  Membership in Wisconsin’s American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) shrank by more than 34,000.

Wisconsin is hardly alone.  Last week, voters in San Diego and San Jose overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to roll back municipal pensions.   One suspects that this anti-union movement will spread across the country, especially given the continuing fiscal crises faced by cities and towns nearly everywhere.  As communities face the choice of honoring union contracts versus providing basic public services, one can imagine an increasing chorus arguing the case against the unions and fewer and fewer standing up for them.

In the long run, this would be bad for workers everywhere especially in a period of falling wages amidst a rising Plutocracy.  Unions have not outlived their usefulness in theory, but their tactics have often undermined their own goals in practice.

Fortunately, there is at least one union in Massachusetts now taking constructive action that should help counter the antiunion animus spreading from state to state.  That union is the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA).   Last week, the union came to an agreement with Stand for Children, an organization whose mission is to improve public schools throughout the state.  Stand for Children has been sponsoring a November ballot referendum that would, if passed, require teacher staff reductions or reassignments be based on teacher performance rather than on strict seniority.  Working with the MTA, the organization has agreed to withdraw this initiative in light of the union’s agreement to co-sponsor legislation in the State House that would give teacher performance based on honest and fair teacher evaluations precedence over seniority in teacher assignments.  This legislation would help provide common standards for teacher assignments while ensuring that teachers continue to have an appropriate collective voice in their schools.

Unfortunately, the other teachers’ union in Massachusetts and the state AFL-CIO have vowed to oppose the legislative alternative.  They are urging the leadership of the House and Senate to reject the legislation, and they hint at mounting a “fight” on Beacon Hill to defeat the bill if legislative leaders seek to advance it.

With all due respect to my friends at the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts and the AFL-CIO, I truly believe they fail to fully recognize that if they are successful with the Legislature, they will have won a Pyrrhic victory.  The Stand for Children ballot initiative will almost surely prevail and the cost involved in trying to defeat it will be prodigious.  In the end, the bruising battle will turn even more taxpayers and voters against organized labor even as it threatens to undermine the achievements that have made Massachusetts number one in the nation according to many educational measures.

In this age of enormous income equality and the unparalleled power of big business, we desperately need organized labor to preserve its strength to stand up for the 99 percent – not just the unions’ own members.  Prevailing against the proposed legislation will undermine the much bigger fight on our hands.  Building coalitions with parents, students and other community organizations will help restore the alliance of progressive forces in the Commonwealth and help reconstitute popular support for public unions.  Without such coalitions, we all face much darker days ahead.

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