Unions: The Only Bulwark Against Ever-More Concentrated Wealth
By Ernest Logan
One thing no one’s ever said about me is I didn’t love a party. In my 10 years as CSA’s president, I loved every minute of the picnics, golf outings, ball games and parades. To me, all those gatherings were emblems of the shared values and solidarity that define unionism. I was buoyed by knowing that we march to the same drummer for the sake of the children we educate and the wellbeing of our own families. We not only feel one with school leaders but with teachers and librarians, police officers and firefighters, electricians and plumbers, longshoremen, nurses, writers and actors. Their struggle is our struggle. Feeling that has helped make me a happier man.
I also believe unionism will endure as it did through the violent attacks of the 1930s and the renewed backlash that began in the 1980s. Even if the Supreme Court decides against unions in the Janus case. The fear is that the deep-pocketed forces behind Janus will succeed in bankrupting us. But what I know is that there’s an American spirit that won’t allow working people to stand alone and be trampled on. That drama is being played out right now across mostly red states as teachers strike for better conditions for the children in their classrooms and better wages for themselves.
Maybe these (mostly Republican) teachers have been reacting partly against what happened in Wisconsin in 2011. After Wisconsin gutted its unions, teachers’ healthcare and pension benefits dropped 21% and salaries fell by 2.6%. A lot of experienced teachers moved out of state or left the profession entirely. We can be pretty sure that fewer smart young people have been motivated to enter the field. And Wisconsin teachers must be exhilarated by what they’re seeing around the country and will rise again.
When the first teachers walked out in West Virginia a couple of months ago, I was dazzled by the determination in their mostly female faces. Then strikes began spreading like wildfire across Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. Some groups were unionized. Others were unionizing themselves, whether they thought of it that way or not. They were, and are, fighting to bring their salaries up to the national average, to save their pensions and to increase per-student spending, some of the lowest in the country.
I’m sure you felt solidarity with them. Even though we take it for granted in the day to day, we know we’ve fought hard through our union to win salaries and benefits that have given us good lives. Most other Americans also identified with the teachers. A late April NPR/Ipsos poll showed that “nearly two-thirds [of Americans] approve of national teachers’ unions, and three-quarters agree teachers have the right to strike.” Only one in four Americans believes teachers are paid fairly.
Over my many years as a unionist, I’ve experienced a few defining moments. One came with the negotiation of our very strong contract in 2015. When the city took the position that teachers who had recently been promoted into CSA represented jobs should lose all the retroactive pay they’d earned in the classroom, our entire membership stood up as one for the teachers. Many on the outside didn’t see this as CSA’s fight, but you did. Because you stood united, our newest members were made whole. I never felt more proud to belong to a union.
Unions aren’t perfect. We have to constantly reexamine and redefine ourselves. We have to reach out to marginalized people and engage more members. But unions are the only viable bulwark against the concentration of wealth in even fewer hands. Let’s not take unions for granted, ours or anybody else’s. Take nothing for granted unless you want to be taken for granted. Let’s face it: caring about each other makes us happier people. For union members caring about other people is a way of life.
Ernest Logan served as president of CSA from 2007 until 2017
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