Randi Weingarten ’80, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dean Alex Colvin discuss the “return of the strike” and how Weingarten has worked to build community both inside and outside of the union.
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Work is all around us. It defines us. The future of work impacts nearly every person on our planet and the ILR School at Cornell University is influencing policy and practice on the most pressing issues facing employees and employers. In the coming months. our series, "Work! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment," will feature several prominent leaders in the labor movement. In this episode, American Federation of Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten talks with Dean Colvin.Alex Colvin:
So to kick things off, I wanted to talk about something that took me by surprise. I've been studying labor relations for awhile and I've been watching the slow decline of the strike as a weapon really since the 70s and 80s and those of us who write about collective bargaining had been building that into our analysis saying, look, we're not seeing the results out of collective bargaining that you'd hope because the strike weapons gotten weaker and weaker. But there's been something of a turnaround. And when I was thinking about when the turnaround started happening, one of the big events was the 2012 Chicago teachers' strike that was a real signature strike in terms of succeeding as a strike and suggesting that there's a power still in the strike. We've seen more recently strikes in a number of settings. The GM strike last year, the biggest one since the seventies. But education has been a real hotbed of strike activity. The Chicago teachers striking gain , the LA teachers' strike. It's been interesting to see the success of those strikes. Why do you think that we've seen this return of the strike as a weapon in your sector in education? Why have they been successful there and what can we take away from that?Randi Weingarten :
So I think that the strike in education actually means something different today then it did 30-40 years ago in education in that there's been an understanding that we have to be intentional about community and that community is not only our new density but our new responsibility. So what you've seen in strikes from the Chicago teacher strike in '12 but I would actually say both the teacher strikes and the private sector strikes in '17, '18 and '19 was a very intentional joining of the issues that the workers were raising with issues that community needed. Teachers want what children need was a signature focus for us in so many of these. This was not a strike against community, this was a strike for community, for the things that community needs. And I think that's why they've been really successful in this last few years. There are very few people, I mean in the Trump era, there's very few institutions that are emitting a constant message of collective responsibility or we're building the community or we're building hope. You see every single day on Trump's Twitter feed, fear and division and hate and resentment. And so something that looks to this is we were pretty intentional about saying we are doing this for community, we are doing this for our children, we are doing this for a better life. And that's why I think they'd been really successful.Alex Colvin:
So that connects to something that has also been a surprise and that's in the Red for Ed strikes where we saw West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, these massive walkouts by huge numbers of teachers in states where they don't have the labor law protections, they don't have some of the same institutional supports that they do in other states. And yet we saw this massive wave of action by the teachers themselves. It seems really different from the days of the a 3% plus COLA strike to just narrowly benefit the workers in a traditional Barney unit.Randi Weingarten :
For those who have not been in our space it's surprising, but for the last decade or so , we have actually been very focused on an investment strategy and we've been pretty focused on how we build, how we engage our members, but how we also build community relationships. So when I say that those strikes. So when I, when I talk about, y ou know, Chicago or LA, West Virginia, Oklahoma, you know, we are not the dominant player in Arizona, but Oklahoma, West Virginia, LA, Chicago, the re's a lot more that is similar between West Virginia and LA. than that is different. Rural poverty may look different than urban poverty, but root cau ses ar e pretty similar. So what you saw in terms of West Virginia is that had ju st had enough. What started happening is from the women's marches to the fight against Trump on the issue of ACA. It starts developing this muscle of activism. And then that and social media created the kind of impetus, created the match to say, no, we can do this. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired and , and we can get together and do this and mobilize. So our job in places like West Virginia and Oklahoma, were to help provide the infrastructure and to help be the support network for these incredibly courageous folks who were willing to take the risk. And I think that, you know, when and and so what we try to do. So, so what I'm saying to you is that the same kind of very intentional strategies and tactics that some of us started learning way back when when dinosaurs roamed at the ILR School. But you know, the same kind of strategy, tactics and strategies you learn, you make real. But it has to be people that are making it real. Like if only five people showed up in Charleston, West Virginia won't be right, it wouldn't work. But what happened was once you saw a willingness to mobilize, which teachers had all throughout West Virginia, when they got really pissed that they weren't getting, you know, their, their salaries were, you know , what , 46 47 , 48th in the nation. And then on top of that they got yet another healthcare hike. On top of having to pay their student loans. On top of, you know, constantly doing more with less because West Virginia is one of the capitals of opioid addiction and where so many of our kids come in with so much trauma. There's a breaking point. And there was a snow storm where schools were close statewide and people started talking to each other on Facebook and then all of a sudden people said, "wait a second, you agree with me, you agree with me, you agree with me? " And so that little ditty that we have in labor that you can get things done together that is impossible to do alone, that kind of unison, that kind of solidarity. The match of mobilization combined with the strategy of solidarity and organizing led to a pretty successful strike in West Virginia. And what then happened is it was contagious. I shouldn't actually say strike. A pretty successful withdrawal of labor because every school district was closed in West Virginia, so it wasn't a strike because they just closed everything. In some ways, what West Virginia showed us is a modern day version of sectorial bargaining because we in, you know, in non-labor parlance we talk about it as political because all the rights and responsibilities in schooling get done at the state Capitol through state law. But what it really was, if you think about it was sectoral bargaining because all the entire sector was together bargaining with the governor about what it should look like.Alex Colvin:
Yeah, well that connects to something that's also been a surprise to me and that's looking at the labor platforms at the democratic presidential candidates, broader policy platforms this year. What seems really different from the past is the extent and depth of them. You mentioned sectoral bargaining. I did not expect 2020 that we were going to see this degree of proposals for sectoral bargaining. Where, where's your read on what's going on there in the presidential candidates platforms. Do you think this is a , this is going to be something that is going to be long lasting and we get to see really fundamental labor law change now.Randi Weingarten :
I'm pleased about it, but you never know when you get to a tipping point. But if you actually, and the reason I want to start with none of it surprises me, is that when you've been in the trenches, as long as I've been in the trenches, you know, we have tried to develop a muscle of activism, rooted in values and rooted in so rooted in values to activism, to organizing and rooted in community building. And the union, our union being, you know , a way in which people, a vehicle in which people see their aspirations net as opposed to a transaction. So, you know, we , we think about building community within the union and outside of the union and, but, but to do this, it takes power, but community power and power to change to make a better life, not just for the members of the bargaining unit, but for the community itself. And so this has been something that we've been at as the AFT for 10 years or so. And, and , and when I say that you get to a tipping point at one point or another, when you see a , we have 3,500 locals, when you actually see people on a local level say, "okay, what are the issues that are in common between us and community? How are we going to build a stronger relationship? How are we going to work together on this?" What , what starts happening is that in places like West Virginia, people realize they can't just do it in McDowell County, West Virginia, they can't just do it in another small Mingo County that , that they need to have the power on this, the state level. So what happened was that they just, we started intuiting it. We had a big conference on s ectoral bargaining. Pramila Jayapal came and did a , one of the, you know, head of the progressive caucus of th e C ongress and did one of the keynotes and so infused within the kind of mainstream labor di alogue a n d a ggressive congressional dialogue where a lot of the, you know, presidential candidates were listening or like how do you create power? The same thing's true, not just on sectorial bargaining, but on really approaching the gig economy and contingent work. I mean, one could actually, you can watch what the national labor relations board has done under Trump and , and what corporations have done. This kind of slow encroachment and limitation of what constitutes employment versus what is independent contracting. And we can diagnose the problem a lot and, and you and, and your colleagues are remarkable in the research you do and in diagnosing this, but those of us who were kind of s ort o f in the trenches t rying t o figure out what to do about it.Alex Colvin:
That's a great point about the gig economy. You know, we think about a lot of discussion on Uber, Lyft, the ride share companies and this huge battle they're putting up against AB-5 in California to keep their independent contractor model and not have employment laws apply to them.Randi Weingarten :
Wasn't it pretty amazing that we got AB 5 passed in California?Alex Colvin:
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And I think it was that interesting combination of a liberal Supreme Court of California that took the step and then I think put it on the table that the politicians realized that this really matters. And there's a huge number of people now who are touched by this. I think in my own industry, higher education, we get adjunct instructors, there's these huge battles over grad student organizing, yo u k n ow, across the whole country. But this is, this is an issue that goes so far beyond the ride-share companies, even though those are really important. Right. This is, this is the gig economization of the whole country.Randi Weingarten :
Right, exactly. I mean, we have, you know, we are now the, I guess we've been for awhile , the largest higher ed union, but of our 230,000 higher ed members, 80,000 are adjuncts. And you know, we, when, when , graduate worker organizing ripened again, our door was knocked on by a whole bunch of workers in a whole bunch of universities, private and public. But what's interesting is that whether it's adjuncts or whether it's graduate workers or the fact that most of the work at the university level is done by contingent labor now, not by tenured professors. It's , it is the same. The work may be different, but it's the same kind of precariousness that a Lyft driver has an Uber driver has that, you know, that, that, that you don't know how you're going to put together a living wage, a stable living wage for your family. It's the same as when a fast food worker or retail worker doesn't know what his or her hours are going to be week to week. So, well, part of what we've tried to do is how do we find ways to bring workers together enough so that they have clout , not just at the bargaining table, whether that's in state law or you know, at, at a traditional bargaining table, but how do we also have clout in elections so that you get a Gavin Newsome who was willing to actually sign a law like this, like AB-5. How do you get a Congress , in the United States of America and a president who's going to do the PRO Act as opposed to promising EFCA and then walking away from it. And so this is, you know, it's a really interesting time now b ecause of all the things that you're expressing surprise about. You see that activism on the ground, how do you connect the k ind o f that activism, which is absolutely important with and marry it with elections so that you have both short term and l ong t erm results.Alex Colvin:
One of the longterm consequences is that who wins the elections determines who's picking who's on our courts. And one of the things that labor's run into as a headwind at the federal level is a more conservative judiciary , certainly the conservative majority in the Supreme Court. Really the , the signature labor decision for them in recent years is the Janus Case where they decided that there was a constitutionalization of the , y ou k now, what they're calling, the right to work, but in practice is the right, t he right to be a free rid er on a union contract. What has, what has Janus meant to, to AFT and what, what do you see the effects and, an d, and how do you respond to that?Randi Weingarten :
So , first o f a ll, the case was so m iss decided that it's very hard to say anything positive. And so this is g oing t o sound completely c ognitively, but, yo u k n ow, but what has happened here is that our union culture has been fundamentally transformed for the better. Wh at w e saw was a coming together of rank and file membership and leadership at the local, state and national levels where people, were not simply willing to s tick with the union and, and, and, and to not let the Koch brothers and the DeVos family and others basically use this device to defund and destabilize, you know, and destroy our unions. It was not just a " we'll show them," f ight back. What ultimately happened and , a nd both asked me, and we did this from the Fri edrich's ca se years before and I will never forget having Lee Saunders at one of our Executive Council meetings that president hav e as ked me and whe re, y ou know, t w o years before Janus or year before Janus, an d where we really talked about, and he was as honest with our council as he had been with his own about what the existential threat was. And we created a path over for the three years before Janus of engagement and changing our practice from being from business unionism, from thinking about , members really disrupting that theology of the union as insurance company, they union as contract to, you know, the union as you pay dues and in exchange you get a contract and we negotiate your salaries and what not to the union has community and to how do you build that engagement and, and, and, and have the kind of speaking with each other and, and members feeling engaged and empowered and energized. And, and we saw the day before the Janus decision, over 500,000 of our members, as an act of defiance, sign new membership cards in the run up to Janus. So we knew we would lose the agency fee payers, you know, which were about 85,000 of our 1.72 members or 1.73 members at the time. We knew that we would lose them, but we lost virtually no one else. The real issue is making sure that we're developing that community with new people . And that new people are not joining at the same rate , in all places as we used to have. And that's the real issue, but that's changing as well too. S o, and the last thing I'll say is this, we also really believe that we should represent everyone that we in solidarity a unit as a unit. Everyone. We don't want management to pick and choose and pit people against each other. And what we're seeing more and more is that people are, you know, people who in , in, in strong unions with strong programs and strong activism, th e s t rong c ommunity building, you know, you have really, really solid, stronger locals right now, more vibrant locals doing many, many more things then we had three, four and five years ag o.Alex Colvin:
Thanks very much for all your comments and I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.Randi Weingarten :
Thanks Alex.Diane Burton:
Thank you for listening to "Work." Subscribe to our podcast at work.ilr.cornell.edu or on iTunes. In our next episode, Dean Colvin speaks with Liz Shuler, secretary/treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Do you have a recommendation for a guest or a topic to be discussed on a future episode? Just click on the link in the show notes of this episode and leave your suggestions. And thanks again for listening.