The head of one of America’s largest unions says the labor movement faces significant obstacles in its ongoing mission as the catalyst for working families, but unions are up to the task.
Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7-million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT), addressed the Maritime Trades Department (MTD) executive board March 9 in Orlando, Florida. She gave a rousing speech that mainly focused on two topics: the impending Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case, and the successful teachers’ strike in West Virginia. Weingarten also touched on Operation Agua, a joint project (the SIU is a partner) that has resulted in tens of thousands of water purifiers being delivered to residents of Puerto Rico.
Gesturing toward MTD President Michael Sacco, who also serves as SIU president, Weingarten described him as a mentor and someone she counts on. She also thanked the SIU for its longtime support of the New York-based United Federation of Teachers (UFT), where Weingarten was the president for 12 years.
The UFT “will never, ever forget that we got our start and our help – every time there was a big issue – from the mighty Seafarers in New York,” she stated.
Weingarten said that just as the SIU and others showed support for Teachers in years past, the AFT, UFT and others now are carrying a pro-Jones Act message at every opportunity. When the Jones Act came under attack after Hurricane Maria, she learned about the law and equated it in part with prevailingwage statutes, which help ensure fair compensation for workers.
“Forget about the national security issues (for a minute),” Weingarten said. “So, the moment we have an emergency, what you want to do is take the prevailing wage away from workers?”
Next, she spoke about Janus, a case that figures to harm America’s working families. In February, the Supreme Court heard arguments in what is officially named Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31. Pushed by the so-called National Right to Work Committee – with major backing from the Koch brothers – it aims to ban unions from collecting dues or agency fees from all state and local workers, claiming it would violate the employees’ First Amendment rights.
The so-called right-to-work group recruited Mark Janus, a dissenter in an AFSCME-represented workplace, to say that by the very act of collecting the money, the union – through state action – forces him to support political stands he disagrees with.
The court’s ruling is expected in June and almost certainly will go against organized labor and workers’ rights.
“The right wing is just trying to eliminate public-sector unions,” Weingarten said. “We used to say this is the case where they were trying to eliminate fair-share dues. But after hearing the argument, it’s clear. They just want to eliminate public-sector unions, and weaponize the First Amendment to do it.”
Still discussing the Janus case and the need for union representation, she added, “Most individuals are not born with silver spoons in their mouth. Most of us only have power collectively, through all of us – through the union. Through our contracts, through our willingness to strike. But it’s through the union that we have that power. The Court doesn’t want working people to have that power. That’s the fight we’re in.”
She used a basic illustration to underscore her point: picture an individual asking his or her boss for a raise, versus negotiating wages through collective bargaining.
Weingarten said the labor movement, in addition to battling in court, also is reeducating rank-and-file members and fighting in the court of public opinion. As part of that outreach, the AFT cited a recent, unofficial report from West Virginia. As she explained, the head of the state senate “broke down and cried in his caucus [one] night, so much so that his colleagues thought he was having a heart attack. He had made a deal with the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity to provide money for his campaign, in return for a promise to break the union. He was told that if he could break us here, they could do it anywhere. When he realized that he could not, and he was losing, he literally broke down in tears and caved to the five percent (wage increase). That’s what they’re doing.”
She asked why President Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court never got so much as a hearing, then answered: “Because this group of people – Americans for Prosperity – told every Republican senator that if you even have a meeting with this man, they will primary you. That’s the level of what’s going on against us. And as soon as the (Janus) case [is decided], there’s going to be these flyers going to our members that say … you want a raise? Give up your union dues. We know – we’ve seen them already.”
Nevertheless, the nine-day strike proved that solidarity, grassroots mobilization and sharing the union message all work. While much of the press coverage in West Virginia focused on wages, the teachers also defeated an expansion of charter schools, killed a proposal to eliminate seniority, and scuttled a so-called paycheck-protection bill (aimed at weakening unions by taking away their right to deduct dues through payroll collection).
“What’s happening in my union is cathartic, and that’s part of why you saw what happened in West Virginia,” Weingarten said. “Probably for the first time in a very long time, our leadership gets it, and the members get it, and people are talking to and with one another like they haven’t since when we were started – about our aspirations, about our dreams, about how we get their collectively. Whether it is fighting for health care so you’re not one illness away from bankruptcy; whether it’s fighting for good schools; whether it’s fighting for a voice at work; whether it’s fighting for a raise of secure retirement….”
When the strike was won, at a rally at the state capitol, “you saw people who probably never stood up before,” she added. “Most of them weren’t teaching the last time there was a school strike, in 1990. They felt what union means: the respect, the dignity that you get when people stay together in a cause that is righteous and a cause that the county and the country respected – for the dignity of work, getting fair pay. That’s the lesson we taught the world with the West Virginia strike – a lesson you’ve been teaching people forever.”
Turning to Puerto Rico, she commended maritime labor and Jones Act operators for all of their relief efforts.
Concerning Operation Agua, she pointed out, “We realized this was a problem and we had to solve it. By Christmas, every single child in every single public school had safe, reliable drinking water because of the work we did together. That’s union, too.”
Weingarten concluded, “What unions do for our country is we fight for aspirations. Yes, we fight the things that are wrong – and we annoy people because of it. But we fight for aspiration. We fight for values. We fight for working families to be able to have a better life, and I will never, ever apologize for that.”
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