The Postal Strike of 1970: Relevance to Today

by Lawrence Swaim

postal serviceEd. note:  We are always eager to post first-person accounts from worker activists writing from their own direct experiences.   This article is a bit longer than our usual post, but is well worth a good read.

 In 1970 there was a nationwide strike of postal workers, and I became involved in this event, both as an ordinary postal worker and as an officer in a postal union. I eventually wrote a novel about it called Waiting for the Earthquake, which was published by Atlantic-Little, Brown.

The strike arrived at a time of great tension—and great change—in America. In 1964 and 1965, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were voted into law, constituting perhaps the most important America political turning-points of the 20th century. But the late 1960s and early 1970s were a very painful and unpredictable time, as the Vietnam War divided the country and deadly riots broke out in many African-American neighborhoods.

     Still, for a great many middle class and working families, things weren’t so bad. Despite the growing pall of a brutal war in Asia, jobs were plentiful and wages mainly okay.

     With at least one notable exception.

     The federal government had discovered that they could systematically repress salaries of postal workers, as well as all workers in the public sector, as a hedge against “stagflation,” a stagnant economy plus rampant inflation. Federal policy-makers especially focused on postal workers, since the Post Office was the second-largest employer in the land, and postal workers had to go to Congress for pay raises. Therefore, putting a lid on postal wages was relatively easy, since all Congress had to do was ignore any request by a postal union.

     The postal unions were not allowed to engage in collective bargaining at that time, so postal workers were reduced to begging, hat in hand, to whomever in Congress they could get to listen to their tale of woe. Since the federal government had been holding down wages for three decades, postal workers were simply not making enough money to make ends meet (a little more than two dollars an hour, as I remember.)

     I already had a couple of children when I came to work at the Post Office, even though I was in my early twenties. I ran for office in Local 2 of the United Federation of Postal Clerks in San Francisco, and ended up as Vice-President. I also became a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council for the next several years.

     Just as so often happens among today’s fast food workers, a great many postal workers and their families discovered that they had “too much month and not enough paycheck.” If you couldn’t make the paycheck last to the end of the month, and welfare and food stamps weren’t enough, you had to borrow money. Some postal workers I knew were borrowing money on a monthly basis, gradually finding themselves pulled into a terrifying system not unlike that old song about “owing your soul to the company store.” They’d try to stop borrowing, but when the next emergency came along (or the next child) they’d have to borrow more.

     The mood of the country gradually turned ugly. A traumatized nation had witnessed the tragic assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and hopes for peaceful reform of the nation seemed to perish with them. Moe Biller, a well-known and greatly beloved postal clerks’ leader in New York, angrily denounced postal facilities in the large cities as “dungeons,” dirty, often dangerous, sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. Rincon Annex, where I worked, featured beautiful WPA-type murals in the lobby, which have thankfully been saved as iconic examples of social-realism—but in the 1960s and 1970s there was nothing artistic about the working areas, which featured surrealistic fluorescent lights and the constant roar of mail-sorting machines.

     For reasons unknown, a decision was made in postal management to paint the interior walls of Rincon Annex pink, since they believed that the color pink had a calming effect on the workforce. It was as though management sensed that something disruptive and possibly dangerous was afoot, but didn’t know what it was and had no idea what to do about it. Over a period of time I became aware that some desperate postal workers, mainly on the east coast, were covertly—and very quietly—discussing the possibility of a wildcat strike in New York City and New Jersey.

     Furthermore, although it wasn’t widely reported, there had been a quiet but significant “sickout” of letter carriers in one of the mail processing units of New York City in 1969, which management went to great lengths to cover up. The impoverishment of the average postal workers had already become a major subject of op-ed writers and cartoonists in daily journalism, so the public was starting to get the idea that something was up.

     But what were postal workers to do? Strikers against the government could be punished with up to five years in prison, so I thought at first that strike talk might just be trash talk born of economic desperation. Yet something had to give—the status quo wasn’t working, and people were getting desperate. I went out of my way to seek advice from people who had been in union politics for a long time.

     One guy that I found particularly inspiring was the late Dow Wilson, President of Local 4 of the Painters’ Union. Sadly, Dow was assassinated by a mafia gunman right across the street from where I used to attend Labor Council meetings in the Mission District. But he was a heroic figure, with balls of brass, a sense of humor, and didn’t take himself too seriously

     One group I met with regularly were some people on the left who were mainly academics, but with one experienced trade unionist from the printing trades. I also met with people who were active in Locals Six and Ten of the Longshoremen and Warehousemen, mostly ex-Communists but still on the Left politically. During the middle 1960s I was lucky enough to meet with the late, great Charles “Chili” Duarte, ILWU President of Local Six. He was interested in the situation of the Postal Workers and suggested that I form a Shop Stewards’ Council.

     “I don’t know, Chili,” I said. “we have Shop Stewards, but everybody is scared of management in the Post Office. Only one guy wears a Shop Stewart badge, and he’s a total sell-out.”

     “Good,” Duarte said. “That way your management won’t expect much opposition from the Shop Stewards. They’ll be sitting ducks when you’re ready to make any kind of strong move.”

     Chili recounted the story about Harry Bridges’ early years on the waterfront, how he inherited a sellout union run by leaders who were terrified to throw down with a boss. But Bridges organized quietly from within, without a lot of fanfare, and when the 1934 strike was called he had a base of support that put him in the drivers’ seat. All his power came from that original crew, Chili said.

     “Management didn’t know what hit them, because they were expecting Bridge’s union to punk out. Of course, there were a lot of special circumstances in that 1934 strike, including two violent deaths, but it was Bridge’s strong rank and file support that really turned the tide. And management didn’t see it coming.”

     I was privileged to sit in on a few Shop Steward Meetings in Duarte’s union. Members were highly educated on how to file grievances, and the arguments to make with line foremen, if and when such arguments were needed. “Teach your members basic trade unionism. Postal workers really need to be exposed to industrial-style unions, because the conditions that postal workers work under are more like factories than public-employee unions.”

     I asked Duarte to summarize basic trade unionism. “Easy,” I remember him saying. “First, in negotiation you’re always wanting more money, and better conditions. Then whatever you can get you reduce to a contract that can be enforced in court. The shop steward system polices the contract, and documents the violations. Such a contract should be in force for a discrete amount of time—preferably one, two or three years. As the contract begins to run out, you prepare to get back into negotiations.”

     “If management shows signs of breaking out of this basic scenario, tell your members to prepare to strike, even if—or especially if—you are a public-employee union. Get a strike vote if you can. That doesn’t mean you’re really going to strike, but if you can get your membership to vote for it, it shows management to what lengths you are willing to go to get a good contract. A strike vote puts management on notice, and it prepares the members psychologically for the struggle ahead.”

     I’ve never heard a better summary of trade unionism than Duarte’s.

     It wasn’t long before something finally happened, as it always does, to break the proverbial camel’s back. Postal workers desperately needed a big raise—or a series of raises—to catch up with other workers. But it was at just that point that Congress voted to give postal workers a mere 4 percent raise. And then—wait for it—they voted to give themselves a whopping 41 percent pay raise!

      Postal workers were furious. How could Congress be so blind? Tension on the workroom floor spiked.

     Members of New York City’s National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 36, met in Manhattan on March 16, 1970, and voted to strike. At midnight the next evening, March 17, picketing began at the main postal facilities. Moe Biller, then a rank-and-file postal clerk leader in the Manhattan-Bronx area (and later the President of the American Postal Workers’ Union) brought postal clerks into the strike, closing down the big mail-distribution centers. Postal unions in New Jersey also voted to strike, as well as a few other urban locals on the east coast. The strike by angry clerks and letter carriers (the latter led by Vincent Sombrotto) was enough to stop all movement of the mail in New York—and New York was, by any standard, the main postal distribution center in America.

     And then something truly amazing began to happen. The strike fever began to roll west, across the Middle West and then on to the large cities on the West Coast. Postal workers across the country began to engage in various kinds of strike activity, sometimes picketing openly, and sometimes not. Sometimes people only stayed home for a day or two, or—in imitation of the ‘blue flu’ tactic used by striking police patrolmen—they started calling in sick. Many called in to say they were afraid to come to work because of the large crowds of striking postal workers milling around outside, and disruption inside the facility. Others simply stayed home without calling in.

     In the San Francisco Bay Area, I was the only postal union officer (VP of Local 2, United Federation of Postal Clerks), and the only delegate to the Labor Council to openly support strike action. I fully expected to be arrested by the Postal Inspectors or the FBI, and probably indicted by a grand jury. But I’d long ago decided that it was worth it. Postal workers were second only to the auto industry in terms of their numbers, but auto workers made five or six times as much money.

     Beginning on the second day, postal workers all over the Bay Area started staying home from work, and people got very creative. We had a big rank-and-file meeting at a church, where I asked for picketers to go with me to the San Francisco Labor Council, which—it so happened—was meeting that night.  I was a regular member of the Labor Council, so people knew who I was—but I showed up with about 30 to 40 postal workers which really got the attention of the members, especially the leaders. (This tactic was not new, I hasten to add—as mentioned before, it was a favorite ploy of the late Dow Wilson, President of the Painters Union Local 4, who always took a large rank-and-file contingent with him when he wanted the Labor Council hierarchy to discuss some important issue.)

     I asked to be recognized under ‘New Business’ at the Labor Council, and made a motion to support striking postal workers. George Johns, at that time Secretary of the San Francisco Labor Council, hemmed and hawed a great deal, then made a bizarre little speech about the hard work done by postal workers. That was all he could say under the circumstances, really—he couldn’t support the strike outright, since it was against the government, and therefore completely illegal; but it all got onto the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the next day, and familiarized people with our issues. It also made postal management realize that they were dealing with desperate people who simply couldn’t continue to live on starvation wages.

     Some of the strikers fanned out and went to smaller postal facilities, encouraging workers to leave early and stay home. Some postal workers at a facility near the airport walked out together. About this time something very interesting began to happen nationally. The top leaders of the postal unions all piously disavowed the strike, but were at the same time being frantically petitioned by people in the Nixon administration—people who’d previously been unwilling to even acknowledge our existence—to sit down and help postal management negotiate a way out of the prevailing chaos! So, the top leadership did what elected union leaders are supposed to do—they entered into negotiations for a settlement.

     It had now become clear to everyone involved that there would have to be very substantial raises for postal workers, because we were all playing catchup ball because of the decades that America had neglected its postal workers.

      During the height of the excitement at the postal facilities in San Francisco, the Postal Inspectors infiltrated one of their people into our activities, representing himself as an ordinary postal worker from another area who just wanted to see how strikes were conducted. We found out very early that he was actually a Postal Inspector from the San Francisco office—you can’t keep that kind of thing secret very long in a place like San Francisco—and it then became my responsibility to keep him from harm, as strikers and their supporters were likely also to become aware of his true identity. (It was my belief that if there were mass arrests, he would be used as an expert witness to testify against us. At my request, the young man in question left the area.) On other hand, the Postal Inspectors were always quite fair to me. The FBI, not so much.

     Meanwhile the top leadership of the postal unions were engaged in negotiating with postal management and Nixon’s lawyers. They rather quickly reached an agreement, which suggests, first, that the spontaneous nature of the strike in New York had scared the hell out of everybody; and secondly, both sides had been thinking for some time about what they wanted. It had occurred to the Nixon administration that there were far too many postal workers—reportedly at least 250,000—that had participated in strike activity, to indict them all. Such an expedient would have swamped the grand jury system, among other things.

                                                            Conclusion

     The postal strike of 1970 lasted only a couple of weeks on the East Coast, and was basically over after a week on the West Coast. The purpose was to demonstrate conclusively that postal workers could be pushed only so far, and that the nation could not function if mail was not delivered. It could be described as an unsanctioned or wildcat strike, and it was also a felony-level crime. To get the full measure of this, please remember that any kind of strike against the Post Office at that time violated several different kinds of federal laws.  The fact that so many postal workers risked imprisonment was a warning to the Nixon administration, the postal management, and everybody else, that the situation of postal workers had become intolerable.

     An unsanctioned or wildcat strike can mean a strike in which the local votes for a job action against the wishes of its national organization. (Like Branch 36 of the Letter Carriers voted to do in New York. The national leadership reportedly never saw that vote coming.) It can also mean a strike that is not approved by the local Labor Council, or not voted on by the membership. All these things could qualify such strikes as unsanctioned strikes, but we should remember that branch 36 of the Letter Carriers in New Work formally held a strike vote, and voted to strike. Later Moe Biller’s Manhattan-Bronx Postal Union voted by secret ballet—rather than a voice vote—to strike, and soon joined the letter carriers on the picket line.

     By these standards, the postal strike in San Francisco was 100 percent wildcat. Years later, while casing mail at Rincon Annex, I took to wearing a button on my work apron that said Remember the Wildcat—I Was on the Line. The 1970 strike was a wildcat strike, but it did what every successful strike must do—it produced a written settlement that could be enforced in court. The settlement came in the form of the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which was signed by representatives of both unions and management, and then became legislation passed by Congress. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fundamentally good for postal workers and patrons.

     I was offered a nice advance for my novel Waiting for the Earthquake, and on the advice of my editor, Billy Abrahams, I quit my job to become a writer. Since that time, I’ve written seven published books, although I’ve had occasion many times to reconsider leaving the Postal Service. Last spring, I joined the Democratic Socialists of America, and continue to support them and their publications.

     Unfortunately, the Republicans have a desperate plan to privatize the Post Office, a plan that they discuss mainly among themselves, and with their big donors. That is tragic and unjust, because the Postal Service has served the American people well for over 200 years as a public institution. And although the Republicans like to claim that the Post Office loses billions of dollars a year, the truth is that it receives no money from the government whatsoever, having been self-supporting since 1970. Sadly, however, the Republicans will do and say almost anything to privatize the US Postal Service, in order to transform it into a cash cow for themselves and their corporate sponsors. The Republicans and their billionaire supporters are playing hardball because hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake, and they want to control the action.

     I am writing a follow-up article about the specific ways in which the billionaires are trying to privatize the Post Office, and how postal patrons and unions can work together to stop them.  

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Strike at Marriott Hotels in Boston

by Hugh Lee Fowler Schlesinger

Walker_100318_04hotelstrike_30551x

Workers and supporters picketed outside the Sheraton Boston Wednesday [photo credit:Boston Globe]

October 3, 2018

 UNITE HERE Local 26 began their city-wide strike at Marriott properties in Boston at 5am this morning.

Unite Here members at Marriott properties nation-wide (including in San Francisco, San Jose, Honolulu, Seattle, and Boston) voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize strikes if bargaining with Marriott failed to progress to a fair contract. These workers are rallying under the call that ‘One Job Should Be Enough‘ to demand pay and healthcare adequate to support a family in the cities where they work, job security, and safety and respect at work! The  Local 26 Bargaining Committee has determined that bargaining at Boston properties is not progressing to this goal, and has decided to utilize its power to call a strike!! This is the first ever hotel strike in Boston!

The union is striking for more protections as the industry undergoes major technological changes,  such as self-check-in kiosks and robot room service. Local 26 is also demanding that hotels  protect worker hours, provide more secure schedules, and improve sexual harassment protections and pregnancy accommodations.

“After five years of record profits and more than six months of contract talks, Marriott still doesn’t get it,” said Local 26 president Brian Lang . “It’s our work that creates the great experience for the hotel guests. We are the reason they keep coming back.”

Local 26 last held a strike in the fall of 2016, when dining hall workers at Harvard University walked off the job for 22 days

Picket lines will be maintained at all of the following properties from 7am-7pm:
-Aloft Boston, Seaport
-Element Boston, Seaport
-Ritz-Carlton, Boston Commons
-Westin Waterfront
-Westing Copley
-Sheraton Boston
-W Boston
Updates about actions and what we can do in solidarity with the striking workers to follow! Also, you can stay updated at: https://www.marriotttravelalert.org
Please try and find some time to walk the picket line in solidarity with these workers over the next few days.
SOLIDARITY AND POWER!!!

A True National Safety Net

by Glenn Parton

net

We need a New New Deal in America, bigger and better than the one enacted by FDR in the 30s (and even bigger than his visionary proposal for a Second Bill of Rights in the 40s). The basic components of it are Medicare-for-All, Living Wages, Affordable Housing, Federal jobs guarantee, free colleges and Universities, and BIG (Basic Income Guarantee of $1,000 per month per adult until income exceeds $ 100,000 per year). These elements, woven together, could and should provide a strong national safety net (NSN) for every American citizen and legal immigrant, effectively ending poverty in America, and preparing the ground for a qualitatively better society.

In the last election a number of working class people, including some union members, wanted to “shake things up.” They weren’t impressed by the establishment changes that Hillary Clinton represented because they were left behind by the economic prosperity of the last several decades, and they fell for Trump’s lies to make big improvements in their daily lives. These folks, together with the vulnerable, the unemployed, the insecure, and the forgotten everywhere could be persuaded, or are already on board, to vote for the specific, concrete programs and policies articulated in the National Safety Net [NSN]. The Democrats don’t get enough support from these people, not because the Party asks for too much change, but because the Party asks for too few major changes on their behalf. The simple truth is that the vast majority of people in this country desire and need financial help and cooperation from their government and the nation as a whole, so the Dems should offer it–not false promises a la Trump– but the real thing, spelled out and ready to go in the form of NSN. We fall short not when we aim too high but when we aim too low.

A better electoral strategy is not to appeal to Independents and moderate Republicans in order to tip the scale in favor of Democrats because that requires moving Center or Right, with a corresponding loss of substance (of policies and programs) in order to gain a relatively few votes, perhaps winning a battle here and there but losing the overall war on poverty and an improved quality of life for everyone. Rather, the Democrats should go Left because that’s where the biggest pool of likely voters for genuine progress or substantive issues are to be found, especially among the roughly 100 million people who don’t usually vote (but who are eligible to vote) because many of them have given up on politics that they believe doesn’t serve their vital self-interests (and they are largely correct about this). If the Democrats don’t offer a juicy sustenance to the common people (the red meat of a decent secure livelihood such as NSN) then the GOP will squeak out victories again and again. The sad truth is that the movement toward the Center from within the Democratic Party is being driven by a small group of elite-donors who are seriously retarding the evolution of the Party, and this managerial class needs to be removed from leadership. The victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents the new direction that is needed.

We need a New New Deal in America, bigger and better than the one enacted by FDR in the 30s (and even bigger than his visionary proposal for a Second Bill of Rights in the 40s). The basic components of it are Medicare-for-All, Living Wages, Affordable Housing, Federal jobs guarantee, free colleges and Universities, and BIG (Basic Income Guarantee of $1,000 per month per adult until income exceeds $ 100,000 per year). These elements, woven together, could and should provide a strong national safety net (NSN) for every American citizen and legal immigrant, effectively ending poverty in America, and preparing the ground for a qualitatively better society.

Glenn Parton was the last student of Herbert Marcuse, and since then has been struggling to turn radical philosophy into socio/political reality. He lives in Arizona.
The full text of Glenn’s essay can be accessed at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1x4kYI3VocVPBvJpoa7V2qzN1lS8lvpS-tfcBCflPiHs/edit?usp=sharing

 

The High Human Cost of Creating a Real Union in China

Shenzhen union

 

More than 50 students and workers were arrested this summer during a weeks-long struggle to form a union at Jasic Technology in Shenzhen, China.

by Elaine Hui

University students lent tremendous support. But their employer and the Chinese government cracked down on both the workers and the students with firings, detention, surveillance, and the threat of jail sentences.

Workers at the welding-equipment manufacturer Shenzhen Jasic Technology initiated the process of forming a union in May. Among their biggest complaints were arbitrary fines and the company’s underpayment into government-run funds that help workers pay rent or buy houses.

Workers followed the law in setting up a union, including requesting and receiving permission from upper-level unions affiliated with the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only unions authorized in China.

In response to a rising tide of labor disputes, since the mid-2000s the ACFTU has built up more workplace branches, especially in foreign-invested firms, through a top-down effort. But these unions are notoriously ineffective at representing workers, focusing instead on organizing recreational activities and providing small holiday gifts. They mainly serve to preempt organizing.

Moreover, many companies are still not unionized, including Jasic, which is listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The company employs 1,000 workers at this factory.

‘WE ARE LIKE TINY BUGS’

After workers collected signatures to form a union, in July the district-level union federation and the company denounced their effort as illegal—since the company had quickly formed a union to forestall the workers’ effort.

Jasic changed the job duties of union supporters and fired six of the most vocal. On July 20 the sacked workers attempted to return to work, but were beaten up and taken to the police station. Twenty other workers and supporters who went to the police station to protest were also arrested.

“The boss owns billions of yuan [equivalent to hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars] while we toil all year long just to make 20 to 30 thousand [$3,000-$4,000],” said a former Jasic worker in a speech at the protest. “What’s wrong to ask for a raise and get back the illegal deductions from our wages?”

Addressing the police, the former worker added, “When the boss says we’re making trouble, you, the cops, trust them and rush to the factory, beat us up and take us to the police station… In your eyes we are just like tiny bugs waiting to be stepped on.”

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The Jasic workers’ struggle has attracted significant attention in China.

Their demand to set up a union is much less common than demands for raises, payments into pension insurance, or compensation related to factory shutdowns or relocations, which have been the focal points of thousands of labor disputes in China in recent years.

Of the 1,745 collective actions by workers listed on China Labor Bulletin’s strike map between September 2017 and August 2018, the Jasic struggle is the only one over organizing a union.

Publicity through Chinese social media platforms has overcome the mainstream media blackout on strikes and labor disputes in the increasingly repressive political environment under President Xi Jinping.

As they learned of the struggle, workers from other factories and university students from throughout the country rushed to Shenzhen to support the Jasic workers. “Students today are workers tomorrow,” said a student from Beijing at one protest. “People asked me why I am here. I asked them back, ‘How can I not be here?’”

CRACKDOWN

Disturbed by the outpouring of support, on July 27 the government arrested 29 Jasic workers and supporters, accusing them of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a criminal charge often used by the government to suppress protests.

Chinese Worker-Activist Speaking Tour

Chinese labor activists are touring the U.S. to speak about the book Striking to Survive: Workers’ Resistance to Factory Relocations in China (Haymarket, 2018). Countering the popular myth that Chinese workers are ‘stealing American jobs,’ Striking to Survive documents a recent wave of factory closures in China’s Pearl River Delta and struggles by workers there to hold onto their jobs, their pensions, and their livelihoods. The events will also be an opportunity to hear recent news from China’s labor movement.

  • September 30-October 3: Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Detroit
  • October 5-11: Bay Area

For a list of events, or to order the book, visit: bit.ly/strikesurvive.

In response, workers and students formed a support group to demand that the government release all the detainees and respect the workers’ right to unionize. Thousands of workers and students signed online petitions.

Xinhua News, the government’s mouthpiece, has attempted to scapegoat two labor NGOs (similar to worker centers in the U.S.)—Shenzhen-based Dagongzhe and Hong Kong-based Worker Empowerment—for the workers’ actions. The government arrested a staff member and the registered agent of Dagongzhe. In 2015, the Chinese government launched a crackdown on groups like these, smearing them as foreign-funded organizations attempting to undermine the country’s stability.

Before dawn on August 24, riot police with full gear and shields broke into the apartment where members of the support group were staying and arrested more than 50 students and workers.

On the same day, two workers involved in the support group and two activists from the website “Pioneer,” which had been releasing frequent updates on the struggle, were arrested in Beijing.

CALL FOR SOLIDARITY

Most of the detainees have since been released, but four Jasic workers are still in prison awaiting trial on criminal charges. Two workers from other factories and six activists are still in detention and at high risk of facing criminal charges too.

Meanwhile the released student supporters have been disciplined by their universities and are under police surveillance at home.

Many of those detained have been denied the right to meet with their lawyers. The government has also constantly harassed and threatened lawyers willing to represent them. A number of lawyers were warned by authorities that those involved in the case would be putting their legal licenses at risk.

Solidarity actions have been organized in Hong Kong, Germany, and the U.S. You can sign the petition calling for the release of the arrested workers and students at bit.ly/jasicsolidarity.

Elaine Hui is a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #475. Don’t miss an issue, subscribe today.

Teachers’ Strikes Past and Present

 by Andy Piascik

teachers strike
(AP Photo/Adam Beam)
Su Sheridan holds a sign protesting proposed cuts to retirement benefits for public school teachers on March 8, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Momentum from the inspiring wave of strikes by public school teachers that emerged almost out of nowhere and swept the United States this past Spring has carried over into the 2018-19 school year. With the new school year not yet a month old, teachers in several districts in the state of Washington have won significant gains in pay, benefits  and school funding  through walk-outs. In Puerto Rico, teachers struck on the third pay of school in part to oppose school closures demanded by financial vultures who continue to ravage the island. And in Los Angeles, the country’s second largest school district, teachers have authorized a strike if their demands to prevent wage and benefit cuts and against school privatization aren’t met. 

         
   In addition to the strike and potential strikes, teachers in West Virginia have formed WV United, according to Labor Notes reporter Dan Dimaggio. WV United is a rank and file caucus made up of members of both of the nation’s major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and is affiliated with the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE). Teachers in West Virginia kicked off the strike wave in the Spring and were soon followed by teachers and other school staff in Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, North Carolina and Kentucky who held large-scale walk-outs that in some instances led to the statewide closure of schools for extended periods. Similar actions also took place in individual municipalities such as Jersey City, New Jersey.
A Spring of Unity and Militancy
           
In every instance, there was a tremendous degree of unity. Rank and file participation was robust, rallies were large and often quite spirited, very few teachers crossed picket lines in those places where schools weren’t completely closed and the public was highly supportive. A number of commentaries have noted that Donald Trump carried fa number of the states where the strikes occurred, where union members are generally a lower percentage of the workforce and have fewer collective bargaining rights.  
            
Among the many themes of the strikes, there were at least two that relate directly to their red-state hue. The first, widely commented on, is that reactionary state governments have been especially aggressive in their assaults on the living standards of the majority of their populations. In the face of dramatic tax reductions on corporations and the wealthy, attacks on workers and unions, and the undermining and underfunding of education and other public programs, teachers who have often not gotten raises for years while working conditions deteriorate, finally said Enough
Many Trump Voters Among the Strikers
           
Another theme was that people’s class allegiances emerge as struggle intensifies, and the fact that some of the striking teachers voted for Trump is almost irrelevant as they engage in actions like the recent walk-outs. The focus on whether the strikers voted for the worse of two horrible presidential candidates is certainly of great interest to the punditocracy but serves intentionally to obfuscate the fact that the struggle between the Super Rich and the rest of us will unfold primarily in workplaces and on the streets, not in voting booths.    
            There were fissures between union officers and some rank and filers who believe officers in Oklahoma, for example, were too timid in calling off a strike that had not yet achieved all of the teachers’ objectives. In West Virginia, teachers remained out in defiance of union officers who tried to end the strike. Efforts by nervous officers to curtail or even prevent strikes echo events in Wisconsin in 2011 when workers occupied that state’s capitol building before union bureaucrats shut down the protests and essentially told the workers to go home and find a Democrat to vote for.
The fissures in the teacher unions will not go away and a galvanized rank and file may emerge that can address that timidity. That much of the work in preparation for and during the recent strikes was done outside official union channels speaks well to the possibility for desperately needed changes in union structure and culture.
Another Teachers’ Strike 40 Years Ago
           
In the early stages of the neoliberal epoch in the 1970s, public school teachers in Bridgeport, Connecticut went on strike for many of the same reasons exactly 40 years ago. The Board of Education and the Bridgeport Education Association (BEA), the collective bargaining representative of the city’s 1,247 teachers as well as about 100 other school professionals, had been at loggerheads for months. Connecticut law forbade strikes by public school teachers, however, and many Bridgeporters were caught off guard by the picket lines on the first day of school.
           
Much like the strikes in 2018, there was widespread public support for the teachers. Hundreds of supporters, including students and their parents, joined the picket lines. At one site, members of a neighborhood group played an especially active role in urging students and parents to either join the picket line or go home.
National Teacher Strike Wave
           
Like the 2018 strike wave, the walk-out in Bridgeport was one of many that September. Teachers in Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Seattle and numerous smaller cities and towns saw schools closed because of strikes, and some of those actions lasted for several weeks. It was the Bridgeport walk-out, though, that was the longest and the most contentious, as teachers faced a local power structure determined to crush the strike.
          
  In what were the early stages of the austerity agenda of the business class, Bridgeport’s teachers had seen wages and benefits lag and classroom sizes grow in the years leading up to the 1978 strike. They had accepted a concessionary contract in 1975, causing salaries to fall all the way to the bottom in Fairfield County (as they are today) and among the lowest in the state. There was also a growing exodus of teachers from Bridgeport to higher-salaried jobs in nearby school districts, another trend that remains in 2018. 
           
From the outset, the 1978 strike was highly successful. Only 36 teachers, or less than 3%, reported for work on the first day of school and that number dropped in the days that followed. The Democratic mayor and the Democrat-majority Board of Education kept elementary and middle schools open at first by utilizing a small number of teaching aides, substitute teachers and accredited, unemployed teachers, but only 10% of students showed up. The city’s Parent Teacher Association, meanwhile, supported the strike by rejecting a call by the Board that they volunteer in schools and assist scab teachers.
Mass Arrests and Imprisonment
            Arrests began just days into the strike and State Superior Court Judge James Heneby began levying fines of $10,000 per day against the union. As the strike continued, Heneby ordered the union’s officers jailed. The first jailings occurred on September 12th, the fifth school day of the strike, when thirteen teachers were handcuffed and carted off, the men to a prison in New Haven and the women to one in Niantic some 60 miles away. Those arrested endured degradations such as strip searches and being doused with lice spray. Adding further insult, Heneby imposed individual fines of $350 per person per day on the arrestees.
            Angered by the arrests and the teachers’ subsequent treatment, treatment that one arrestee later called the most humiliating event of her life, the strikers turned out to the picket lines in ever larger numbers and with greater determination and militancy. One result was that the city and school board were forced to abandon efforts to keep any schools open. With all 38 schools closed, another 115 teachers were arrested in the next few days. In all, 274 were arrested during the strike, 22% of the total in the city. As prison space became scarcer, many of those in the later waves of arrests were packed onto buses and taken 70 miles to a National Guard camp that was converted into a makeshift prison.
Standing Firm to Victory
            As the confrontation continued into late September, and with all of the other strikes around the country settled, the mass arrest and imprisonment of Bridgeport’s teachers was drawing international attention and causing local elites and city residents as a whole great embarrassment. Despite the arrests, jailings, fines and some tense scenes on a number of picket lines, the teachers stood firm. Finally, on September 25th, after 14 school days, the teachers union and Board of Ed agreed to accept binding arbitration. All teachers, some of whom had been locked up for 13 days, were released from prison. The final terms of the agreement were largely favorable to the teachers.
New Legislation: A Setback?
In the strike’s aftermath, the Connecticut legislature passed the 1979 Teacher Collective Bargaining Act that mandates binding arbitration when teachers and the municipalities they work for are stalemated in contract negotiations. While some observers saw the law as a victory for teachers, it was still illegal for teachers in Connecticut to strike, as it remains today. In addition, a number of changes to the law since 1979 such as one that allows municipalities but not unions to reject the decision of an arbitrator, have weakened the bargaining position of teachers.  
Chicago 
No militant strike wave or reinvigorated workers’ movement followed the strikes of 1978. Rather, it was capital that escalated its offensive, one that continues to this day. Probably the most noteworthy strikes by teachers since 1978 came in Chicago where teachers walked out for nine days in 2012 and for shorter durations several times afterwards. The Chicago actions gained significant victories and illustrated to a country where strikes have become rare that they can be incredibly effective.
The 40 years from the Bridgeport strike to today precisely cover the period in which we have seen the most radical upward redistribution of wealth in human history. There is much gut-level support for radical change on many issues including the state of education and the conditions teachers work under. The wave of strikes may be an important turning point.
Moving Forward
           
If that is to be the case, continued organizing and coalition-building is essential. Striking teachers in 2018 did not face anywhere near the state repression as those in Bridgeport in 1978; there does not appear to have been as much as a single arrest during the strike wave. But entrenched power will push back hard and fast on all fronts, as it always does. The recent strike wave presents a real opportunity for catalyzing the large scale but mostly diffuse discontent among workers toward something more cohesive and better organized. That is an exciting possibility and the thousands of teachers and other school workers who stepped forward in recent months are well-positioned to make that possibility reality.
           
It is of great significance that in the West Virginia strike at least, teachers refused to accept a demand by the governor that improved pay and benefits would be paid for with cuts in much-needed programs for the working class as a whole. Mainstream commentators who regard union workers as nothing more than a special interest group exclusively focused on their own well-being had no idea what to do with that one. Also of note is that, in large part because of the insistence of the teachers, the contractual gains won by some of the strikes included all other school workers and that non-union supervisors in at least several states overwhelmingly supported the strikes.
For those who recognize increased class consciousness as essential to long-term social change, the teachers’ rejection of West Virginia elite efforts to conclude the strike by driving a wedge between themselves and the other workers was an important step. Among the challenges now are further development of that consciousness and the further strengthening of the class unity it represents.
One other challenge facing the burgeoning motion among teachers is the fact that the underfunding of education has proceeded at a higher and faster pace in places with higher percentages of students of color, particularly African Americans. Seriously addressing this point and developing strategies accordingly through their unions, in the networks they’ve established and in coalitions they join will go a long way in determining how broad, militant and effective all of those organizations will be. Events of recent week indicate that teachers and other school staff are determined to build on the terrific start of the Spring and may be on the cusp of reinvigorating the labor movement with much-needed militancy.  
 
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author whose most recent book is the novel In Motion.  He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.

 

Teamster Tackles Corporate Democrat in California Assembly Race

by Steve Early

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It has become a movement mantra, as labor suffers betrayal after betrayal by Democrats and Republicans alike: union members should run for office themselves.

Rhetoric on this subject is cheap and easy. But running successful candidates is not. Even labor activists with considerable skill and experience have found it difficult to win public office.

Yet in California’s “jungle primary” in June, a Teamster from Richmond astounded many observers by placing second in her state legislative race.

Jovanka Beckles, a two-term city councilor, county worker, and past Labor Notes Troublemakers School speaker, now advances to the November run-off for Assembly District 15, which includes Richmond, Berkeley, and part of Oakland.

She’s up against Buffy Wicks, a well-connected former White House official who recently relocated to the East Bay. Wicks has been personally endorsed by former President Barack Obama, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who is likely to become California’s next governor.

The November showdown between Beckles, a strong Bernie Sanders supporter, and Wicks, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 California primary campaign, gives some unions a chance to do penance for their short-sighted embrace of Clinton two years ago.

It’s also an important test of whether East Bay labor’s post-primary backing for one of its own will translate into the kind of union member mobilization necessary to overcome the paid media blitz already underway on Wicks’ behalf.

“We don’t have a million dollars to send out a bunch of mailers,” Beckles said, in a recent appeal for more volunteers. “We’re not trying to elect another status-quo Democrat.”

OVERCOMING DISADVANTAGES

Why don’t union candidates win more often? One disadvantage, resumé-wise, is that the demands of local union leadership or activism can leave little time for personal involvement in community affairs or service on local boards and commissions. Working-class candidates may be well known in union circles but less familiar to the larger electorate. Their opponents are often well-funded and better-networked professionals, businesspeople, and “civic leaders” long identified, for better or worse, with local public policymaking.

Beckles wasn’t a lone individual candidate when she broke into electoral politics in Richmond. She won a council seat in 2010, after an earlier defeat, because she had become a neighborhood council activist and then a citywide leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance.

The RPA is a 14-year old local political group that has dues-paying members and a year-round program of organizing around labor and community issues. All of its candidates for city council or mayor run on a common slate and must refuse all business donations.

The RPA now boasts a super-majority of five out of seven members on the part-time Richmond city council. During her tenure, Beckles and her council allies developed a track record of impressive local achievements that now lends credibility and substance to her current RPA-backed bid for an open assembly seat. (For details, see here.)

Still, for more than a year Beckles has had to juggle her continuing council duties, four 10-hour shifts a week as a child protection worker for Contra Costa County with in Richmond, plus conducting her campaign for Assembly on weekends, free evenings, vacation days, and holidays.

Only in the homestretch of her general election campaign has she been able to take a leave from her demanding day job to campaign more freely.

PEOPLE-POWERED

If the RPA was the original force propelling Beckles’ candidacy, she now has supporters of all kinds—knocking on doors, making phone calls, hosting house-parties, displaying yard signs, and handing out flyers throughout the East Bay.

RPA volunteers have been joined by Oakland and Berkeley members of one of the country’s fastest-growing chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, which includes many young labor activists. Since last year, Beckles has also gotten key help from the national Our Revolution, the Sanders campaign spinoff based in Washington, D.C., and local political groups like the Wellstone Democrats and Berkeley Progressive Alliance.

Wicks—thanks to her past role as a Clinton Super PAC director and her continuing ties to national Democratic Party donor networks—was the beneficiary of $1.2 million in primary spending ($240,000 of which paid for the services of the same San Francisco consulting firm used by that city’s Chamber of Commerce.)

Wicks’ funders include wealthy donors tied to Lyft, Uber, and Bay Area tech firms, charter school interests, major landlords, a health care industry PAC, and Govern for California, a business-oriented Super PAC created by the board chair of Walmart and a former top advisor to Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In contrast, Beckles raised and spent only about $160,000, mostly in smaller, in-state donations. She ran as a “people-powered” candidate, free of corporate money and relied on few paid staffers or outside consultants.

ONE OF OUR OWN

In the primary, some California unions associated with Labor for Bernie (and long supportive of Labor Notes) backed Beckles because of her support for workers’ and tenants’ rights, single payer health care, and getting big money out of politics. These included the National Union of Healthcare Workers, Transit (ATU) Local 192, and University Professional and Technical Employees (CWA).

But they were joined by the Bay Area affiliates of several national unions that were missing from the Sanders camp two years ago—including Beckles’ own Teamsters Joint Council 7 and SEIU Local 1021, which represents Richmond city workers and nearly 50,000 other public employees in northern California.

“How often do we get a chance to elect one of our own?” asks Local 1021 political organizer Gabriel Haaland, who has spent the last year helping Beckles defy Democratic Party insider predictions that her bid for higher office was hopeless.

Since June, Beckles backers like Haaland have succeeded in broadening the labor base for her campaign. It now includes the Alameda and Contra Costa County Labor Councils, the California Labor Federation, both statewide teachers’ unions, AFSCME, and the California Nurses Association.

Kathryn Lybarger, who serves as president of the state AFL-CIO and AFSCME Local 3299 at the University of California, has hailed Beckles, an immigrant from Panama, as “a candidate strongly aligned with our values and so representative of our members.

“We are utterly confident that she will continue to fight for us when she gets to Sacramento,” Lybarger said.

HOLDOUTS

Not everyone is on board. The Alameda County Building Trades Council backs Wicks over Beckles—despite the latter’s past advocacy of project labor agreements, the usual litmus test for endorsement by the trades.

The building trades council in neighboring Contra Costa County has been a reliable political ally of Chevron, Richmond’s largest employer. Four years ago, its member unions even joined the Chevron-backed “independent expenditure” committee that spent $3 million trying unsuccessfully to defeat Beckles and other pro-labor progressives running for city council.

Ex-SEIU President Andy Stern is an individual endorser of Wicks—despite the fact that two major SEIU locals and their state council favor Beckles. Since leaving the union, Stern has become a corporate board member and gig economy consultant. He worked closely with Wicks and other Obama Administration staffers when they were lining up union support for the Affordable Care Act eight years ago and sidelining labor proponents of Medicare for All. In the Assembly District 15 race today, California single-payer advocates favor Beckles over Wicks, whose position on health care reform is much weaker.

Over Labor Day weekend, Beckles is scheduled to appear at a teachers’ union picnic and a rally with SEIU members protesting out-sourcing by Kaiser Permanente. If Beckles’ consistent solidarity with local labor causes is reciprocated through sufficient union voter turnout and spending on her behalf, she may indeed be joining the Assembly in January.

And there, she will be a rare “corporate-free” voice for many other working class and poor Californians whose interests tend to be overlooked by state legislators who do take money from business PACs and industry associations.

Steve Early is a Labor Notes policy committee member, a Jovanka Beckles supporter, and fellow member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. He is the author, most recently, of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, a book about local political organizing in Richmond, CA. To find out more about Beckles’ campaign, see here. This article is reposted from Labor Notes.

CORRECTION: It’s the Alameda County Building Trades Council that’s backing Wicks, not the Contra Costa County Building Trades Council as we at first reported. We have also clarified the following paragraph to reflect that member unions of the Contra Costa County Building Trades Council were the ones who backed Chevron’s committee four years ago.

Incarcerated Workers Strike Against Dehumanizing Prison Conditions

by Fizz Percal, Institute for Policy Studies

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