A few weeks ago, we saw a deeply improbable twist almost too farfetched for a daytime soap opera: the deciding vote in the right-wing attack on public sector union fees vanished at the eleventh hour with a sudden death at a fancy hunting retreat.
Brutal January arguments before the Supreme Court had left little hope for a positive outcome in Friedrichs v. the California Teachers Union and the Court was poised to strike down decades of settled law that allowed states to require all public workers covered by collective bargaining to contribute to the costs of their representation.
Friedrichs was a sword hanging over unions representing public sector workers, designed to threaten their financial viability and therefore the remaining influence of the labor movement. Unions made doomsday plans to operate under extreme austerity, ready to slash programs and staff to weather the attack.
It’s been clear to the labor movement that as private-sector unions have shrunk under decades of attack, public workers are the target for the anti-union forces of ALEC, the Koch brothers and their ilk. But getting unions out of the way isn’t the end goal. The attack is against the whole public sphere. Knocking out public unions would take out one of the remaining columns holding up the unwieldy structure that is the common good. So while the Friedrichs tie is a very temporary reprieve for unions, there’s not a moment of reprieve for the public, and therefore for workers and their families.
For decades we’ve seen systematic underfunding, deregulation, and delayed spending on infrastructure. An expanding public sphere took the country from the Depression through World War II and into the post-war years, providing employment and infrastructure that distributed benefits like roads and parks and electricity and schools, including public institutions of higher learning. But for the last 30 years, Grover Norquist’s “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” has shifted public funds back into the marketplace.
The attacks on public workers are part of the attempt to take away the part of life that everyone has a share in. In a ‘normal’ labor-management fight, the boss wants fewer workers to do more for less pay. The attack on the public sector is a little different: the right-wing demand is for less public work, and therefore fewer public workers, coupled with a demand that the work be moved into the private sector. The goal is to stop the redistributive effects of the public sector. Over and over we see public policy that first closes the door on the options that might work for the common good, then condemns public workers and their unions for failing to succeed anyway.
There’s the current legal fight against teacher tenure in California, hand-in-hand with siphoning funds to testing companies and for-profit charters. There are the starved public transit systems that mean Uber is now posing itself as public-friendly replacement. There are restrictions on raising revenue through taxes, bars to building public housing, to expanding rent regulation, to negotiating drug prices and many more walls in place that make it nearly impossible to collectively solve our more pressing needs.The intentional scarcity of budget cuts drives public assets into private hands or onto the slippery slopes of private-public partnerships and relying on private philanthropy for necessary services.
But public workers – teachers, sanitation workers, clerks, bus drivers, firefighters, and more – not only provide the crucial services families need, they’re also the core of the city’s middle class, especially for women and black workers. Unions cannot be stuck on defense, which too often blurs into acceptance of the unacceptable status quo. Teachers know the failings of public schools, bus drivers know the frustrations of riders, and public servants know all the pain of families unable to find housing they can afford. It’s time for concerted effort to build and engage public workers and build mass support for public work.
In Chicago, we’re seeing the power of public school teachers claiming the public schools’ place in the center of our neighborhoods and communities. The April 1, one-day Chicago Teacher’s Union strike diagnosed the problem with its rallying cry, “Broke on Purpose.” Teachers, students, residents and low-wage workers demanded school funding, and connected the dots between the public costs of McDonald’s poverty wages, the price of the school-to-prison pipeline, and the testing-charter-privatizers war on teachers.
If we’re going to be ready for the next round, we’ll need unions that build inside and out, as partners with residents who need public investment, a real safety net, and high-quality transit, schools, and services to build their lives. And we’ll need residents and advocates to understand and stand with a strong, well organized public sector as a necessary piece of the fight to meet our collective needs.
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Katie Unger is an independent strategic consultant and fourth-generation New York labor activist. She has spent more than a decade developing organizing campaigns in the fast-food, laundry and other industries. Katie recently served the City of New York working with communities on progressive policies as a Deputy Commissioner of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit. @KungerNYC