What Makes Teachers so Tough?

Almost all of the good news in American contract negotiations has been brought to us lately by school employees. Can you think of a strike victory to match what the Oakland teachers just did? How about Denver? The trail of stunning victories goes back through West Virginia (two big recent victories) and to the Chicago teachers a couple years back.

I hope you agree with me that America’s school employees are leading the labor movement. But why?

Our Texas teachers are having their lobby day Monday, March 11 in Austin. Affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are putting aside all differences and joining together to send buses from all over the state. Bonnie Mathias and I had Delna Bryan on the “Workers Beat” radio program this Saturday at 9 AM Central Time.




Gene Lantz, Delna Bryan, Bonnie Mathis at KNON on 3/9/19

I asked Delna how she accounts for the leading role of school employees and she responded that teachers make good tacticians because they are resolute. I’m not buying that. Lots of working people are resolute.

Long ago, I belonged to a sectarian radical group that owed most of its membership to the student movement. But when they saw an opportunity, they correctly started getting union jobs. At first they were convinced that the Steelworkers were the place to be. Then they changed to the Autoworkers. Last time I saw them, they were all changing to the Meatcutters. I don’t think anybody ever imagined the school employees would be taking the lead. Heck, I was a schoolteacher when all this “turn to industry” business started.

Here’s a couple of good reasons

I’ll give you two good reasons for the leading role of school employees, but not THE reason. First, school employees tend to be better educated and, consequently, better communicators than other workers. Heck, most of the factory workers I worked with couldn’t even use a keyboard. I believe I wrote the first computer program ever used in a union struggle in Texas, and that was at a time when my local didn’t know the first thing about data management or advanced communications. They had to borrow a guy from another big local just to lay out their leaflets. The other good reason, whether you agree or not, is that school employees are largely women. American women are more organizable and more organized than men. I said it and I’ll stick to it whether you agree or not. Now, here’s the REAL reason school employees are showing the way.

Here’s THE Answer

School employees are part of their communities. They no sooner start a strike or any kind of concerted action than they start getting parents’ auxiliaries, student auxiliaries, church auxiliaries, civil rights supporters, and community supporters. They do not fight alone.

During the spontaneous West Virginia school strike of last year, I interviewed on KNON the guy who set up their fund raising and raised tens of thousands of dollars and nationwide support. He wasn’t even a school employee. He was just a parent!

The Lesson for the Rest of Us

Organizing unions by workplace has been on a long downhill statistical slide since we peaked in 1957 with 30% of the workforce. Actually, the slide probably began in 1947 with the Taft-Hartley union busting law and the opportunistic union movement’s subsequent accommodation to it.

Even the wonderful new AFL-CIO leadership that began in 1995 hasn’t been able to completely staunch the outward flow of membership. and our failure to win new replacement union members.

What the new leadership did, though, has great potential payoff. They adopted Jobs with Justice and started pushing their state and local federations, along with union locals, to reach out for allies. Many of us at the state and local level haven’t learned the lesson yet, and even today we don’t do a lot of outreach beyond our own members. Some do it better than others, but nobody so far has developed the kind of outside support that the school employees get.

Making friends outside our immediate union organization is the key to winning. That’s what we must learn from the teachers, and we’d better learn it fast!

–Gene Lantz

I’m still on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you are curious about what I really think, try my personal web site

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