Sunday, February 6, 2011

AJ Duffy: Union Fighter or Just Another Hack?

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
A.J. Duffy, the outgoing boss of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), is one of three candidates for Vice President of the California Teachers Association (CTA). He is being portrayed as an outsider and true fighter. Compared with his opponents he would certainly seem to be.  Yet in 2009, Duffy, along the rest of the progressive slate that had won leadership of UTLA, voted to chicken out of a one-day strike in support of the 3,500 teachers being threatened with layoffs.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines went to court to stop the strike and won a restraining order against UTLA. Superior Court Judge James Chalfont cited student safety as his justification, a rationale that would justify blocking all teacher strikes under all circumstances. It was also a cynical, idiotic rationale when compared with the much longer term impact on student safety that would result from the sudden dismissal of 3,500 teachers. The judge also ruled that the work stoppage was a violation of the teachers’ contract, which had a no-strike clause, a provision found in many teacher contracts (often negotiated by the union itself in exchange for binding arbitration). Such clauses generally allow strikes only when districts violate the contract or after bargaining fails to achieve a contract. However, they also weaken unions and force workers to accept all kinds of attacks on their working conditions that are not expressly governed by their contracts.

The restraining order was not a trivial threat. Teachers who violated the injunction and refused to go to work were threatened with thousand dollar fines and the loss of their credentials. In effect, the judge was threatening to permanently destroy their livelihood for skipping work for a day. UTLA was threatened with millions of dollars in fines. Not surprisingly, the UTLA leadership caved in to the threats and called off the strike (See The Day My Union Died). Had the judge imposed the fines, it is unlikely that CTA would even allow Duffy to run for CTA VP (perhaps one reason for his capitulation).

According to UTLA member Dennis Danziger, 39 out of UTLA’s 48,000 members (including Duffy) defied the injunction and were arrested for sitting in the middle of an intersection outside of LAUSD headquarters. Hundreds called in sick. Some marched legally in front of their schools, but were dutifully in their classrooms by the time the bells rang. But overall, these actions were essentially useless since, by backing down, the union had exposed its neck to the boss. It is even questionable whether Duffy’s arrest was a show of guts, or just a symbolic act to win back his members’ respect after his weak-kneed response to the judge’s threats.

A good union leader should be aware of the implications of a proposed work action, adequately educate and prepare members for it, and have contingency plans ready. Surely Duffy knew that his contract prohibited such a strike and that there was a significant risk of it being derailed by the courts. What kind of fighter challenges someone to a fight and then back down so easily and quickly?

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
While Duffy may in fact be the lesser evil of the three contending for CTA VP, it is unlikely that he will be able to shake up the business-as-usual old guard. Consider that under the Duffy leadership in L.A. class sizes were increased, health benefits were reduced, pay was stagnant and furlough days were implemented, amounting to a de facto pay cut. Sure, it could be argued that most other union leaders would have accepted similar concessions, particularly under the current climate of enormous budget deficits and general anti-union public sentiment. However, this is exactly what the stagnant old guard union hacks repeatedly do, and then try to sell it to the rest of us as the lesser evil, or as better than the alternative. It certainly is not the action of a fighter.

Use It Or Lose It—Exercising Our Right To Strike
Many workers have never been on strike. Most hope never to have to go on strike. Yet the strike and other job actions (e.g., work to rule, sit down strike, sick out) are the only weapons we have against the bosses, who have the majority of the laws and financial resources on their side, as evidenced by the court ruling against UTLA.

In other parts of the world, most notably France, workers strike on a regular basis. They don’t always win. However, their ability and willingness to strike quickly and regularly makes the bosses and the state think twice before trying to squeeze them. Due in large part to the strength of organized labor, most workers in Western Europe have free health care, paid vacations of two weeks or more, pensions, shorter hours of employment and better overall health than we do in the U.S. Strength is not measured solely by the percentages of organized workers, but also by their ability to mobilize and willingness to engage in work stoppages and other direct actions.

In the U.S., we have virtually given up on the strike. Granted, union membership is at an all time low. However, this is partly the fault of the unions themselves for all but giving up on their core duty of organizing workers and not regularly exercising their right to strike. It is also due to laws that encourage the bureaucratization of unions, which results in lazy and collaborationist union bosses who do not share the interests of their members (See The Impending Demise of Unions).

It should be remembered that strikes were only made legal after the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in 1934. Prior to that, strikes still occurred despite being illegal. They were often more militant than later strikes. And strikes can continue today, even when ruled illegal by the courts. If workers are too scared to go on strike, the strike becomes a useless tool and workers are thus stripped of their more effective weapon. If workers continually back down, the bosses become more and more emboldened to take more and more away from them. We can see this on a national level with the growing cries by the ruling elite for austerity and new anti-union laws.

There are many out there, perhaps the majority, who would argue that it would be crazy to risk 45,000 UTLA credentials to try and save 3,500 jobs. Many, perhaps most, would be unwilling to risk their own. After all, many of us have families and mortgages and very few of us can afford to suddenly and permanently lose our career. Yet if we’re unwilling to fight to save our colleagues’ jobs, who will fight to save ours when they come for us? (Consider the growing strength of the anti-tenure/anti-seniority movement.) NEA has said they wouldn’t rule out a nation-wide strike to fight such a move, but considering what happened in L.A., I think it very unlikely that NEA would keep its nerve if Obama flexed his muscles just a little bit.

Also, while threats of fines, jail and/or loss of credentials are very serious and scary, it is important to keep things in perspective. What would happen if they stripped the credentials from 48,000 teachers in one city? It would be suicide. There is no way they could replace even a fraction of those teachers and certainly not with anyone qualified. If they threw us all in jail it would be an inconvenience, but not one they could sustain. This fact forms the basis of civil disobedience, which is not solely a symbolic act of defiance, but one that can actually cost the boss or the state to fight. (Consider the cost of locking up 48,000 teachers at once).

Lastly, there are many forms of direct action that can be as effective as a traditional strike, sometimes with less risk. However, they require considerable organizing and discipline to be effective. For example, rather than calling for a one-day strike, teachers can engage in a sick-out. You don’t lose any pay and it’s much harder to punish you as you are only taking advantage of your contractual right to stay home when sick, as in sick and tired of the boss’ cruelty, or sick from the stress of larger classes. There is also the roving sick-out, where teachers call in sick at one school on Monday, and a different one on Tuesday, thus throwing the district office into chaos and making it much more difficult to find substitutes. There is also the work-to-rule, where teachers are only in their classrooms during contractual hours, exercise their right to a duty-free lunch, and refuse to take work home in the evening and on weekends.

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