Monday, March 14, 2011

Union Busting Redux? Old School History of Teachers Unions

Margaret Haley (from the Walter P. Reuther Library)
Sherman Dorn recently made an interesting comparison between Wisconsin Gov. Walker’s attacks on public sector workers and the Loeb Rule, which was used in the 1910s to attack the fledgling Chicago Teachers Federation, the nation’s first successful teachers union and the first member of the AFT (see The Loeb Rule and pugilistic anti-unionism circa 2011).

The CFT, under Vice President Margaret Haley’s organizing efforts, tried to affiliate with Chicago’s blue collar workers and joined the Chicago Federation of Labor, the city’s largest labor organization. Terrified that Chicago’s already militant labor movement would suddenly swell with thousands of new members, the Chicago Board of Education implemented the Loeb Rule, prohibiting any alliance between teachers and organized labor. The board also fired 68 teachers, including 38 members of the CTF. The Loeb Ruling effectively killed teachers unions for decades, resulting in routine arbitrary firings, unequal pay, and terrible working conditions that lasted until the modern teachers union movement grew in the 1960s.

Dorn argues that Walker’s bill is NOT the new Loeb Rule of today, correctly pointing out that conditions today in Wisconsin and throughout the nation are very different than they were in 1910s Chicago. However, he doesn’t really explain how these conditions differ and he leaves out some important similarities. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the labor movement then was large and influential. Chicago at that time was the center of strong anarchist, socialist and union movements. The IWW was formed there in 1905. The Haymarket tragedy was just a few decades old and the struggle for the 8-hour work day continued to be an important part of Chicago organizing efforts until the Adamson Act was established in 1916.

Union solidarity, however, did not protect the teachers. Indeed, there was considerable sexist and class bias against the teachers, who were mostly female and entirely white collar, by the predominantly male blue collar unionists. At the same time, Haley refused to align herself with Chicago’s more radical groups, like the anarchists and the IWW, who were very much interested in organizing women and minorities. She also shunned African American groups, another important potential ally.

Another reason for Haley’s failure (i.e., the success of the Loeb Rule) stems from an important similarity between then and now: like today’s teachers unions, the CTF tied its fortunes to local politics, supporting the mayoral bid of Edward Dunne. In return, Haley became part of Dunne’s “kitchen cabinet.” By focusing on building fickle political alliances, rather than organizing workers and building alliances with other workers, labor leaders risk alienating their constituency and weakening labor’s power. Furthermore, no union concessions or political compromises will ever win the support of the ruling class or end the attacks on workers’ living standards or their organizing efforts. Dorn hits this one on the head: “Events in Wisconsin will suggest to many union activists that there is absolutely no value for a union in trying to work with state policymakers, because no matter what you do, you'll be seen as the enemy.”

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