Thursday, December 30, 2010

Losing the Right to Strike in Illinois

The billionaire boys club, headed by Bill Gates and Eli Broad, is at it again. They blamed the schools for failing our students. They attacked teachers and unions, too. The unions fought back, albeit, in a mostly impotent war of words. Nevertheless, they are still seen as a meddlesome impediment by the billionaires in their lustful grab for the $600 billion spent annually on public education.

In order to smooth out this speed bump, the billionaires have enlisted lawmakers in Illinois to fast track legislation called The Performance Counts act, which will ban the use of the strike by teachers and make it easier to fire them. Legislators predict they will be able to pass the law by early January, 2011. The legislators supporting the bill have been receiving large contributions, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, from a front group called Stand For Children (SFC), which is funded primarily by Bill Gates.

While STC grew out of The Children’s Defense Fund and initially had the support of some Oregon teachers and other progressives, they are staunchly anti-union. Geoffrey Canada was their initial board chair. They have been active in six other states, trying to limit tenure protections and implement performance pay schemes.

If ever there was a reason to strike, it would be now, preemptively, to let the state know that teachers are organized, angry, and unwilling to accept any further attacks on their rights and working conditions. However, Chicago Teachers Union President, Karen Lewis, has said that a strike is off the table, so long as the school board honors their contract.

One Step Backward, Two More Steps Backward
Prior to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 1934, unions did not have the right to strike, making all job actions wildcat. The NLRA was passed after a wave of militant and successful strikes during the great depression. NLRA legitimized unions, but also set strict rules for their behavior, setting the tone for their increasing bureaucratization and collaborationist tactics.

In two weeks, Illinois teachers may find themselves working under labor conditions much like the pre-NLRA days, with local school boards acting with greater impunity and arrogance in cutting pay, benefits and job rights. Teachers will find themselves having to take wildcat actions in order to defend their rights and those of their students. However, the union bosses will continue to act as if we are in the post-NLRA era, playing by the rules, trying to appear “reasonable” and “professional,” and increasing their level of collaboration.


  1. It is the same way here in Jacksonville. It is hard to tell where the union leadership ends and the school board begins...

  2. It's sad, but true: our unions are more interested in avoiding conflict than fighting for the interests of their members, or even the interests of our students.

  3. Just a historical tweak: the original NLRA in fact gave workers and unions wide latitude in their actions, which the industrial CIO unions of that era used with great success.

    It was only later, when the Supreme Court outlawed the sit-down strike, and Congress passed the Taft-Hartley bill, that the unions became hemmed in and crippled.

    Even then, as long as the US was in ideological and military conflict (through proxies) with the Soviet Union, certain concessions were needed to keep labor quiescent and allied with Cold War imperatives (which until the 1946-48 labor purges in the CIO were not assured). Thus evolved the post-WWII social contract of increased productivity coupled with increasing wages and living standards. This permitted unions to be tolerated, and the emergence of the modern US middle class.

    Starting with the successful imposition of neoliberal doctrine (signified by the banker's coup in NYC in 1975, Proposition 13 in California in 1978 and Reagan's election in 1980) and hyper-accelerating with the demise of the Soviet Union, however, Capital had no need to make any concessions whatsoever, and we have seen it's true face re-emerge in the past twenty years.

    Obama emerged as a transitional figure, diverting popular energies of resistance that had built up over the years. He's there to break the teacher's unions (the last bastion of unionization in the country, since the destruction of the UAW represents the demise of private-sector unionization), initiate the destruction of Social Security, and provide a Black and Democratic face to austerity, laying the groundwork for the return of the loot-everything-in-sight Hard Guys.

  4. Thanks for the history, Michael. You are very correct about the CIO. In fact, the AFL initially sided with employers and accused the early NLRB of favoring the CIO. Also, you are correct that Taft-Hartley was more restrictive of union activity and repressive than NLRA, outlawing secondary strikes and opening the door to "right-to-work" laws.

    However, even the early NLRA (pre-Taft-Hartley) imposed restriction on certain job actions and forbade strikes by "critical" industries or that might create a "national emergency." The entire basis for enacting NLRA was to pacify workers after several militant large scale strikes, including general strikes in SF, Toledo and Minneapolis.

    While there was an upsurge in union membership after NLRA (which is understandable, since it legalized collective bargaining and the right to strike) and some moments of militancy (e.g., GM sit down strike), the long-term effect of NLRA (exacerbated by Taft-Hartley), was to promote collaborationist union bureaucracies more prone to avoiding job actions entirely through compromises with bosses that often weakened worker rights and benefits.

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