By Mark Naison (February 2, 2016)
The coming Supreme Court decision elminating mandatory dues check off by public employees unions will create a crisis in the labor movement- especially for the big national teachers’ unions- but it need not destroy them.
A look at labor history suggests why labor supporters, and teachers’ union members should avoid a doomsday scenario.
The greatest gains in the history of the US labor movement took place between 1933 and 1941 when unions, without any government support for dues collection, and sometimes in the face of violent attacks from police and private armies, fought an heroic battle for workplace rights, freedom of expression and higher living standards for the nation’s industrial workers. To secure these gains, they not only had to convince workers and their families to take unprecedented risks, they had to convince a majority of the people in the communities where they organized that labor’s gains would improve living standards for them. Without that community support, the unions could never have won the great strikes that marked labor’s struggle for recognition, especially the Minneapolis Teamsters Rebellion of 1934, and the Flint Sit-Down Strikes of 1936-37.
The labor leaders of that era were not career bureaucrats with comfortable salaries. They didn’t hold conventions at fancy hotels or resorts. They, along with their members, risked beatings, imprisonment, even death, to win security, respect, and better wages, for the workers they were trying to organize.
While conditions of those times were very different, there maybe a few lessons for today’s labor leaders embedded in that history:
First, labor can only progress when it convinces people outside of its membership that it speaks for the greater good and defends all people under duress.
Secondly, it must have leaders who suffer alongside members and share their hardships and sacrifice.
Will today’s unions rise to the occasion, win back public trust, and set a model of courage and heroism?
Time will tell. But what we see happening in Detroit right how with teachers putting their bodies on the line to fight intolerable conditions for their students, gives me some hope.