Discover more from Almonte’s Newsletter
When Labor Opposes the Right to Strike
Why would UFT officers defend an anti-strike law?
Public sector workers in New York don’t have the right to strike, and certain labor leaders are okay with that. This March, the UFT Delegate Assembly rejected an opportunity to campaign for the right to strike. The amendment, raised by a member of the MORE caucus, called for efforts to remove the anti-strike provision of the Taylor Law. It was doomed by the members of the Unity caucus, which controls the union.
Why did Unity reject it? Because, they said, the Taylor Law grants the right to organize and collectively bargain, so it shouldn’t be repealed. Striking is for the privileged. We’d lose our contract, because its termination is a penalty for striking. We’d strike anyway if necessary. In short, they said nothing about the amendment. What was said can be easily fact-checked. The amendment called to reform the Taylor Law, not repeal it. The least privileged do strike and have a lot to gain by doing so, as low-income school workers in LA proved last week. The UFT has gone on strike before without losing its contract. And the UFT has not struck once in almost 50 years even as working conditions decline. Behind the myths and red herrings there was a clear message: We should not have the right to strike.
Perhaps the union bureaucracy thinks that its legitimacy would be threatened by the right to strike. The Taylor Law fines individuals two days pay for each day they strike illegally. Without this penalty, there may be a large appetite for a work stoppage. If so, the UFT leadership would be in a dilemma. It would have to either take the unpopular position of discouraging a strike, or reluctantly lead one. The outcome of a strike, in turn, could impose either a short-term or long-term problem on Unity. Strikes are more than actions; they’re schools where workers learn about their own power, catalysts that strengthen workplace organizations, and fertile soil that cultivates new layers of rank-and-file leaders. If the strike were to fail, the UFT officialdom would run the risk of being voted out by a disappointed rank-and-file. If it were to succeed, their grip on the union would be precarious nonetheless as the strike would unleash a force that persists as its competitor. Strike experience would give rise to a new generation of rank-and-file leaders who locate power in their ability to collectively disrupt business as usual—a worldview that questions Unity’s, where good contracts are products of the talents and connections of a group of union professionals. Yes, the right to strike could be politically disastrous to the Unity caucus.
Thanks for reading Almonte’s Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Furthermore, a strike could threaten the labor officialdom’s lifeblood. Their livelihood is funded by the union’s treasury, not the employer’s paychecks. So too is their patronage machine, as well as the campaigns and projects that align with their conception of power e.g. lobbying and electoral campaigning. A strike, at best, would require upfront costs that would compete with the special needs of the officialdom. At worst, a strike could cripple the union’s finances and thus the officialdom’s livelihood and power. The cost of a strike, for them at least, is prohibitive.
From their standpoint, it’s completely rational that the Unity caucus prioritizes stability and “peace” over disruption and confrontation. But by doing so they’ve put themselves in a corner. Their strategy delivers bad contracts, because their leverage is undermined by the boss’ recognition that a strike is improbable. The union’s leadership, or the union itself, becomes questioned by larger layers of members because they see their working conditions deteriorating. One way they could regain legitimacy is by pursuing a strike, but as I explained this has risks specific to the officialdom. Unable to deliver the goods and unwilling to strike, they’re stuck in a paradox of their own making.
We’ve seen the effects of this paradox. Unity’s efforts at self-preservation have conservatized it so tremendously, that they entertain sub-inflation raises, push for and defend privatized Medicare, and of course oppose the right to strike. They do this when the current moment demands a showdown with—not submission to—the forces that are profiting from the economic, public health, public education, and housing crises. The union officials’ resignation is all the more frustrating in an era where the multiple crises have unleashed enthusiasm for unions, strikes, and confrontations against injustice. At this rate, will the union be around by the time I retire?
Yes, if we break the impasse. One way is to launch a campaign to build a strike-ready union. “Operation Strike-readiness,” as I’ve called this effort in my head, is premised on the claim that a union’s power rests in the ability of its members to withhold their labor. A union can win more from the employer if it appears willing and prepared to strike. The opposition movement is still developing, but I believe we can start making an impact on at least three fronts. First, we can start intentional conversations with our co-workers about why strike-readiness is necessary (e.g. one-on-ones, chapter meetings, workshops, citywide events). Second, we can join current efforts to gain the right to strike as well as continue to press the issue in UFT spaces such as in Delegate Assembly, Executive Board, and functional chapter meetings. Lastly, we can advocate for the establishment of a strike fund that would cover strike expenses including stipends for strikers who would otherwise endure hardship. This is all far from romanticizing strikes, as we’ve been accused of before. Instead, it’s a recognition that it takes work to build a strong union. And if the current leadership is unwilling to do the work, they should step aside for those who will.