War on Workers Teach-In Draws Enthusiastic Crowd

Submitted by LHRC on Tue, 01/10/2012 - 10:55

Panelists included Debra Swoboda, Associate Director of the National Education Association’s National Council of State Education Associations; Michael Filler, the Director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Public Services Division; Dr. Jerome Barrett, a long-time labor mediator and former member of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service; and Harold Meyerson, Editor-at-Large at The American Prospect magazine and columnist at The Washington Post. Thomas Connors, IBT Labor Archivist, facilitated the discussion. More than forty people, including a significant number of students, attended the discussion.

Tom Connors kicked off the discussion with a question on the history and nature of public sector unions. Jerome Barrett highlighted that the unionization of public sector workers (of federal, state, and local government employees), did not become widespread in the United States until the 1960s. It was not accidental, he said, that public sector unions emerged in conjunction with the civil rights movement, as the struggle for civil rights was closely linked to the struggle against discrimination and for equal rights at the workplace. Michael Filler also addressed the history of the resistance against unionization of public sector workers, and stated that “the war on workers began after 9/11.” With the argument that it threatened national security, the Bush administration issued a policy prohibiting collective bargaining and strikes of airport security screeners, who became federal employees under the newly created Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Unions, however, [unions] successfully fought against this policy, and airport security screeners gained the right to unionize and limited collective bargaining rights.

The panelists agreed that the current attacks on collective bargaining rights of public sector workers are motivated by political, rather than by economic, reasons. While only about 6% of the private workforce in the United States is unionized, the unionization of public sector workers is around 36% and growing. Public sector unions, thus, constitute a critical area of political mobilization, and important group of voters. While the current budget crisis serves as a screen for undermining the rights of public sector workers, wages and benefits to teachers, firefighters, police, and many other groups of government employees neither caused the current budget crisis, nor will have a significant impact on reducing state debts, said Debra Swoboda. Therefore, the ongoing conflicts have to be broadly situated in economic and political developments in the United States in the past thirty years. Swoboda recounted that since the 1970s, the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the middle class has grown significantly, as in the last decades middle and working class Americans have earned much less than in the postwar decades. In this context, unions, and the right to bargain collectively, continue to be critical in helping to ensure living standards and rights of millions of working Americans. 

The panelists also agreed that in confronting the attacks on collective bargaining rights, building broad coalitions among workers in all sectors is fundamental. The protests in Wisconsin have demonstrated the possibilities and power such coalitions can have. Debra Swoboda shared some of her impressions of the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, where the number of protestors continued to grow despite chilling temperatures. The atmosphere in the State Capitol Building, which protestors occupied for several weeks, remained peaceful. She highlighted that students were among the most dedicated protestors. The coalition that formed between students and workers also served as a model for a broadly based movement countering the attacks on collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.

“What can we do to support the movement?” was one of the questions raised during the discussion. A number of students shared information about protests and organizing as part of living wage campaigns of the United Students against Sweatshops and other groups, and emphasized that much effective organizing starts at a local level. A member from the audience observed that it was not always easy to find information about ongoing protests. The protests in Wisconsin were widely covered, said Meyerson, because “it was a good story,” but otherwise “you have to also look for information.” Panelists and participants noted the importance of studying the history of the labor movement.  For studying this history, “you now have this terrific new space,” noted Harold Meyerson.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters Labor History Research Center is open during regular hours of the Special Collections Research Center: Monday-Friday, 10 AM-6 PM.

Posted May 4, 2011