Chicago Teachers and UAW Members Show That Labor Movement Is Back After “Decades of Concessions”

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The end of the Chicago teachers’ strike comes amid a wave of labor movements, including the longest United Auto Workers strike in almost 50 years. We speak with labor journalist Sarah Jaffe about the historical importance of unions, the rise of worker participation in strike actions and the significance of the Labour Party’s organizing in the United Kingdom. Jaffe says workers “are fighting back in the face of decades and decades of concessions, decades and decades of give-backs,” and “understanding that unionizing is a way that they have power on the job.” She is the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Jaffe, there is a lot of union activism going on right now, not only teachers across the country, but you have—the GM strike ended on Friday. We’re talking about nearly 50,000 workers and the most significant strike against GM in like half a century. And you have on Wednesday, UAW reaching a deal with Ford. Talk about this.

SARAH JAFFE: Where to begin! It was surprising to almost everybody, including some of the workers at GM, that the union was willing to go to a strike in the first place. They were out on strike for I believe over four weeks, for 60 days—40 days, I’m sorry. And when you look at what’s going on in the country, again, I always start with Chicago, sort of reviving the strike. But at GM, you also saw the difference between what it looks like to have a union like the CTU that is prepared for this, that knows what they’re going for, that has a Democratic bargaining structure, a big bargaining team that is transparent and communicates with its members, versus a lot of the GM workers that I talked to were feeling kind of uncomfortable, not sure what was going on, didn’t feel the union leadership was communicating with them, and are disappointed in the contract. And the contract nearly didn’t pass. I talked to a lot of workers who were voting no on it.

So the question of whether you can take the kind of bargaining for a common good framework that the CTU and other teachers unions have been using and apply that to the private sector, apply that to places like GM, where, you know—the UAW did build the middle class in this country. The UAW’s bargaining has always also been for the common good. But it is a little harder to take those issues of homelessness in the community, for instance, to the bargaining table when you are workers at an auto company, an auto company that is facing major changes in its business model.

One of the fights at GM this time around was about the closure of certain plants. They were talking about opening a battery plant for electric car production in the area around where the Lordstown plant was in Lordstown, Ohio. But those are jobs that are not going to be covered by the same contract. They’re going to be outside. GM wants those to be lower wage, lower security jobs because that’s actually the future of where the company is going. So the GM strike was a mixed bag. Still, the big thing about it is that the workers were ready to stay out. And 43% of the GM workers were ready to continue the strike, to fight for more.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times reported last year the number of workers who participated in significant strikes soared to nearly 500,000, its highest point since the mid-1980s, while the duration of such strikes reached a 15-year high. Elaborate on that, Sarah. And what does this make the future look like?

SARAH JAFFE: We are still nowhere near where we were before Ronald Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers union, and we should remember that, because that was a signal from the White House, from the highest position in the land, that it was open season on unions. It has been now open season on unions since pretty much my entire life. I was born in 1980. So what we’re looking at now is unions that are fighting back in the face of decades and decades of concessions, decades and decades of givebacks. In the public sector, we’re talking about fighting back after the Janus decision that made the entire public sector what we call “right to work,” which means they do not have to pay anything to the union to be covered by its contract.

Despite that, unions like the CTU have not hemorrhaged members. They have actually gained in strength. And as we’ve seen, they’ve been able to pull off really impressive strikes and win more for their members. So the labor movement’s certainly not dead; it’s also not back at peak strength, anything close to it. But we are also seeing our industries unionizing. The workers here at WHYY in Philadelphia won their union vote two nights ago 70-1. That’s not nearly as many people as in a UAW plant, but it is a sign that even sort of white-collar workers are understanding that unionizing is a way that they have power on the job and that they can fight back against all sorts of things going on in this industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Sarah Jaffe, you just got back from London where Labour Party organizing is at a peak right now. You have Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, announcing he is challenging Boris Johnson for the prime ministership. The significance of this?

SARAH JAFFE: The significance of this is actually related, because the Labour Party, somewhat like the Chicago Teachers Union and others of these unions that have reformed, decided when this leadership got into power to invest in an organizing department. So this is something that CTU did. This is something that United Teachers Los Angeles did. And now this is something that a major political party, the biggest social democratic party in Europe, has put money into.

So I wrote a big feature this summer about the Labour Party’s community organizing unit, which is doing this work on the ground around the country in marginal districts, but also just in places where landlords are abusing their tenants. Where in Newcastle, the owner of the football team, which is beloved by the entire community, is also one of the country’s biggest low-wage employers. And so they’re taking these issues that people face every single day and saying, “The Labour Party cares about these and we’re going to organize with you around these now.” And then when election time comes, they’re hoping that that pays off in those people feeling a connection to the Labour Party that maybe they haven’t felt in their entire lifetime.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we will continue to follow these struggles in this country and around the world. Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe, speaking to us from Philadelphia. And Stacy Davis Gates, executive vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

When we come back, we speak to former Gambian beauty queen who has accused the country’s former dictator of rape. Fatou Jallow, known as Toufah, just testified yesterday before Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. And then we will look at the murder of five indigenous activists in Cauca, Colombia, among them the woman known as the Cauca indigenous governor, Cristina Bautista. Stay with us.

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