UFT: what makes a union powerful?
Hint: it's more than blue shirts. Reposted with permission from the NAC blog at https://newaction.org
The other day, a friend and I were passing a strike that seemed to be in the early stages of gathering their troops. A small band of workers were holding signs and chanting. Especially if more people didn’t show up, my friend found it hard to believe that they were going to achieve their demands with mere optics. I agreed that signs/chants alone might not do much to sway their employer but countered that withholding their labor sure would.
UFT leadership, we know, has spoken against our having the right to strike. Indeed, they apparently did so quite convincingly, as the majority of voting chapter leaders and delegates agreed with them. On the other hand, UFT leadership also opted not to talk down an opposition resolution which supported the national right to strike for workers more generally. There’s another reso in the works supporting the Writers Guild strike. So, in the abstract at least, UFT supports the ability to strike, just not for teachers in NYC. Indeed, UFT officers and staffers frequently show up at the strikes of other NYC workers – often holding signs, joining in the chants, and even being featured as speakers. It’s an odd double standard, and it’s one I’d like to explore.
What is a union? No, seriously – what makes a union a union?
Unions are organizations of workers that use their collective energy and power to optimize their working conditions, job security, benefits, and compensation. We now know that the primary way that workers do this successfully is by joining together in withholding their labor power. A strike or credible strike threat has been the main driver of gains for labor across the country.
Without the ability to withhold our labor, we still have tactics at our disposal. We can make use of ‘bureaucratic’ tactics, such as what the UFT typically utilizes via the infrastructure created under the Taylor Law and Triborough Amendment (e.g. PERB). We can also wear the same colors to show our unification, we can picket outside public buildings to demonstrate, and we can appeal to the public so that our employer feels pressured to do the right thing. And yes, we should do these things – we should use all tactics/strategies at our disposal. But it’s worth considering that all these actions I just listed (or their equivalents) are also used by workers who strike. The difference is that, when those unions use non-striking tactics, they are also accompanied by actual job actions or at least a credible threat.
During our contract actions, the UFT has used all of the strategies/tactics listed above. But we’ve done so while signaling that we have no interest in striking – that we don’t see its value, not for us. In other words, our union has utilized the ‘imagery’ of striking, but without a material threat of actually withholding our labor power. We haven’t struck, but we’ve engaged in a ‘strike style.’
As we now know, the City has called our bluff. While unions who withhold their labor power are getting salary increases that adjust to inflation, we are getting an effective pay cut under one of the worst economic patterns in the history of the NYC labor movement. I maintain that the reason for this is simple: our employer might see us using the optics of striking, but they know that no matter how insulting our wage increases are, and no matter how little the City adjusts our working conditions, we will still show up to work on Monday. And if they know we’ll show up anyways, what incentive do they have to really fix things? A fear of seeing too many blue shirts in one day?
So, let’s continue with our contract actions. For one thing, they build solidarity among us—another big part of what makes a union a union. Moreover, good negotiating met with well-coordinated public relations strategies can still help us improve working conditions. But achieving the right to strike, and organizing ourselves to be strike ready, would compound our power exponentially. It would make us a better and stronger union. And that’s something we deserve.
The contract may be on the verge of being sent out to UFT members for a vote, but there’s still time to signal that our union is willing to become strike ready. Don’t we owe it to ourselves and our families to do so?
Nick Bacon is a member of the UFT’s High School Executive Board and a Co-Chair of New Action / UFT.
I couldn’t agree more!!