Fifty years ago this month, the Half Hollow Hills Teachers’ Association received its charter from the State Education Department. Starting salary was $6,900 and becoming pregnant could cost you your job. Our contract was a fraction of what it is today, and we spent the next several decades organizing our members to improve teaching conditions, adding contract articles to improve our rights in the classroom, and filing grievances to bring contract language to clarity. That’s our local story…
Outside our 35 square mile fiefdom, we exist as one piece of a broader history we call the labor movement. That history can largely be seen as a cycle of workers getting screwed, then fighting back. When we’re at our best (as I believe we were this year) and we have the time it takes to inform and engage our colleagues, we can prevent bad ideas from coming to fruition in the first place. Such was our great win against a Constitutional Convention this year. At other times, some great injustice already exists, and we bring people together in order to right wrongs and move our society forward. All workers’ rights have their roots in the battles we’ve fought.
I wish I could say a period of peace and prosperity would follow our win this November, but our greatest threats are not far behind. If an individual bad idea may be seen as an illness that afflicts one part of the body, an attack on the labor movement (unions, specifically) is more like compromising the body’s immune system, rendering it unable to fight off an onslaught of attacks. In February, the US Supreme Court will hear a case that seeks, in essence, to weaken that immune system. The Janus case strikes at the heart of your ability to fight back against things that threaten you.
When I think of what we’ve faced, and continue to face, in the most recent period of labor strife, I am petrified of where we would be without the advocacy of our unions. There’d be no moratorium on APPR (which we’re hopeful gets finally put to rest in 2018). We’d very likely have lost the ConCon vote in November and face the loss of our retirement security. And the Tax Cap would serve as all the pretense employers need to roll our contracts back to what they looked like decades ago. If you think I’m exaggerating, and if you know someone who teaches in a Right to Work state, call them and ask. Ask when they last received a raise. Ask what their teaching conditions or contract look like.
Unions, like any other organization, are not perfect, but they are the single most powerful tool working people have to improve their lots in life. The Janus case, and the Right-to-Work movement, is about breaking unions not only to reduce labor costs and worker rights, but to absolve the powerful of their need to be responsible to anyone but themselves.
Our opponents don’t want us to crush bad ideas the way we did with the ConCon. They don’t want to see years of training and union resources activated to mobilize voters and impact the outcome of an election or ballot initiative.
Victories like these do not occur without union organization.
For us, there is only one answer to the threats we’re facing: doubling our commitment – our commitment to our unions, each other, our professions, and to the rights of workers. In that broader cycle of getting screwed and fighting back, it’s clear where the pendulum is being pushed. But we have fought these fights. We’ve learned in our 50 years that the answer to frustration is not walking away; it’s digging in, locking arms, and raising voices.
They may come for us, but the joke is on them. When they amplify their attacks, we’ll double our defenses. No one will dare betray the colleagues and friends who stand beside them also as sisters and brothers. Together, we are the agents of any change worth bringing. We shape justice. We fashion the world as we wish it to be for our children.
If they try to strike us down, we shall become more powerful than they can possibly imagine.