Education International
Education International

Collective action against mendacious attacks

published 25 March 2011 updated 13 April 2011

A New Year’s pledge from hardline Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, to remove teachers’ collective bargaining rights, as well as their health benefits and pension entitlements, has brought thousands of pro-union demonstrators on to the streets in all 50 U.S. states in solidarity with the Wisconsin unions.

Stoic mobilisation by EI’s affiliate members, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), whose leaders and activists have taken up a vigorous campaign at local and national level, has led to polls showing the public siding with the unions. One survey showed 53 per cent of the public against cutting benefits and pay for teachers, while another showed 61 per cent opposed to removing their collective bargaining rights. Even Conservative polls have shown that a majority in Wisconsin are opposed to Walker's attempt to eliminate collective bargaining rights.

Coming soon after Republican electoral victories at federal and state level, Wisconsin’s Governor might have anticipated an easier ride, as he tries to exploit the country’s economic woes. But these are no ordinary times. While some may question the role of the unions, far fewer believe firing 12,000 workers, as Walker has pledged, is the answer.

Walker's case is as predictable as it is weak. Teachers, he claims, have higher pay and better benefits than others in a ‘bloated’ state that must ‘slim down’ if it is to keep running. This is hardly true. Accounting for age and education, US local government workers earn four per cent less than their private sector counterparts. Yes, the shortfall in pensions is real, but if the political will existed, calamity could be avoided with a modest increase in budget allocations. Yes, union members generally enjoy better benefits. That's the whole point of being in a union: to improve your living standards through collective action. And that is precisely why Walker wants to crush them.

Tax breaks for multi-nationals

Walker’s agenda has little to do with redressing a fiscal imbalance and everything to do with exploiting the crisis to deliver a killer blow to organised labour. If fixing the budget deficit was really his priority, Walker would not have waved through $140m in tax breaks for multinationals or refused to take federal funds for development. Like 10 other states, he might even have considered raising taxes progressively.

None of these contradictions are particular to Wisconsin. Similar stories could be told as far away as Ecuador and Ireland and as nearby as Indiana or Ohio, where union-bashing bills are being tabled. This helps to explain why messages of solidarity and support have pouring in from EI’s member unions to the AFT and NEA.

What Wisconsin offers is a transparent illustration of the ideological sophistry and political mendacity driving the attacks. Having started this fight in such a brazen manner, Walker has little option but to pursue it to its bitter end.

Unions defend workers

The AFT and NEA education unions understand this, which is why their leaders and activists have taken to the airwaves and the streets to march on city halls and state capitals. The unions understand that they have to reach out and convince people that this fight is for the defence of their core labour standards, and only by standing together will they win this fight and stop the race to the bottom.

This is why the struggle of American teachers has taken on such international significance, and also why EI has maintained daily contact with the AFT and NEA, as it prepares to lodge a complaint with the ILO against US authorities’ violation of core labour standards, and with the CEART committee of experts on the ILO-UNESCO recommendation on the status of teachers.

Faced with an existential threat, the labour movement has broadened its horizons and galvanised a pluralistic, national opposition. That is a precondition for success but by no means a guarantee.

By Pav Akhtar, Education International

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 37, April 2011.