First, by “what has gone wrong,” I mean the erosion of institutions whose purpose is to even out inherent power imbalances that arise in all societies and are particularly steep in our current moment. When institutions such as the vote, the courts, labor standards, anti-discrimination laws, regulations against monopoly power and reckless finance, and anti-poverty policies are under siege, a significant swath of the public, and particularly nonwhites and those with low incomes, has little recourse against the actions of those who would disenfranchise them.
While the union movement has always had its problems — no institutions are immune from their own internal power imbalances — it has always existed, back to the guilds of the Middle Ages, as a counterfoil to dynamics that today take the form of rising inequality, the defunding of a government that is increasingly dysfunctional, nonrepresentative elections, and the unfettered rise of corporate power and finance.
How does this link to the teachers’ labor actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky — none of which are radical hot spots? The connections are critical, not just because they underscore the deep and pervasive social damage done by the growing imbalances, but because they crystallize these problems in ways in which we can all relate.
In Oklahoma, disinvestment in public schools has gone on for so long that volleyball games get rained out because of a leaky gym (and let me tell you with great authority that watching a high school volleyball game is one of life’s greatest pleasures). Textbooks and computers are ancient; one former teacher told of students “stuck with history textbooks so old that they say Bill Clinton is president.” Some districts have had to go to four-day weeks. Teachers’ salaries have, of course, been a key issue in these walkouts, but striking teachers have also insisted on reinvestment in support staff and overall funding for supplies and school infrastructure.
More than 90 percent of K-12 funding comes from state (47 percent) and local (45 percent) revenue. In each of the four states mentioned above, real, per-student state funding is down double digits over the past decade, from 28 percent in Oklahoma to 11 percent in West Virginia.
These specific disinvestments have nuanced sources — local education funding is tied to property taxes, and home values got severely whacked in the Great Recession — but it is important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Those leaky roofs, four-day weeks and Windows 98 operating systems link directly to the same conservative ideology that passed, against majority public opinion, highly regressive, deficit-financed tax cuts that will exacerbate inequality and starve the federal government of the revenue it needs simply to maintain existing services and public goods.
Correlation is, of course, not causation. But the rise of this ideology has occurred while union membership has consistently fallen. The high point for unionization in America was in the 1950s, when about a third of workers were union members. Membership began to decline thereafter, accelerating in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan, in a strong signal to a growing, deep-pocketed anti-union movement, fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. Today’s unionization rate is 11 percent, though the rate is 34 percent for public-sector workers and 70 percent for public school teachers. But in the much larger private sector, the rate is 6.5 percent, a historical low.
Yet even today, the union movement is the single-largest and best-resourced institution aligned with middle- and working-class preferences. Its presence is evident in fights for higher minimum wages, health coverage and immigrant rights. A recent, rigorous study identified the cost of the decline in unions to Democratic politics, including less grass-roots organizing, lower turnout and fewer votes for Democrats at all levels of government. Such results, long intuited by conservative activists, are the motivation behind decades of efforts to undermine organized labor.
Given the ongoing negative trend in union membership and the increase in state-level “right-to-work” laws — rules that undermine unions’ ability to collect sustaining dues — along with a similar recent Supreme Court case targeting public-sector unions, anti-union forces, funded by wealthy Republican donors, have long had the upper hand in this struggle.
But that hasn’t stopped these extremely feisty teachers from fighting for both their own well-being and that of their students, and, by extension, those students’ families and their communities. If you listen to them, you hear the same conviction — the sense that they know they’re right about this — as you hear in the students from Parkland, Fla.
In fact, they’re more than right. They are pointing the way toward an essential and huge missing piece from today’s politics: Middle- and low-income people organizing to fight for an amply funded, functional public sector that balances the scales that have been so sharply tilted against them.
Even among liberal scholars, it is commonly thought that the decades of decline in organized labor are irreversible, that stopping the slide is the best we can hope for. That may be so, but, thankfully, somebody forgot to tell the teachers. The more the rest of us emulate them, the better chance we have of reclaiming our democracy from those who are actively undermining it.