In this political education session we watched Against the Tide, an eleven minute segment from a larger ten part documentary series called Golden Lands, Working Hands, about the history of the California labor movement. This segment covers the rise of public sector unionism, focusing especially on teachers and their ultimately successful push for a statewide collective bargaining law for education employees in K-12 and community college.
You can watch Against the Tide at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwAlwGaFUeg&t=2s
Questions to reflect on below and in the notes section are some comments that came up in our discussion.
Discussion Questions / Reflection Points
Choose any of the below questions to discuss in a group or reflect on one’s own.
- The video points to a narrative that is often used to disempower organizing efforts in the public sector, that benefits to the worker comes at the expense of the public. In what ways in the video and external to it are/can these narratives be addressed?
Questions with rank and file union members in mind
- One speaker in the video spoke about feeling trepidation when flyering co-workers. In what contexts have you felt trepidation organizing in your workplace?
- What is the current state of the rank-and-file organization at your local? What are the strong suits and where may there be weaknesses?
- What can the role of union staff and leadership be in organizing? In what ways can they support rank-and-file organizers, and vice versa and in what ways can they be a hindrance?
- Where does the union actually get its power?
Questions with riders and the general public in mind
- What is the role of the ridership community in supporting the labor struggles of transit workers?
- How can community members be brought in to support the work of local ATU chapters?
- How does labor exploitation differ in the public sector when compared to the private sector?
- While labor exploitation is more clear cut in the private sector due to the need to minimize production costs as much as possible to earn the maximum possible profits, labor exploitation in the public sector is slightly more convoluted - but still present
- Labor may be exploited in the public sector through instruments such as municipal bonds, which provide immense power to the capital class, while leaving workers disempowered. Capitalist involvement in the public sector has strengthened since the 1970s, and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between public and private
- Austerity regimes and logics of scarcity lead to a shrinking of the public sector, in turns reducing the size of the public sector workforce, stagnating their wages, and resulting in greater workloads for individual workers
- At the same time, a reversal of austerity and scarcity would imply raising taxes and expanding the public sector, which comes as a direct threat to the higher classes
- How do we respond to criticisms that public sector strikes are harmful to the public?
- The power of public sector unions is evident when contrasted with how the public is affected by strikes - when public sector unions strike, their power is reflected in the form of a debilitated public sector which cannot operate without its labor
- While there may be fear mongering and stigmatization around public sector strikes, history shows that the general public is often there to support public sector unions in their struggles for better working conditions and living wages
- The recent teachers strikes in California are a great example of this fact
- Without the empowerment of public sector workers, we cannot expect government to function to its greatest potential
- In what ways do transit workers lack the ability to control their own labor? How might we bring back power into the hands of transit workers?
- Frontline transit workers have the deepest knowledge of how to run a transit system most effectively - because they do it every day
- Yet, transit workers are not often enough listened to in policy making circles and the mechanisms to account for their voices during decision making processes are lackluster
- Outsourcing of ‘expert’ knowledge to consultancies shifts power away from the hands of transit workers
- It is imperative that their perspectives and concerns be meaningfully taken into account, and that they have a say over the distribution of transit resources
- Transit riders also have been disempowered in a similar way and thus this might be an avenue for solidarity among transit workers and riders