OPEIU Steward Update V16 Issue 2

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Volume 16, Issue 2 — 2019



t’s hard to believe now, but in 1958, 73 percent of Americans said they had faith in the federal government. By 2015, it was down to 19%. In the decades between 1935 and 1985 the American people supported government action: they paid higher taxes, that helped provide quality services, and built an economy with the smallest gap between the rich and the rest. Certainly that wasn’t true for everyone – many were left behind in the Jim Crow South, in the agricultural fields and orchards, as well as immigrants, women and LGBTQ people. But even those people without full equality enjoyed partial protection. During that period real progress was made on important issues. We passed a century of laws that made us safer, more secure economically, and fairer. We created the Clean Air Act, OSHA, laws that make drugs, food and cars safer, Social Security, and, eventually the Civil Rights legislation, Americans with Disabilities Act and Family Medical Leave Act.

“They wanted to go back to a winnertake-all society where they are the winners, and they take everything.”

We still had more to do, but it was progress. Except not everyone saw it that way. Conservatives, corporations and some wealthy individuals were unhappy about health and safety rules, higher taxes and other laws that “restricted the free market.” They wanted to go back to a winnertake-all society where they are the winners, and they take everything. So since the 1970s they have been carrying out a 40-year strategic attack on government that affects everything we care about and limits what we can do in the future. I want to describe five key pillars of their strategy.

Dismantling Democracy FIRST: they fought the war of ideas with a theory called “trickle-down economics” and a drumbeat of messages and stories that now seem like conventional wisdom today. a. Private companies are more efficient – cheaper, better, faster. b. Government wastes taxpayers’ hard-earned money. c. Regulation and taxes hurt the economy, kill jobs and take away your freedom. d. Government serves someone else, not you – so-called “welfare queens,” immigrants and now overpaid government workers. They delivered those messages in a constant stream of horror stories—some true, most false. SECOND: Privatize public services. It’s a triple win because they get smaller government, weaker unions and more government contracts for corporations. THIRD: eliminate regulations and safeguards, like environmental laws, workplace safety, and minimum wage. They all just get in the way of business profits and lessen management’s total control. FOURTH: cut taxes so there’s less money for services and workers, more money and power for the top. AND FIFTH: weaken their opponents. In 2001, government-hater Grover Norquist proposed weakening the pillars of power that support public services: unions, voter registration groups, and federally funded non-profits like Planned Parenthood. Unions are at the top of the list because they are the only self-funded organized voice for public services and working people.

SO, WHAT? EVERYTHING GETS WORSE, AND WE FIGHT EACH OTHER FOR THE SCRAPS. a. There’s less money for public services, so fewer receive, services decline, the work gets harder and raises harder to get – it’s a vicious cycle that translates to even less public support for public services. b. There’s a wider gap between the rich and the rest than we’ve seen in 100 years. And as wealth is more concentrated, they use their power to further tip the scales in their favor. c. There’s increased racism, sexism and other bias-motivated attacks on the “undeserving poor” who take too much taxpayer money. But there’s a much deeper and profound thing that they’ve accomplished. They destroyed our collective commitment to the common good. They turned “we the people in it together” into “we are each on our own.” (DEMOCRACY CONTINUED)



(DEMOCRACY CONTINUED) So who is the “they” and what do they want? The ideological and economic forces that have driven the assault on government aren’t all the same. It’s worth understanding the different groups and motivations. CORPORATIONS who earn more money and gain more power by reduced regulations, lower taxes, and fewer unions. They are antigovernment in every respect, except when they can somehow benefit from the $7 trillion in annual government spending. THE POLITICIANS who want to win elections, need their money to do it and want unions out of the way to make it easier to win. THEN THERE ARE THE TRUE BELIEVERS who want to fundamentally redefine our relationship with government, so that instead of being citizens with rights and responsibilities, we become individual consumers of public services, where we get only what we can pay for. But we can’t just blame them – progressives and unions have to take some of the responsibility. I believe we actually helped the right wing turn the American people against government. We’re very good at pointing out government failures or shortcomings. Progressives even use some of the same language about government (corrupt, bureaucratic, out of touch, wasteful). Some may be true – but we’ve left the idea of government almost completely undefended. No, it’s not perfect by a long shot, but it’s all we have. And if we don’t defend it, no one else will. We need to lift up the idea of government while we improve how it works and call out those who have captured it for their own benefit. We simply have to do it all. It has to be about something bigger. We have to reclaim the fundamental idea of public. Here’s what I think it means. ■■The things we have to do together like attack climate change, health care. ■■The things we all benefit from regardless of whether we use the specific service or asset or not. For example, it’s in each of our interests for every child to be educated – whether we have children or not.


ast year, we started our fight for public education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Teachers, along with other public school workers, stormed the Capitol. We donned red to show our “pensions were a promise.” In March, we went back – to speak out again, not only for state employee pensions, but for Kentucky kids’ right to a free and fully funded public education. On Wednesday, March 6, Jefferson County Public School (the largest of Kentucky’s 120 counties) workers decided to fill the Capitol once more. Our protest spilled over into Thursday, and we were joined by workers from several more counties. That day, I walked onto the state capitol steps, wearing a red shirt that represents me – I’m an English teacher in Louisville – and my students.

There was a sea of red and signs everywhere about saving Kentucky’s public education. The farther we ascended, the louder the chanting from inside became. We were anxious, waiting to join the others. We stood in the cold for hours, more of us arriving, everyone wanting to be seen, to be heard, and to pressure specific lawmakers. Parents showed their support by delivering hot cocoa and coffee. Students on stilts held signs high. Our students and parents object as much as we do to the proposed changes, which our legislature calls “school choice.” We know what that means: less funding for our students, but more for the private sector. Private schools often turn away low-performing students and students with disabilities, among many others.

■■Those things that protect and support us all: economic security, safe food, clean air, health care. ■■And it’s those things that make us a better, fairer, more compassionate nation. There’s no question that we have to fight today’s attack on government and public sector unions. There are lots of ways to do that – and win. But we simply can no longer limit our thinking to those battles, the next contract or the next budget. We play both defense and offense. We don’t have a choice. Here’s a few things we could do to get started to build a pro-public movement; not just the program of one organization or one union. Develop a practice of learning, strategizing and developing our own ideas about the fundamental role of government in a functioning and fair democracy and

economy – in our workplaces, in our communities, in our organizations.




Ensure that individual campaigns and issue silos add up to progressive, pro-public governing ideas and new cultural conventional wisdom.


Learn how to be defenders and reformers of government without further undermining public distrust of public solutions. Progressives need to lift up the idea of the vital role of government while we improve how it works and call out those who have captured it for their own benefit. And lift up the successes – small and large – of government action. —Donald Cohen is executive director of In the Public Interest and the author of Dismantling Democracy, from which this is adapted.



“I have watched as teachers and workers in many states have gone on strike to fight for properly funded schools...”

(PUBLIC EDUCATION CONTINUED) Our students’ voices go unheard so much of the time. They should have a say in what happens to them and their education. They should ask “what will happen to us?” if lawmakers pass these bills. As teachers and support staff, we are with them daily to ensure they’re safe and receiving the best education they can get. We, the teachers and school staff of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, stood in the cold to give them a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have in this very dire situation. Once inside, we heard the sounds reverberated off the walls: chants like “Fund our schools!” and the lyrics of Twisted Sister’s, “We’re not gonna take it,” now the national teacher fight anthem. “We’re not gonna take it,” we sang. “No, we’re not gonna take it, anymore.” Some legislators were willing to speak with some of us. Some were willing

to speak on the steps inside the capitol building. Some elected representatives told us that our presence was making many uncomfortable. They went on to inform us that many of the elected representatives assumed we would not be there due to the fact that it was not officially organized by our union, but instead by a group of Jefferson County Public School workers, “JCPS Leads.” Like in other states, ours was a Facebook group that formed quickly and took off – with more than five thousand members, including JPS workers, parents, and students. Once my county started to organize, I wanted to be a part of the fight. A group of colleagues and I met on March 7 and drove a caravan up to Frankfort, Kentucky’s capitol. We spent time together in thoughtful conversation, sharing our genuine worries about our lawmakers’ efforts to dismantle Kentucky’s public school system. Over

the past year, I have watched as teachers and workers in many states have gone on strike to fight for properly funded schools and to fight for a more livable wage. We stand in solidarity with them. I want to invite students and parents to join us because this fight isn’t about us anymore. It’s about our students. I teach in a “title one” school, the designation for low-performing schools with a student body of low-income families, many of color and/or immigrant status. I know a large percentage of my students will be the ones who suffer most under privatization. For these reasons, I want us to storm the capitol. I want to tell the world, We are Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky and we stand for students. We stand for public education. —Jennifer Hill is an English teacher and JCTA member in Louisville, Kentucky.


Success Story “We’ve tried to make the union accessible to all new members.”

ILWU Local 5 represents the booksellers at Powell’s Books, the largest unionized bookstore in the US. Workers there organized in the 1990s and signed their first contract in 2000. ALWAYS BE ORGANIZING Because we’re in retail, it’s kind of different – we have pretty serious turnover. We have new hires as young as 18. They come with no union experience so we’re always starting from zero. We can’t rest on our laurels because of turnover, so we’re in a constant state of finding new people, new stewards, new leaders. MAKE IT ACCESSIBLE We’ve tried to make the union accessible to all new members. For example, we changed our constitution so there’s no seniority limit on being a steward – you just have to take the training. Members can still recall stewards, but it hasn’t happened. People who take the training tend to be good stewards. Our contract negotiations are open, so anyone can come and watch – we fought tooth and nail to get that and to keep it. So we announce when sessions are and invite anyone who wants to come. HOLD REGULAR MEETINGS We hold monthly steward meetings and put the agenda out in advance. A lot of people come to stewards meetings for information about their rights, but they also come for the “dish” around the workplace. We agree it’s all confidential – and people respect that. CONNECT PEOPLE TO THE WIDER LABOR MOVEMENT We offer scholarships to make it possible to send new folks to attend conferences – like Labor Notes – and they come back energized.

ACTUAL FUN, NOT FAKE FUN Our primary way of getting activists is by focusing on building community rather than workers’ rights. We’ve had success with having many small social events, about 8-10 people. When people get together, they start talking and get to know each other, then they start talking to coworkers and union reps. We have a monthly movie night, board game night, hiking in The Gorge, going caving, beach clean ups, amusement parks, softball games. Anything members are interested in. Encourage members to do their own events – crafts, drawing, knitting, hangout and talk – and a union representative is there to facilitate. USE ALL THE CHANNELS TO COMMUNICATE Our primary communications are emails – we send at least 12 a month about social events, updates on negotiations, opportunities to meet and greet newly organized workers. We use text blasts for in-the-moment updates on negotiations. We have an active Facebook group that members

and friends can join. We try to keep them up-to-date on labor movement. PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT MATTERS TO OUR MEMBERS We dove into identity politics heavily – the membership was excited about it. A big issue is pronouns and non-binary language. We made it a priority to make contract language non gendered and passed a resolution to make our constitution non-binary. [Editor’s note: this means asking which pronouns people prefer and using those, rather than assuming, and that’s using “they” as the standard, rather than “he” or “she.” Steward Update also uses this standard. Another example: consider also using “siblings” instead of, or in addition to, “brothers and sisters.”] People were excited about it. —As told to Ken Margolies, a longtime labor educator at Cornell’s Worker Institute.

T H E   B A C K   P A G E

OPEIU Steward Update is a bi-monthly newsletter for the information and education of OPEIU’s dedicated stewards.


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The OPEIU Steward Update is published six times a year by Union Communication Services (UCS)—The Worker Institute at Cornell ILR in partnership with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, CLC, 80 Eighth Avenue, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10011. For information on obtaining additional copies call 212-675-3210. Contents copyright 2019 by UCS—The Worker Institute at Cornell ILR. Reproduction outside OPEIU in whole or part, electronically, by photocopy, or any other means without written consent of UCS is prohibited. David Prosten, founder; Dania Rajendra, editor.

Office of the President OPEIU, AFL-CIO, CLC 80 Eighth Avenue, 20th Floor New York, NY 10011

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