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A General Strike in Philadelphia?


One story I was unable to talk about after my computer theft earlier this month was the Philadelphia School Reform Commission cancelling the contract with the city’s teachers unilaterally. It was a classic move by the anti-union appointees of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett and part of the reason he is on the way out.

What’s interesting is that the city’s labor leaders evidently talked about a rather extreme action in response:

Outraged by the School Reform Commission’s decision to cancel its collective bargaining agreement with Philadelphia public school teachers, city labor leaders contemplated calling for a general strike.

In two meetings, last Thursday and Sunday, labor leaders debated the wisdom of asking members of all area unions – laborers, electricians, communications workers, janitors, nurses, bus drivers, city employees – to walk off their jobs to protest the SRC’s decision.

“If there is going to be a fight, we have to fight about the future, and the kids are the future,” said Henry Nicholas, president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, headquartered in Philadelphia.

They chose not to do so, for complex and I think understandable reasons:

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, told the group that he wanted to exhaust legal remedies first.

And the leaders decided to await the outcome of the Nov. 4 gubernatorial election. Democratic candidate Tom Wolf has said he supports returning Philadelphia’s schools to local control. The SRC is a state board.

“After a thorough vetting, we decided to go out and get Tom Wolf elected” governor, Dougherty said.

Despite the desire of a lot of lefties to see labor take radical actions and forget the political game, I think this decision makes a lot of sense.

First, labor leaders don’t really have the power to dictate worker action for something like this. In other words, were the rank and file of these other unions willing to go on strike for teachers? If so, how long? What would a 1-day general strike have accomplished? Probably nothing. We can even ask whether labor leaders can really lead this kind of action or whether it has to come from the rank and file itself? While I tend to downplay the romanticized idea of rank and file action that so many on the left love to talk about, this is one circumstance where I think everyday workers have to lead unless the union structure itself is a real democratic voice for the workers, which it usually isn’t. So I’m not sure what the labor leaders themselves really could have done here unless their workers were also motivated, which they almost certainly weren’t.

Second, while I doubt Tom Wolf is a panacea, he’s almost certainly better than Corbett on every issue and may actually reverse this action. So here the political arena makes sense. This is publc-sector labor after all, making the electoral game vital. On the other hand, mayor Michael Nutter supports the action and will Wolf really reverse it?

I’m not a labor lawyer so I can speak less fluently about the legal remedies might fix the problem. I can say that relying on the courts to enforce labor law is a problematic situation in 2014. But still, I think it is worth asking what a general strike would have accomplished here. The answer is almost certainly not much–but who knows. Just doing so might have sparked a broader-based protest, i.e., an Occupy-type movement, that would have made it worth doing. I absolutely makes sense for labor leaders to not call for such a thing. But it’s hard to not wonder what would have happened had they gone with their first instinct.

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  • I think the emphasis on electoral politics here is well warranted. I just read an editorial that was against an elected school board here in Philly because, the reasoning went, it would be controlled by the old, corrupt ward leadership that handles so much of Philly politics. Except that: a) pro-public school folks have been aggressively running for and winning Ward Leader positions (two people I know randomly who are passionate about schools just won ward races recently) and b) schools have become the issue in Philly (as in Chicago) that unite widely disparate progressive communities. There’s a general move afoot to sell old properties that have expensive upkeep and use the money to build new schools or convert charters into neighborhood schools. There’s also a recognition that good schools are a key to a more liveable city that helps create an all-ages voting block for schools.

  • Phil Perspective

    First, most of Philly’s “labor” leaders are of the old school, corrupt kind. Second, Philly teachers, unlike the rest of the state, aren’t allowed to strike. They could get their credentials pulled y the state if they did. And you better believe Corbett would have no problem yanking them quick. Also, teachers in the rest of the state can strike but they aren’t allowed to be out more than like 10 school days. But yeah, Philly teachers aren’t going to strike.

  • Phil Perspective

    “After a thorough vetting, we decided to go out and get Tom Wolf elected” governor, Dougherty said.

    “Johnny Doc”? Haha! That dude is so tied into politicians. You’ll never see a labor action started by him or his union.

    • Bruce Vail

      Thoroughly vetted? That’s laughable.

      As Phil knows, the unions in Penn. backed different candidates in the Democratic primary and Wolf was really their last choice. But Wolf won the primary despite lack of union support, and the unions climbed on board his bandwagon due to their universal fear and loathing of Corbett.

      Far from being thoroughly vetted, Wolf is a complete unknown. He has never held elected office, and was entirely obscure in his very brief tenure in appointed state office. His family business was never unionized and he has no history as a friend of labor. He has made some attractive promises to labor, its true, but we’ve all heard that song before.

      Of course, I am hoping that Wolf honors his promises and is a good pro-labor Democrat. But vetted? Not by a long shot.

      • Hogan

        Johnny may have meant that it was Corbett who got the vetting. “We don’t know jack about Wolf, but he’s got to be better than that bastard.”

  • Marek

    I’d love to see a strike over this personally, but it would be very irresponsible for the teachers’ union to call one without extensive organizing first. No way it should be attempted as a quick response, even to such an outrageous provocation.

  • SnarkiChildOfLoki

    I think it is worth asking what a general strike would have accomplished here. The answer is almost certainly not much–but who knows.

    If the SCHOOLKIDS went on strike, that would have an effect. The other stuff? Not so much.

    • Schoolkids did go on strike (for a day). But since funding is tied to attendance it’s not really helpful.

  • Lurker

    Personally, I think that calling a general strike is a measure to be used very sparingly. It should be used only if:
    a) the calling unions can ensure that more than 50 % of the total workforce participate
    b) the calling unions have a robust organisational structure which enables them to maintain order during the strike and accompanying demonstrations
    c) the unions believe that they can prevent uncontrolled escalation of the situation.

    A general strike which stops all industrial and economic activity in a city or in the nation is an enormously powerful tool (see example). Anything less is a laughingstock.

    On the other hand, if you really have an ability to call a real general strike, you must really trust your organisation. If you are not careful, you can unleash powers which cannot be controlled. So, even assuming that the union has a wide-spread membership willing to strike, you must also have a very strong and relatively well-trained corps of union picket watchmen to maintain order and to prevent provocations at the demonstrations and at the workplace gates. And, considering that such corps will be composed of the most radical members of the union, you must hold them at tight leash.

  • Bruce Vail

    The unions made a wise choice. A teachers’ strike is a terribly divisive thing, and rarely works out well for the union. It is also quite possible that it might have backfired in the sense it might have revived Corbett’s failing campaign.

    The call for a quickie general strike would also have demonstrated the overall weakness of labor in the city.

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