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.