‘Roll up your sleeves’: at a dark time for US unions, this woman sees hope

From *The Guardian*

Mike Elk Sunday, May 20, 2018

UFF-FAU Preface: [Your friendly local faculty union, UFF, is affiliated with both of the large national teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as well as our state organization, the Florida Education Association (FEA)]

As many in the US labor movement wait nervously for the supreme court to deliver a judgment in a vital union case that some fear could deliver a body blow to American unions, one woman appears unfazed.

Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the 3 million strong National Education Association (NEA) and head of the biggest union in America, believes the threat posed by Janus vs AFSCME – which could strip unions of a major source of income – will not set back the labor movement long-term.

There have been warnings that Janus could be a hefty blow to unions as it threatens their ability to collect fees from non-members who benefit from the agreements they strike with employers. But García, who worked as a teacher in Utah under similar “right to work” rules, is not deterred by the prospect of the court ruling, which could come as early as Monday.

Instead, she thinks it might be a galvanising moment for the US labor movement.

“You just roll up your sleeves and get people to join together,” said García, who pointed to America’s changing demographics and politics – with more empowered women and people of color – as a long-term driver that would see US labor unions gain in strength, not retreat.

As the first Latina president of the NEA, García believes the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment has drawn new energy into America’s teachers’ union, whose ranks are 77% women and whose members have launched a series of high profile, and successful, strike actions for better pay and more funding for public schools. With nearly one quarter of all union members being teachers, García says the teachers strikes have made important connections between organized labor, communities of color, and women.

“If you look at the strongest unions today, they are our public sector education unions and these are unions that by and large are made up of women with women leaders,” said García. “We aren’t not sitting by and accepting the status quo.”

Studies show that by 2020, the majority of the workforce will be women and that by 2030, the majority of the workforce will be people of color. Increasingly, a majority of the gains of the labor movement are coming among women and people of color – groups that are more likely to be active in unions than their more conservative white male counterparts.

“I think this is a big long-term shift,” said Tamara Draut, the vice-president of policy and research at the policy organization Demos, and author of Sleeping Giant: The Untapped Economic and Political Power of America’s New Working Class.

García said that schools in communities of color are also intentionally underfunded by largely white male legislatures.

“When you look, it really does closely parallel what happens to communities of color, where they have been traditionally and institutionally relegated to some of the work where you work with your hands. [You] don’t need a college degree in a service environment and you are meant to be underpaid,” said García.

The daughter of a Panamanian immigrant mother and an army father, the 62-year-old García said she wants to rebuild the labor movement across all segments of American society. A down-to-earth folksy labor leader, García often brings her guitar with her to union rallies to sing her version of Solidarity Forever written as a love song.

Those musical talents have been in high demand recently.

After the initial success of West Virginia’s wildcat teacher’s strike, García and her NEA decided to go all out supporting members wanting to pull off risky, potentially illegal strikes. The gamble paid off and has helped launch a movement with teacher strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and most recently in North Carolina.

The success of the strikes so far, in terms of securing better pay and working conditions, has been a jolt in the arm for many in the labor movement, long used to seeing a long-term decline in membership and at a time when the Trump administration is especially hostile to unions and many conservatives are eager for a victory in Janus.

Last week the Guardian revealed rightwing activists are launching a drive to persuade public-sector trade union members to tear up their membership cards and stop paying dues. But García remains hopeful.

“We have never seen darker days for unions and for working people and for people of color and for women then we are experiencing at this time. [Yet] I have never been more confident,” said García. “It is beyond hope. I see a movement and unions are at the core of this movement.”