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RTC Chapter Leader Column

Importance of discussion

New York Teacher

In reaction to one of my columns on the union’s endorsement procedure, I received a message from Ed Beller, a retiree colleague who has a different view on the politics of endorsement. It set me to thinking about the positive nature of internal union discussions on such matters.

Here is our exchange:

Ed Beller: The phrase “reward your friends, punish your enemies ...” originates with Samuel Gompers, not Al Shanker, and was the AFL’s and now the AFL-CIO’s justification for buying political favors from anywhere no matter what party or how reactionary with the result that working people have no solid, reliable voice based on a stable foundation of union solidarity and support, certainly nothing approaching the Labor Party in the United Kingdom for most of the 20th century (making a nice comeback now). In the 2018 election, I counted around 17 NYSUT endorsements of Republicans/Conservatives.

Disgraceful! I wonder how many programs and supports our kids in poverty, the working poor and the middle class desperately need that these endorsees blocked, diluted or sabotaged? No wonder it is so easy for the right to call unions just another selfish, special interest.

Tom Murphy: Ed, you have a valid point that should be in the whole mix of how the UFT and other unions opted for pragmatism and incrementalism versus the European model of uncompromising advocacy. Do you mind if I incorporate it into one of my columns?

Ed agreed that I could use his message to promote discussion.

This exchange touches on some basic philosophic differences regarding how unions should conduct themselves. After the failure of the Knights of Labor, which in the 19th century attempted to achieve whole-scale change immediately, the U.S. labor movement opted for incremental change. Over decades, progress was made little by little, reducing the hours of the workday, attaining gradual workplace benefits and slowly including those previously disenfranchised in their purview. To achieve these improvements, labor worked with all sorts of public officials, courts and local and national legislative bodies, as well as the media. Compromises were made that won both support and criticism from union activists.

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), for example, was a bundle of compromises. In order to gain support from legislators representing disparate interests, we wound up with a piece of legislation that was far from perfect. Would it have been better to hold out for a pure piece of legislation that included all we would wish for in offering health care to all or to accept a compromise that helped millions but needed improvement?

Labor opted for the imperfect with the hope of making it better.

The New York State Legislature just enacted a law to help the state’s farmworkers organize and form unions. It did not provide all the labor protections one would wish for, but it did undo the decades-long prohibition against farmworkers forming unions. While all desired benefits were not guaranteed, the law now allows farmworkers to unionize and then use collective bargaining to achieve further goals.

The UFT and other unions have traditionally been bipartisan in their endorsement policies. There is a valid point of view that says that unions should only support legislators who fully support labor’s positions while others argue that alliances should be made with those who can be persuaded to go along with policies that at least provide half a loaf.

Whose argument should take precedence? It’s an ongoing discussion within the ranks of labor.

What is your opinion?