Teachers’ Unions Are Pivotal to the Progressive Movement

January 13, 2015

Photo courtesy of Berkeley Unified School District via Flickr.

By Joshua Pechthalt

Los Angeles, CA—The Republican victory in November reminds us that organized labor and the progressive movement can’t rely on elections to advance our agenda. Our power to improve the lives of members and community allies flows from our ability to organize the kind of powerful labor-community alliance that can demand change from politicians.  

In spite of the national drubbing inflicted on Democrats, there were a few bright spots. The reelection of Tom Torlakson as state superintendent of public instruction demonstrated once again that mobilized educators can beat a multi-million dollar, anti-teacher campaign.

Significant victories across the country suggest that voters are not necessarily moving to the right on key issues. Voters passed measures to raise the minimum wage, legalize marijuana, and protect a woman’s right to control her body. In California, Democrats won every statewide office and continue to hold strong majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. They also picked up one congressional seat.

Electoral support for the Republican Party reflects the public’s deep uncertainty about the economy. While there has been consistent job growth for months, the majority of Americans worry about their current situation and the future.

Economic disparity is greater now than at any time since the Great Depression. Real wages have stagnated for years, job growth is primarily in the low-wage service sector, and for young people, a college education is expensive and no longer guarantees a decent middle-class job.

Conditions are ripe for the reemergence of a progressive political movement, yet none has developed. Democrats are not providing leadership; many people have lost confidence in them. They are unwilling to articulate a vision that puts people to work, rebuilds the nation’s infrastructure, invests in our schools and makes higher education affordable.

But we can’t simply wring our hands about the failure of the Democrats. The labor movement has an historic responsibility to lead and organize the progressive movement.

Education unions are placed especially well because our members work in every community in this country. That gives us an organic connection to parents and community members unlike that of any other group of workers.

Transforming the political landscape must begin with our own members. We must talk one-on-one with every educator. When our members take action, that action builds the power of our locals and the labor movement.

The CFT has been working to build power in our locals as we prepare for a Supreme Court decision likely to end fair share in public sector unions. We must reach out to our colleagues who haven’t joined the union and encourage them to be part of the CFT community.

Yet we can’t simply talk about the need to join the union for wages, benefits, and job protections. Joining the union must also be about promoting a different vision of public education.

Our active engagement with CFT members, students, parents, and community partners to develop a compelling vision of public education has the potential to reshape the debate around education while building the kind of power that can transform the labor movement.

Joshua Pechthalt is President of the California Federation of Teachers. This article first appeared in the online magazine of the California Federation of Teachers. 


January 12, 2015

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