Commentary

The resurgence of union power is bigger than money

November 28, 2023 7:00 am

Hundreds of educators, parents and students joined a rally Nov. 1. 2023 at Roosevelt High School in north Portland to support striking teachers who want better pay, smaller class sizes and more planning time among other demands. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Portland Public Schools (PPS) and the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) reached a tentative agreement to their labor dispute on Sunday. The impasse had led to a three-week strike, cancelling eleven instructional days in Oregon’s largest school district. Students returned to the classroom Monday.

The highlights of the dispute weren’t novel. Teacher pay was a big item, and this deal landed in the middle ground there. Class size, student mental health support, class planning, and health and safety protections were also at issue, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. But as is often the case in disputes like this, the collective total means more than the individual parts. 

“This contract is a watershed moment for Portland students, families, and educators,” said PAT President Angela Bonilla. “Educators walked picket lines alongside families, students, and allies — and because of that, our schools are getting the added investment they need.”

That sounds familiar. 

Last week, members of the United Auto Workers ratified their new deal with The Big Three. The deal brought wage increases of at least 25% over four and a half years for members, but it was bigger than that. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and Subaru have all announced wage increases since the tentative deal was announced. 

“These were just extraordinary wins, especially for those of us who’ve been studying strikes for decades,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor and labor expert at Washington University in St. Louis, to the Washington Post. “Research has consistently found over the past few decades that most strikes are defensive, rear-guard efforts to protect the status quo … to fend off steep cuts to wages and benefits. It didn’t mean actually gaining new ground.” 

Both leading presidential candidates publicly supported, in starkly different ways, the union efforts. President Joe Biden joined the picket line, an unprecedented move in American history. It is on brand for the pro-union president, but the gesture is only possible because of the public support for workers in the matter. 

Union value remains

Workers are no longer alone. The support of the communities for the workers’ perspective is incredibly valuable. And that support has a renewed, refreshed energy. 

AP-NORC released its study on public support for the strike in October. There is clearly a shift documented in the data. Among the voluminous information in this comprehensive study is a top line item showing that the public supported workers over the companies by a four to one ratio. That sounds like a huge number if one looks at the “public” as simply observers of the matter. But in both the example of the Portland school teachers and the UAW, the “public” isn’t objective. 

In Portland, those “families, students and allies” had a stake in the dispute. With the UAW, the American automobile consumer is advocating that manufacturers spend more on cars the consumer will eventually want to buy. Both deals will likely lead to either higher prices or higher taxes. Yet the communities support them by wide margins. 

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And then there is the dispute that made me most pessimistic of all. You know, the one from the land of make-believe, Hollywood. How many Americans even knew that writers, directors and actors had separate unions and separate deals with a variety of studios and production companies? Here in the Heartland, I’m betting not many. Then the other hurdle for the unions to overcome: the appearance that the dispute is just a bunch of rich people fighting with other rich people. 

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers rightfully felt like they could outlast the Writers Guild of America and the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA. Strategically, there shouldn’t have been a reason to predict that the public, again, a group otherwise known as customers, would go without the products they are accustomed to mindlessly absorbing without a thought of how they are created. For the entire summer? No chance. The studios should have expected these so-called worker bees to fold. 

That is exactly what didn’t happen. Vanity Fair published a good breakdown of who the ultimate winners and losers were in this strike. But practically buried at the end of it, in the “losers” section, is “audiences.” In it, the loss here features the interruption of programming during the strike. What is missing is that the outcome of the strike will almost certainly result in fewer productions. 

Did the audience not get this part of this complicated dispute? Maybe. More importantly though, audiences chose creators, artisans, and yes, workers over moguls. 

The American people have lined up with the ones brave enough to go out on strike in 2023. Workers won big this year, but it is my view that the public won even more. Communities learned how to do important things together again. 

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Michael Leppert
Michael Leppert

Michael Leppert is an author, educator and a communication consultant in Indianapolis. He writes about government, politics and culture at MichaelLeppert.com.

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