At a union meeting at which I spoke, a member made a statement that took me aback. I had been talking about the importance of the NEA as a potent political force opposing what I truly believe is the Bush administrationís goal - to discredit Americaís public schools and to privatize as many of them as possible so that the free market can do for education what it has done for health care, protection of the environment and the needy. The person suggested that there were alternatives for our members to express their political views. They really didnít need organizations like the NEA.
Upon reflection, I realized that perhaps I havenít done as good a job as I might of explaining why it is that as unionists we do the political work we do. Hereís the beginning of my attempt to do better.
The starting place for all we do is the power of numbers. An old union song had it, "The boss donít have to listen when one man talks, but heís got to listen when the union talks. Itíd be mighty lonely if we all walked out on him." Union workers have always understood that individually they cannot contend with the power of their employers, but collectively they can demand that they be treated fairly - decently paid with good benefits. In fact, the organizing slogan of those brave elementary teachers who began the PCT was, "Dignity and Status," interestingly enough not money and insurance benefits as might have been expected. They wanted to be treated as responsible, educated adults who did important work, not the servants of the bosses for whom they worked. Together they demanded and won the dignity and status they individually craved but never could get.
The very same principle motivates the political work that we do. To be sure, individuals writing letters to their elected representatives, visiting their offices, phoning to voice an opinion are worthwhile things to do. They donít compete for potency, however, with organizing a letter writing campaign around our education issues where every member sends the same message to a state legislator. They donít compare to a lobbyist from the NEA, representing close to three million members, going in to have a chat with a Congressperson. Speaking for three million seems to improve the listening skills of our representatives.
All of our political efforts begin at the local level. What better place to organize working people to fight politically for their interests than in their workplaces. In the modern world, there really arenít too many other places left to organize them. When I was a boy, I used to listen to my farther, standing on a milk box on neighborhood street corners in Brooklyn, making political speeches in Yiddish to the newest Americans on behalf of candidates for public office. Today, you could stand on my corner for a week and not see anyone come by. Today people gather in malls and shopping centers, places that are usually closed to political speech. If we donít organize politically in our workplaces, the odds are our voice will not be heard.
And organize we must. So many of the progressive ideals we have historically stood for are threatened today. Our very freedoms as citizens are under attack. More in future columns.
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