Op-Ed: Unions’ focus on woke over work rankles rank and file

Los Angeles school teacher Glenn Laird has been a union stalwart for almost four decades. He served as a co-chair of his school’s delegation to United Teachers Los Angeles and proudly wore union purple on the picket line.

But Laird is now suing to leave UTLA and demanding a refund of the dues the union has collected since his resignation request. His turning point came in July 2020 when the union, the second largest teachers union in the country, joined liberal activists to demand that Los Angeles defund the police in response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“We have to dismantle white supremacy,” incoming UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said.

Laird, who is white, was floored. The union seemed to have forgotten why schools hired on more safety officers back in the 1980s and 1990s when Los Angeles was one of America’s most violent cities. While safety is Laird’s specific concern, he is also concerned about his union’s increasing embrace of so-called social justice issues.

“I would much prefer a union focused completely on wages, hours, working conditions,” he said. “When the union goes into political activist mode, I think it dilutes the practice of what a union is supposed to be doing.”

Laird is not alone. He is among union rank-and-file nationwide chafing at their leadership’s embrace of woke politics as a means of reversing declining membership and maintaining influence in the Democratic Party – dissent shown in many defections to Donald Trump in the last two elections as well as high-profile recent organizing defeats and court setbacks.

Significant as the pushback is, it does not seem to faze Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, of which the Los Angeles teachers’ group is an affiliate.

A week before the teachers union president called for defunding the police, Trumka issued a statement declaring, “The AFL-CIO Must Fight for Trans Lives Inside and Outside the Labor Movement.” As he tried to connect the West Virginia coal mines where he cut his teeth to the 1969 Stonewall riots, a catalyst for gay activism, Trumka asserted that “the labor movement is focused on electing candidates up and down the ballot who understand the intersectionality of worker and LGBTQ rights.”

Trumka’s departure from traditional union rhetoric reflects both labor’s relative weakness and the recognition that its future will depend less on conservative “lunch pail workers” than on progressive professionals in tech and elsewhere for whom values and social justice are key concerns.

Labor historian Leon Fink, author of the forthcoming book “Undoing the Liberal World Order,” said American unions have been on the defensive for the past four decades as their membership fell from 17% of the private sector workforce to 6% in 2020.

“There are some tensions between the generally liberal leadership and certainly strong pockets of rank-and-file conservatism on social issues,” Fink said. “The one place that leadership does exercise some autonomy is in the political sphere.”

Oren Cass, president of American Compass, a pro-union conservative group, also links the rise of political activism to plummeting membership. Cass argues the decline of union preeminence in the workforce has led the movement to turn to politics for salvation, in the process becoming “a functioning arm of the Democratic Party.”

“Traditionally, labor’s primary pathway to power was the labor market,” Cass says. “As unions have less and less to do with the economy, they’ve had more and more to do with politics.”

And so they hope to reap rewards for helping deliver Joe Biden to the White House. He has pledged to become “the most pro-union president in history” and he will make good on the promise if he is able to usher in the PRO Act (for Protecting the Right to Organize), which would effectively overturn right-to-work laws in 27 states that allow workers to opt out of union membership.

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