While the right to control our own labor is fundamental to our work as unionists, the no-strike clause of the state’s Taylor Law has been used to stifle dissent and stoke fear in the public sector unions in New York for decades. It is past time for the leadership of our municipal unions to take a stand and demand unequivocally that the right to control our own labor be enshrined in our state constitution. However, at this month’s Delegate Assembly, UFT leadership fiercely defended the no-strike clause.
While considering an anodyne resolution to celebrate the union’s anniversary, a MORE member proposed an amendment that would honor the contributions of the union’s founder’s by launching a campaign to guarantee public sector unions the right to strike. The union was founded in 1960 through a risky illegal strike and built power throughout the 1960’s through a willingness to take risky, disruptive action. But a racist strike in 1968 and a disastrous failed strike in 1975 have led to a union unwilling to take any sort of militant action that has not gone on strike in nearly 50 years.
During a heated debate, president Mulgrew called on four delegates who spoke in opposition and only one in favor of the amendment. Though many MORE members rose to speak in favor, over and over again Mulgrew called on members of his own caucus to speak against the right of public sector workers to go on strike. Arguments against it painted the amendment as if it were a strike vote itself or, bizarrely, a proposal to repeal collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. In an impassioned but strikingly contradictory speech, UFT Secretary LeRoy Barr espoused the virtues of striking while decrying the amendment’s call for extending protections to striking workers. Another speaker cynically, and outrageously, argued that striking is an example of white privilege, insinuating that workers of color lack the agency to withhold their labor. High school executive board member Nick Bacon rose in support of the amendment, making a call to put another essential tool in the hands of UFT membership.
It’s disheartening that our leadership wants us to vote against our own interests. But rank and file members of our union can build a broad coalition of working class New Yorkers to win the right to strike for public sector workers. Recently, state legislators like Jabari Brisport and Emily Gallagher have been working to amend the state constitution to remove penalties for striking public sector workers. We need to continue to push our leaders to support our right to strike. We will never truly have a seat at the table until we can withhold our labor.