Just off the 101 freeway in downtown Los Angeles, a billboard urges teachers to “read this before spending another $1,000 on union dues.” The ad touts teacherfreedom.org, a site sponsored by the Koch-backed California Policy Center that offers instructions on how teachers can leave their union, along with testimonials from people identified as teachers recounting how much freer they felt after leaving their union.
The billboard’s message is that the teachers’ union is a waste of money, an ineffective means to advance their interests. This is not an isolated opinion. Labor’s declining fortunes over the past several decades have given credence to the notion that they are outmoded institutions, and that traditional union tactics like striking no longer work. Recent political defeats like the spread of “right to work” laws and last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME only reinforced that conventional wisdom.
After this week, though, such billboards are less likely to find a receptive audience — and the received wisdom looks increasingly mistaken. That’s because 34,000 teachers learned firsthand that unions really can get them what they want.
They did so by using that traditional union tactic: the strike. Acting together, teachers won what the school board had said was impossible: smaller class sizes, more nurses, counselors and librarians — along with community issues that weren’t even supposed to be on the bargaining table, such as cutting standardized testing, restricting student searches that many considered racial profiling and increasing green space on school campuses.