The Revolt of the Teaching Assistants

Stephen Lerner offers his thoughts on organized labor and the Occupation, which may give us an indication of what’s to come as organized public workers and their allies feel threatened by the perception that their services are not worth the high and rising costs largely borne by current and future taxpayers:


The Make Big Banks and Millionaires Pay approach illustrates that there may be three concrete ways to resolve the contradiction of “We can’t do it with unions and we can’t do it without them”:

Prolonging protest. We need to commit ourselves to the idea that intensive escalating activities—designed to challenge and disrupt unfair corporate abuses of power—are needed. These activities shouldn’t be limited to one-day marches or rallies—they must go on for weeks, growing in size and intensity like the protests in Madison.

Weeks of creative direct action and activities. Just as unions escalate from one-day symbolic strikes to longer strikes that have a real impact, so must we expand from one-day marches and demonstrations to weeks of creative direct action and activities. There are two potentially overlapping ways to do this. The first is to build these kinds of longer and more involved protests around students and community groups that have the energy and willingness to take time off from their day-to-day lives to engage in more intense activity (which includes the risk of getting arrested). Secondly, unions must revive (and reinvent) the strike. Strikes consistently bring thousands of people together in full-time action mode. During Justice for Janitors strikes (i.e., in Boston in 2002 and in Miami in 2006) workers became full-time activists and organizers. Instead of just picketing, the strikers led escalating actions with a creative intensity that disrupted the status quo and led to political crises for building owners and their political friends. Imagine combining traditional, short-term strikes with larger-scale, ongoing community mobilization efforts that continued (and escalated) activities on broader issues even as the strike settled.

Labor support without control. Unions need to help finance and launch these kinds of activities with the explicit agreement that they won’t control or call them off because of outside pressures. There are national and local organizations with bases that can move thousands of people; but they lack the financial resources to do so on a sustained basis. [Emphasis added]

At the heart of this movement-based model will be teaching assistants:


So what sort of movement-based model might address these issues? What does recent activity suggest about how to take advantage of the resources that only labor can offer, without allowing those resources to restrain the civil disobedience, radicalism, and creativity necessary to challenge the corporate elite?

One example is what happened in Madison, where the work of the teaching assistants and students was critical to launching, sustaining, and expanding the campaign. Along with community groups, they led the occupation of the state capitol building, which helped define and propel the campaign. The student and community activity inspired unions to take bold actions that probably never would have been launched if the decisions had been made at a traditional labor coalition table. [Emphasis added]

Among other things, Lerner seems to be advancing the proposition that that teaching assistants and students at selective research universities are a key ingredient to building coalitions that can achieve broader political victories, and that labor activists have much to learn from them.

It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.  

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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