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To Get from Trade-Union Consciousness to Class Consciousness, We Need Solidarity

By Brendan Muckian-Bates

Think back to where we were at the beginning of 2018. The feelings of hopelessness, isolation, an inability to effect change. If you’re like me, you felt as though none of this would ever change.

But something miraculous happened. Teachers and service personnel banded together, demanded more than the legislature was willing to give, and used concerted energy to ensure that we would win. It was us – the everyday bus driver, cook, janitor, nurse, counselor, psychologist, teacher, and aide – who decided when we would go out, and when we come back.

And if you’re like me, you love to relive those moments. But as impactful as 2018 was, I don’t think any of us have fully reckoned with what it is we unleashed.

Yes, we had a statewide walkout that brought us a 5% raise.

Yes, we won a temporary freeze to changes to PEIA.

Yes, we eliminated the dreaded Go365 plan.

But what we achieved is far more than any concession the legislature could ever give, because ultimately, it was never theirs to give. What we accomplished was an awakening of class-consciousness, a recognition that we, the working class, have more in common with one another by virtue of our shared labor than we do in opposition.

Class-consciousness is different from another type of consciousness typically described in union slang, trade-union consciousness. Allow me to explain:

Trade-union consciousness emphasizes the shared experiences that workers share as a result of their trade. For example, only nurses understand the stresses of the nursing profession, only janitors understand the stresses of janitorial labor, only fast food workers understand the stresses of fast food labor. This type of consciousness stresses the fact that while these workers must sell their labor power in order to survive, they do so within a trade that only they understand inside and out.

Class-consciousness, on the other hand, emphasizes the shared experiences that workers have as a result of being part of a class. When we talk about class, we mean everything that makes you who you are – race, gender, sexuality, nationality, education level, religion, ability, and so on. What we have in common, however, is that we all must work for some boss, who has the power to hire and fire us, in order to survive. This relationship between our employer and us is inherently unbalanced, giving the ‘employing class’ the power to determine the experiences of the ‘working class.’

Those of you who know your union history well understand that this is one reason why the early labor union movement sprang up as it did. Prior to achieving the legal protections outlined in the Wagner Act (1935), workers could be fired for attempting to unionize their workplace, strikes could be violently broken up by private (and governmental) armed forces, and management was under little obligation to adhere to contractual obligations these unions had fought for. What separated workers was their inability to determine their conditions at work, making them part of the working class – the group in society that labors for a living. What united them was the recognition that they were part of this class, and that whatever their bosses tried to do to further alienate them from one another could not outweigh the solidarity they shared as part of the working class.

The gains unions had achieved were slowly eroded over the next several decades, as better wages and stable working conditions had tamped down this sense of class-consciousness. Workers had been deceived into thinking that management could be reasoned with enough so as to not upend the entire American labor force. Ultimately, their greed won out, while the solidarity that workers had died for was lost to the history books.

But if 2018 can be remembered as anything for the #RedForEd movement, it can be this: trade-union consciousness will only get us so far. What we need now is class-consciousness.

Let’s think back for a second and remember what made our actions successful.

1) All public K-12 education workers were united in their common fight. Organize by our industry, not by our trade alone.

2) Recognize who the ‘boss’ is and how they control our experiences at work. Organize in opposition to a specific class, the legislature.

3) Refuse to fall for attempts at divide-and-conquer. We are united as the working class regardless of our jobs or classification.

Last year already showcased the strength of emphasizing our class solidarity. Building on that as we go forward, we should remember what made us strong in moments when we had doubted our strength.

If our successes are contained to the realm of education, however, then in some sense, we have failed. At some point in the future, our struggle will be pegged as an educator-specific fight, rather than a fight for the state and the economy that puts workers first. If we come to communities asking for their assistance when we need it, we must be prepared to reciprocate.

What does this look like in practice?

In Glen Dale (Marshall County), workers at the Technocap plant were on strike for several months over the summer of 2018. As a sign of solidarity with these workers, many of whom could not find part-time work during the lock out, members of the Ohio County Education Association purchased book bags and school supplies for these workers’ families. It was a small gesture, but one that showed that their fight was important to educators. After all, the child of a Technocap worker on lockout most likely can’t concentrate in school, worried about their parent and their future. This affects their performance in school, and thus affects the working conditions of educators. All of these fights are interrelated because our role as workers is what unites us; hence, our experiences as part of the working classare shared among us all if we are introspective enough to see it.

These are struggles that bosses (and politicians) will never have to face by virtue of their class status.

As such, it must be our mission as heirs of the #RedForEd movement to envision and engage with a struggle for liberation that connects ourselves to a worker’s movement, rather than an education-only movement. The latter leads to a trade-union consciousness that will ossify our actions and decimate our theory of where power lies; the former, however, leads us to a class-consciousness movement capable of systemic change.

To quote the old union song, “Which side are you on?”

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