Alt-labor: the new, ungovernable red-state labor movements, led by teachers

America's "red states" are often thought of as homogeneous nests of parochial reactionary voters; it's more accurate to say that their places that have been cruelly dominated by Republican lawmakers who owe their seats to gerrymandering and voter suppression that disenfranchises progressives.

That's why wildcat, uncompromising, radical teachers' strikes have erupted in four states that helped elect Trump in 2016.

What's more, these are states where the far-right leadership has steadily eroded the power of unions, making them into something more like "associations," with the intention of weakening their ability to collectively bargain for a fair deal for teachers — and with the unintended consequence of weakening the power of union leaders to divert or damp the radical sentiments of the rank-and-file, whose steadily worsening living conditions (these can't be overstated, truly) have left them spoiling for a fight, with nothing to lose.

This is the new alt-labor. When you squeeze the toothpaste tube hard enough, it doesn't matter if you've screwed the lid on tightly — eventually the toothpaste will find its way out, and it's going to be messy.

Add to this Janus, a pending Supreme Court decision that is almost certain create a "right to work" regime across the USA for public sector workers, further weakening the authority and power of union leaders, further frustrating rank-and-file workers who have seen their quality of life decline steadily.

If the right wins in Janus, they will be swallowing a poison pill: Janus turns on whether labor organizing is a protected First Amendment activity (which would therefore allow members protected by the union to opt out of paying dues). A victory for the right in Janus would open the door to a wave of litigation to strike down limits on labor organizing, because once the Supremes hold labor organizing to be a constitutionally protected activity, then limits on labor organizing arguably violate the First Amendment rights of union members and would-be members.

Alt-labor is labor without compromise and without leaders who can compromise: it's cross-sector, unhindered by legal niceties, and it has nothing left to lose.

One important question is whether alt-labor will take hold in "blue" states — as Corey Robin points out, the liberal left was AWOL-to-hostile when teachers in Chicago struck over the same issues that these much-praised red state teachers are striking over — because the Chicago teachers were up against Obama's right-hand man, Rahm Emmanuel. Emmanuel, like Obama, epitomizes establishment Democrats, long on the finance sector, long on mass surveillance, long on endless war and unchecked executive authority — but charming, cultured, and willing to say the right things on race and gender, provided that class is never part of the equation.

In fact, as union power has declined, this sort of "alt-labor" organizing has often risen to take the helm. For example, the "Fight for 15" movement that's successfully raised pay in numerous cities and states has certainly had help from unions. But given the lack of union density in lots of service sectors like fast food, the movement has often had to organize outside typical union channels.

It's worth remembering that unions are stuck in the right-to-work paradox to begin with because labor law imposes requirements on them as well as on bosses. The point of labor law is to discipline both sides and prevent disputes between employees and employers from devolving into all-out war. But the nationwide assault on workers and unions is undoing that truce. And Janus could accelerate the process.

The teacher strikes could be the future of alt labor [Jeff Spross/The Week]

(Image: TMT-Photos; Dave Hogg, CC-BY)