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Solution-driven Unionism

ECONOMISTS HAVE DECLARED an end to the Great Recession, but you and I know that this crisis is far from over. State government tax collections are still 5.5 percent below pre-recession levels and will take years to recover. More than 100 bills are out there in the states, capping revenues, cutting services and riding a recession-fueled resurgence in attacks on unions.

These rampant cuts have hurt our members in their pocketbooks—through layoffs, furloughs and pay freezes. They also have made it impossible to maintain the same level of quality we have always strived to provide. And the precipitous decline in union membership over the past 40 years has coincided with the meteoric increase in wage inequality.

What we are seeing now, here and throughout the world, is our new normal. This new reality demands an entirely new approach to unionism. It demands an approach that is relevant and appropriate to the 21st century, that is creative and visionary, and that unifies the members of our union with those we serve. I call this approach “solution-driven unionism.”

Solution-driven unionism is rooted in solving problems, not winning arguments, and many AFT affiliates are pursuing this approach with great results. It is our compass at the national union, as well. We know that this tough climate is no excuse for not having a proactive agenda; to the contrary, it demands it. Solution-driven unionism doesn’t mean letting our traditional strengths atrophy. Demonstrating for our goals and beliefs, speaking truth to power, organizing, lobbying, being heard at the bargaining table—this is what we always have done, and always will do. But what I’m talking about is not an “either/or”; it’s a “both/and.”

The AFT executive council has issued a report titled “Building a 21st-Century Economy for All: Recommendations on Good Jobs, Fair Funding and Quality Public Services,” which identifies concrete steps to improve job growth and increase revenues to support public services and build pathways to the middle class. Delegates to the 2012 AFT convention adopted a resolution based on the report.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Close tax gaps caused by states’ failure to collect revenues because of tax evasion and inefficient tax systems, which can amount to billions of dollars. California has shown that every dollar spent on collection can yield $9 in revenue—an 800 percent return on investment. Nationally, if we collected just 2 percent more tax revenue from people
  • who should be paying and are not, we could avoid $14 billion in cuts.
  • Correct inequalities in state, local and federal tax systems so the highest earners share fiscal responsibility by assuming a larger share of the tax burden than lower earners.
  • Enact corporate tax reform. Consider that General Electric made $5.1 billion in profits in the United States in 2010 but paid no federal taxes on those profits and, in fact, claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion. And each year, dozens of Fortune 500 companies report profits to shareholders but pay no state taxes.

In Oregon, our state affiliates are fighting to protect progressive income tax measures that prevented devastating cuts to education, healthcare, public safety and other services. The AFT’s California affiliate is championing a similar solution. And numerous AFT Public Employees affiliates have advanced proposals for enhancing state revenues and maintaining the quality of services provided by public employees.

The North Dakota Public Employees Association/AFT recently scored a big win with an impressive example of solution-driven unionism. The NDPEA, working with a coalition of more than 90 organizations, waged a large-scale mobilization to defeat a ballot measure that would have banned all property taxes in the state. Not only did the NDPEA and its allies make a strong statement about such overreaching tax proposals and threats to public services, it connected with people in the community, activated union members, recruited new members and crafted a mobilization strategy it can employ in future efforts.

Solution-driven unionism takes many forms. At its core, it unites our members with their communities, and, in so doing, it ensures that we don’t merely survive, but we succeed. But success also rests upon electing leaders who support this concept—of collaboration as opposed to conflict, and of problem-solving as opposed to finger-pointing. We are experiencing some of the toughest times I’ve seen, and the November elections can shape whether times get even tougher or give way to a climate of seeking solutions for the common good.

Public Employee Advocate, September/October 2013