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Trade Unions Stand In Solidarity With Arizona #RedForEd Movement

Tens of thousands of people have rallied in Phoenix since a statewide walkout began last Thursday. Teachers and their friends and families as well as employees from other professions came to the Capitol in solidarity, like Paul Castaneda, with the Communications Workers of America.

“It’s time for us all to come together as unions and show support for the teacher community and the education community," Castaneda said. "We’ve seen funding year after year cut from public education to give tax breaks to corporations and the one percent, instead of giving some of that money to education and funding them at the proper levels that they deserve to be funded at.”

Castaneda’s union is one of several labor groups at the state Capitol alongside the teachers.

He said it’s a show of support, but the rally is also a chance to reach out to new members and bolster their ranks.

“I think this is a perfect opportunity to really teach the millennials, the younger kids, those in high school really what labor is about and it’s coming out and supporting each other,” he said.

Mountain View High School junior Jordan Harb was one of several students who took to the stage in front of the Capitol to stump for the teachers. He addressed Governor Ducey at the rally on Thursday.

"The children who you have ignored through marches, meetings and eight hour sit-ins stand with teachers," Harb said. "Funded schools are safer schools.”

According to the United States Department of Labor, only 4 percent of workers in Arizona were members of a union in 2017. That’s down from a peak of 8.8 percent in 2008.

Eric Knott teaches at the Arizona State University W.P. Carey School of Business. He said part of the challenge is operating in a right-to-work state. If workers are hired on to a unionized job, they're not obligated to join the union. "And so that consequently the union gets far fewer dollars for the work that they do," Knott said.

He said another challenge for unions is they’re victims of their own success.

“Unions have been responsible for some of the great ideas that have helped shape the U.S. workplace.”

Pensions, worker’s compensation, protections against harassment and discrimination — many of the benefits unions fought for were adopted.

“And that’s why they focus on the wage issue," Knott said, "because outside of that, much of the work in terms of lifting up the U.S. workforce has been done, courtesy of the government.”

AFL-CIO executive director Fred Yamashita said standing with teachers is a way for unions to educate the public on the merits of organized labor.

“What we hear commonly when we’re out organizing workers," Yamashita said, is "they’re surprised that there actually are unions in Arizona.”

He said the huge turnout at the Capitol can serve as an example for workers in other trades.

“They’re really seeing the results of the solidarity that they have and this is what it feels like to be in a union and so they may see, maybe a growth spurt in their membership as a result of this.”

Yamashita said several local groups are bucking the statewide decline. He said the United Food and Commercial Workers local 99 is at its highest membership ever, with more than 23,000 members. And he said apprenticeships in the building trades are expanding as well.

He said regardless of the outcome, the #RedForEd movement has been a chance to remind people of labor’s role in society.

“I think it really was a great experience for people just to see how many people they actually come in contact every day that may very well be in a union and be a union member,” Yamashita said.

He said trade unions will remain standing next to the teachers as the strike continues.

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.