There's Something Happening Here
by Steven Ashby
September 27, 2012
Teachers go on strike in Chicago and Lake Forest. Chicago
symphony musicians walk out. Machinists walk picket lines in
Joliet, and Wal-Mart warehouse workers stop working in Elwood.
Gov. Pat Quinn gets chased from the state fair by angry
government workers, and talk of a state workers strike is
"There's something happening here. What it is, ain't exactly
clear," wrote Stephen Stills in a 1968 song that came to
symbolize the 1960s as a decade of social movements and rapid
The same words aptly describe labor relations in the United
States today. It seems, as 1960s icon Bob Dylan sang in 1964,
"the times they are a-changin'."
In February 2011 we witnessed the Wisconsin workers' uprising.
When Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature passed
unprecedented anti-union legislation that also deeply cut
social services, hundreds of thousands of people came to the
state capital to protest, and several thousand occupied the
Capitol for two weeks.
That movement ended with the governor beating a recall effort.
Similar legislation in Ohio, though, was overturned when,
instead of a recall, organizers turned to a referendum and won
61 percent of the vote in support of workers' rights.
Then in September 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted
and rapidly spread to hundreds of cities across the country.
Tens of thousands of previously uninvolved young people took
to the streets - and tents- to protest the Great Recession and
income inequality, and made "1 percent" and "the 99 percent"
part of our national discourse. That movement dissipated as
winter weather hit and police tore town tent cities.
Things turned quiet again, leading pundits earlier this year
to suggest that Wisconsin and Occupy were blips on an
otherwise quiet labor relations landscape.
Then the Chicago Teachers Union strike happened. What was most
notable was that this was not a typical strike of recent
years, where a small number of strikers passively picket a
site and the real action is going on at the bargaining table.
Instead, the CTU mobilized nearly all of its 26,000 members in
daily mass rallies and marches, and drew in large numbers of
Historical change is often best understood by looking at
turning points - key moments when history began to
dramatically change. Three citywide labor strikes in 1934
ended a period of relative passivity and heralded the
country's largest and most successful worker uprising. The
1955 Montgomery bus boycott initiated the nation-changing
civil rights movement.
So are Wisconsin, Occupy and the CTU strike another turning
point that future historians will see as the beginning of a
new mass workers' movement demanding social change?
If I was a betting man, I'd put my money on it. One key
ingredient in the making of historical turning points is that
people begin to view street protests as normal instead of
weird. Instead of viewing a mass march on TV or the occupation
of a building as strange and scary, many people watch those
same events and think to themselves, "Good for them. That's
what it takes to get anything done in this country. Maybe I'll
You could feel that if you picketed or marched with the
Chicago teachers - the constant horn honking in solidarity,
the waves and smiles of people from building windows or porch
stoops, even the nods of approval from police officers.
Another ingredient in the making of historical turning points
is the creation of hope. Occupy and Wisconsin inspired
hundreds of thousands of people - but neither succeeded in
making change. But the Chicago teachers strike was a clear
victory for the union.
Teachers nationwide watched this strike closely and drew hope.
The success of the seven-day CTU strike will undoubtedly
encourage teachers unions across the country to stand their
ground and escalate their efforts to defend public education.
And unionists across the country noted that the foundations
for the teachers' victory were laid over the past two years,
as the CTU launched a "contract campaign" to educate, organize
and mobilize its members. Every school established an
organizing committee. Every member was talked to, their
concerns discussed, their activism encouraged. In May the
union put 6,000 teachers in the streets of downtown Chicago.
In June the union overcame a unique anti-CTU law, Senate Bill
7, and turned out 92 percent of its members to nearly
unanimously give the leadership strike authorization.
And during the strike, nearly all of the 26,000 teachers
participated in enthusiastic, daily marches; picketed daily at
schools; and met regularly to discuss strike issues and
actions. They were joined by sizable numbers of supporters who
came as a result of two years of the union building strong
ties with community and parent organizations, and honing the
message that the union fought first and foremost to defend a
quality public education for every student.
This is the template for successful organizing. This is the
soup from which hope emerges.
[Steven Ashby is a professor of labor relations at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.]
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate