There's Something Happening Here
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 rumbling.
"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 supporters.
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 join them."
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 anorganizing 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.