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Now that it’s over, what did it mean?

Police officers teachers caregivers other rank-and-file public servants joIllinois AFL-CIO members protest state's pensisituatiIllinois Gov. PQuinn’s oppositiarbitrators ruling AFSCME pay

Police officers, teachers, caregivers and other rank-and-file public servants join Illinois AFL-CIO members to protest the state's pension situation and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s opposition to arbitrators ruling on AFSCME pay raises and closing facilities, at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011 in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:14AM


With the kids at last heading back to school, while the city is in that moment before everybody gratefully turns their attention elsewhere — to the presidential election, to the White Sox pennant race, to a funny shaped cloud, to anything that doesn’t involve teachers, schools, unions or Karen Lewis — there is one lingering, significant question worth posing:

What, if anything, might the 2012 Chicago teachers strike mean for organized labor?

For those arriving late, unions in the United States have been falling away in big chunks for decades — union membership has slid from a high in the mid-1950s of a third of American non-farm workers to about 12 percent today. If the central tenet of the Reagan Revolution is to undermine the government’s regulatory and social service functions by starving it of tax revenues, then its secondary law is to kneecap unions, as illustrated by Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981. In both ways the most possible money is allowed to flow unimpeded to those who already have the most.

The Reagan spark was fanned into a bonfire by several brisk economic winds that blew in directions unkind to unions: Ease of international transport and instant global communications enhanced the ability for U.S. companies first to send manufacturing jobs, then service jobs, overseas.

Granted, teachers are exceptional since, as a public sector union, like cops or firefighters, they have an advantage many other professions don’t: You can send steel manufacturing abroad, but you can’t educate our children or police our streets or fight fires from abroad, at least not yet.

Which leads us back to the question: Does the generally positive outcome, at least for teachers, of the Chicago strike carry any greater significance for organized labor? What does it all mean?

“Working people can win,” said Damon Silvers, policy director and special council for the AFL-CIO’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. “It’s extremely important, first, that a big visible group of working people are showing they actually have some power, and second, that a key reason why they have power is because they’re supported by the community around them.”

The strike can be seen, in part, as a symptom of better times. You needn’t actually lose your job for a recession to have a chilling effect. Workers become scared, particularly when economic calamities flow from complex financial disasters like the bank/mortgage melt-down. You can hardly understand what’s happening, never mind do anything about it. The only people being rescued are those who least need it — important banks, top executives, rich folk. It leads to what Silvers called “a sense of profound disempowerment” among workers.

Then times get a little better, and workers are emboldened, like Oliver Twist, to ask for a little more.

“This strike is about teachers in Chicago with support of parents and the broader community insisting they get to have a say,” Silvers said. “You’re not locked out of big political and economic decisions.”

Not only is the message delivered to
management and to the public, but also — perhaps surprisingly — to the leaders and members of other unions around the country.

“I’m extremely proud of this union’s leadership,” said Rory Fanning, a local activist involved with Communities United Against Foreclosures and Evictions. “They got major concessions only because 30,000 people took to the street. [Reagan firing the air traffic controllers] instilled fear in other unions who wanted to do the same thing. What this teachers union is doing is giving other unions confidence, inspiring other unions to re-evaluate their leadership, put them on notice that they better start acknowledging the will of the rank and file.”

Power corrupts, and unions have had a hand in their own troubles by succumbing to rampant corruption and shovel-leaning. The idea of a “union electrician,” while evoking in many the image of quality work done by someone who knows which end of the screwdriver to hold, in others only raises the specter of the person who must be summoned to plug in the expo booth’s coffee pot because the union carpenter won’t do it.

That’s the foundation of truth the slur against unions is built upon but, like all slurs, like all structures, whoever builds them, they only last so long. True, Mitt Romney still seems confident he can carry the flag of plutocracy and paint those who want to share in the benefits of their labors as class warriors and parasites. The general success of the teachers might merely be an upward bump in a general union stumble toward oblivion. Or maybe things are changing. The rich have no trouble cheering themselves on. We who work should pause to cheer for ourselves too.

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