There Is No Way Forward Without Organized Workers

Corporate leaders, reactionary Republicans, and neoliberal Democrats have told Americans to keep lowering their expectations — a better world isn’t possible. They’re wrong. But we’ll only be able to win that improved world by mobilizing workers.

Braving snow and cold temperatures, thousands marched through the streets near City Hall during the eleventh day of an ongoing teachers' strike on October 31, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Heins / Getty Images

For two weeks last month, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike. Just as in 2012, the strike was widely acknowledged as a victory for the union. The successes for organized teachers are so numerous at this point that it is worth reflecting on exactly what the increased militance of educators and other workers means for US politics moving forward.

The CTU model of unionism — one that emphasizes internal democracy, a willingness to strike and take other militant actions, and bargaining for the needs of the community in which teachers teach — has been driving the upsurge of teacher militance in the United States over the past decade. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of what the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) has done in making the CTU into an organization of warriors against neoliberalism and, as Eric Blanc has shown, serving as a model for organizing teachers across the country in 2018–19. Teachers in Chicago haven’t simply made an intellectual case against neoliberalism: as in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver, the CTU won many of their demands by taking the high-stakes action of walking off their jobs.

The Chicago strike, which shut down schools for eleven days, is the longest teacher strike in the series we have seen in the past two years and the longest major teacher strike in the United States since Chicago teachers walked out for nineteen days in 1987. The fact that teachers in Chicago, who authorized a strike vote with 94 percent support of union members, were willing to hold out for several days longer than any other recent major teacher strikes may seem like a trivial detail, but it isn’t.

No union ever undertakes a strike without understanding the risks. But teachers face particular risk when they walk out. My historical research on teacher strikes shows that every day a teacher strike goes on, the risk of public opinion turning against them increases dramatically. In the 1970s, for instance, as unionized teachers struggled to maintain their livelihoods during economic downturn, inflation, and fiscal crisis, strikes sometimes lasted for months (in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and elsewhere). In many cases, the public turned against unions when parents and other community members who were debilitated by the massive disruption caused by school closings began to criticize the union.

One of the reasons this happened was because teachers’ unions weren’t always seen as clear advocates for the broader working-class community of students and parents where they taught. This hasn’t been the case in Chicago.

The CTU’s strike fought hard for what their students need, getting a guarantee of a social worker and a nurse in every school within five years, meaningful mechanisms to ensure smaller class sizes, new resources to help students experiencing homelessness, and protections for undocumented students. All of these facets of the contract represent political wins for all working people in Chicago.

Though Chicago undoubtedly still has a way to go in ensuring all of its students have what they need to succeed (the CTU pushed for more affordable housing, for instance, but the mayor successfully refused to bargain over that ask), it appears that each day the union held out mattered in the lives of the teachers in the city and for the students. Because of the clear community support, especially from CPS parents — stemming from the fact that teachers have so clearly been fighting, for a decade now, to improve the lives of the kids of working people in Chicago — the CTU had the wind at their back to hold out longer than any teachers have in a generation.

Combined with the massive amount of attention to the recent forty-day General Motors strike by the United Auto Workers, (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren joined them on the picket lines there, for instance), the CTU strike has helped put the struggle to make working people’s lives better through collective action on the front burner of American politics. Though neither the CTU nor the UAW was able to win an unqualified victory, we should not have expected them to. Organized labor, in the public and private sectors, has been bargaining from a weakened position, one in which most corporate executives, economists, and political leaders alike have been telling workers to be happy for whatever they get, for decades.

Simply having the UAW and the CTU put demands on the table, like ending two-tier wage scales and increasing support services for students, respectively, is a victory in and of itself, because it shows all other workers that we no longer have to accept the diminished expectations politicians and corporate leaders have told us are inevitable. Winning a large portion of those demands, as both unions did, shows us not only that a better world is possible but how to achieve it.

A New Political Crisis

The CTU and UAW are responding to a political crisis in the United States that stems from the excessive power of employers and their political representatives to dictate our economic conditions and political choices. Since the years of the American Revolution, the United States has faced several serious political crises, and they have only ever been resolved through the massive mobilization of ordinary people. This one is no different.

The first crisis, caused by slave owners’ efforts to strengthen their hold on the US political economy in the 1840s and 1850s, was smashed through military effort, including the vital efforts of the formerly enslaved to destroy the institution of slavery in the Civil War. The second was the catastrophe of the Great Depression, which magnified the existential conflict (then decades old) over the question of whether working people in the United States would be completely immiserated by the power of industrial capital. Generations of labor uprisings — from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 through the wave of strikes in textiles, auto, steel, and other industries in the 1930s — finally forced FDR and Congress to pass landmark legislation — the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act — that gave private-sector workers the institutional legitimacy to push for a version of capitalism that, at least for a time, would ensure both capital accumulation and an improving standard of living for most American workers.

A third crisis was created by the rights revolution of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when activists forced American politicians to acknowledge the omission of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, women, and LGBTQ people from the full set of political and social rights American democracy had long promised. Though we clearly face a concerted effort on the Right to roll back many of these hard-won political rights through voter ID laws and the like, it is impossible to say that the massive mobilization of these social movements did not meaningfully eliminate the worst of these inequalities.

Now we face a fourth existential American political crisis. This crisis was not caused by Donald Trump’s election, though the 2016 election is a critical symptom of it. For half a century now, reactionary American corporate leaders have pushed workers back to the brink of the era before the Wagner Act. The percentage of private-sector workers in unions is now just 6.4 percent, and though the percentage of unionized public employees is still relatively high, many public employees, prominently including teachers, have seen their salaries decline while organized efforts by education reformers have de-professionalized their work. True, the standard of living for average Americans is not as low as that of the Gilded Age, but the last several decades have been marked by employers’ sustained efforts to prevent and stifle unions, to shift capital abroad, and to elect politicians (like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker) who would curtail workers’ rights in both the public and private sectors.

But Trump was elected, at least in part, not because he offered a realistic solution to the plight of working people, but because too many Democrats have stifled possibilities for improving workers’ lives.

In the late 1970s, for example, Jimmy Carter and other new Democrats did little to empower organized labor, failing to pass meaningful labor reform and instead cutting taxes on the wealthy. In the 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton negotiated the free-trade deal that made jobs in the auto industry more precarious while brokering a deal with Republicans to slash welfare funding. In Chicago, a series of neoliberal Democrats, now including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, have spent the last thirty years repurposing tax dollars meant for the public schools for subsidies to downtown developers while crying that the city does not have enough money for schools. Indeed, Democrats over the past half century have too often told working people to lower their expectations and accept diminished labor protections and diminished public support for important government programs as the best of a series of bad choices.

The election of 2016 represented the exhaustion of this idea. Though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by accruing millions of votes on the coasts, enough working people either voted for Trump in the hope he would restore blue-collar jobs or sat out the election because they saw little evidence a Clinton presidency would do very much for them. Indeed, my home state of Wisconsin is a representative case study.

Working people in Wisconsin have been hit hard by deindustrialization, capital flight, and the conservative war on labor rights. A lack of enthusiasm for Clinton led Trump to the first Republican presidential win in Wisconsin since 1988. Voter turnout in Wisconsin in 2016 was lower than in any of the three previous presidential elections. And it wasn’t just the so-called white working class that led to Trump’s election. The African American turnout in 2016 was 19 percent lower than in 2012. Some part of the lower turnout was certainly due to voter suppression policies, but a significant part of it also stemmed from the sense among black working people that Democrats had very little to offer.

Already, the 2020 Democratic primary has featured serious debates about big ideas to improve working peoples’ lives through programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, in an attempt to capture the discontent of American working people with the state of the economy. Further, most Democratic candidates have unequivocally supported the CTU, a far cry from the wide berth President Obama gave the CTU strike in 2012 — at that time, likely the most important labor victory in twenty years — in order to avoid a conflict with Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel (and perhaps because Emanuel’s ideas on public education weren’t far from Obama’s own).

But truly moving in a direction capable of solving our current political crisis means actually using the political process to create more efforts like those of the CTU and the UAW. Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have both released comprehensive labor reform plans (envisioning a major transformation that would empower American workers along the lines of the Roosevelt administration). Though Warren’s plan would also represent a big move in the right direction, Sanders has made the most meaningful strides in showing us the way forward. Indeed, Sanders has made the Workplace Democracy Plan a centerpiece of his campaign and put the premise of workers’ collective action at the core of the plan.

Warren’s plan has many of the same features as Sanders’s. It ensures that states like Wisconsin could no longer allow workers to benefit from collectively bargained contracts without paying dues, advocates sectoral bargaining to build worker power beyond individual workplaces, and guarantees public-sector workers the right to have a union represent them, the right to collectively bargain, and the right to strike. (In many states, unlike Illinois, public-sector workers do not have any of these rights.)

But Sanders’s program goes even further, ending at-will employment and proposing to ensure workers have a legal claim to their jobs. It realistically anticipates the scale of change necessary to truly empower workers to mobilize and to ensure sustainable livelihoods.

Any meaningful progress in solving our nation’s current crisis — one in which corporate leaders, reactionary Republicans, and visionless neoliberal Democrats have told the majority of Americans to bring their expectations ever lower — will only come through the collective mobilization of workers. Even more workers, like those in the CTU and the UAW, must organize and take the action of withholding their labor in order to build the power necessary to counteract the resources of the millionaire and billionaire class.

If we’re going to remake US politics in a more democratic direction, we need political candidates — from president all the way down to city council members — who not only support pro-worker policies or walk a picket line in solidarity, but actively encourage the kind of worker militancy we’ve seen emerge in recent years.