December 19, 2012

Teachers on Strike: Lessons from Chicago on How to Fight Back

Ethan Young

When newly elected President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, he was also firing the first shots in a new offensive against workers in the United States. The new logic of neoliberalism, with its insatiable appetite for low wages and powerless workers, has since guided a series of attacks against U.S. labor unions. As a result, rates of unionization have shrunk dramatically, especially in the private sector, where a paltry seven percent of workers now belong to unions. Over this same period, real wages have stagnated and the income share of the bottom 80 percent of the U.S. population has fallen, while the top one percent’s average income has multiplied.

Far from being satisfied by this upward transfer of wealth, Big Capital appears emboldened, and attacks against unions grow more frequent and brazen. In 2011 Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pushed through austere anti-union legislation over the protests of hundreds of thousands of his state’s residents, chronicled by John Nichols in his piece “To Begin the World Over Again” ( More recently, in December 2012 Michigan became the 24th state to approve “right-to-work” legislation, which severely curtails the ability of unions to grow membership and collect dues. This blow to the labor movement, landed in the heart of the U.S. auto industry and the home of the powerful and emblematic United Auto Workers, would appear a discouraging harbinger for American workers.

But all is not doom and gloom. In the midst of this onslaught, the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) has struck back with one of labor’s biggest victories in recent decades. The CTU strike of September 2012 brought together 26,000 workers to successfully fight a proposal by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to lengthen the school day by two hours with no pay raise, plus other measures intended to weaken the job security and voice of the city’s teachers.

In the context of the so-called educational “reform” movement—a subterfuge by conservative and neoliberal forces intended to weaken the institution of public education—the CTU’s victory could prove crucial. In the larger war against public unions—the last major bastion of U.S. labor and only political player capable of challenging corporate dominance in the game of campaign finance—the labor movement has finally struck back.

In the following study, writer and activist Ethan Young dissects the CTU’s victory and draws lessons for the labor movement, and indeed the U.S. Left, on how to fight back and how to look forward.