Out of prudence, I’ve tried to suppress some of my enthusiasm for the Chicago Teachers Union strike; the struggle for social justice is an arduous, grinding one, and failure often characterizes it. My Twitter feed illustrates how well that attempt at equanimity is going.

Strikes have become quite rare. Last year the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted just 19 “major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers.” That’s actually a slight uptick from 2009, when there were five. Five! Here’s some context for those measly numbers: In 1979, shortly before the Volcker-induced “long deep recession that would empty factories and break unions in the US,” there were 235 major stoppages. That year also marked the last time more than a million workers, in the aggregate, were involved in work stoppages. My how times have changed.

The teacher’s strike counterpoises itself to this trend of increasingly cowed workers. And it comes at a most opportune time, falling one week before the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. The felicitous confluence will display two of the most important movement “streams” of the democratic left, could reinvigorate the extra-electoral left, and may even impact the November election.

Moreover, the CTU is a paragon of the social justice unionism model that, if the labor movement is to recover, needs to take hold. One conception of unionism holds that unions’ sole duty is to represent member interests. In this view, workers band together to  to get what’s rightfully theirs. This isn’t a bad thing, of course—workers need power in their workplaces—but the conception is unduly limiting, philosophically, and tactically boneheaded. The self-interest model militates against solidarity across workplaces and industries, and it discourages union involvement in a political push for a more just society. Perhaps this exaggerates the point, but it’s the difference between the California prison guards union and the CTU. Both have inviolable workplace rights they should and do exercise and defend, but the CTU expresses fidelity to egalitarian ends that supersede their own financial interests. Tactically, it becomes easier to cast union members as solipsists, heartless agitators who cause student torpor, when strikers just emphasize their own interests. Predictably, this is already the cartoonish picture neoliberals and other union-averse commentators are painting.

As Ned Resnikoff and David Moberg remind us—and teachers and parents themselves have been stressing—the striking workers aren’t just out to secure their own parochial interests. They intimately understand that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. They oppose the proliferation of standardized testing. They want more social workers, counselors, and nurses in their schools. They want more equitable funding.

This is social justice unionism, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. They want more social workers, counselors, and nurses in their schools. They want more equitable funding.

    The media is really selling this part short. They’re putting a lot more emphasis on the whole “job security” demand and how the teachers walked away from one helluva raise offer despite making a lot more money than the average Chicagoan. I don’t just mean Fox News, either. NPR is doing this.

    • I listened to Democracy Now! on the way to my dinner tonight and even Amy Goodman wasn’t able to find a decent quotation to play for the listeners. The people she quoted were talking about benefits, testing of teachers, and job security.

    • I’m not following it well enough to have anything to say about it.

      • You can check out Democracy Now! and read for yourself. If you can’t gather from the webpage, this is one of the NPR affiliate programs that is just a hair more to the left rather than one of the far right wing NPR affiliate programs (Garrison Keillor) or one of the more centrist ones (All Things Considered).

        Money quotation from here: Unresolved issues include the cost of health benefits, the makeup of the teacher evaluation system, and job security.

        Personally, I think that the Union Leadership should do a lot more to talk about the social workers, counselors, and nurses. It’d improve the optics of the situation considerably.

      • I have to confess that my views on the subject are colored by Dave Schuler’s long writing on the extensive problems on Chicago’s and Illinois’s budgeting and benefit obligations (here’s his response to the strike). In a different state, with a different situation, I might be a lot more sympathetic.

  2. Can you imagine if people in any non-public position attempted this? It would be a laughing stock.

    • I think you might benefit from stretching your imagination a bit on this score.

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