I was asked to provide a write-up of a panel at the Labor and Working Class History Association meeting on the Chicago Teachers Union struggle. It gave me an opportunity to muse a bit about the relationship between labor historians and the labor movement (and really between any social movement historians and the social movement for which they study and advocate).
The CTU panel was one of many LAWCHA panels that focused on the present rather than past. This opens up important questions about the relationship between ourselves as historians and current struggles. As labor historians, we really want the CTU to be the harbinger of a turnaround for organized labor. But I think we have to create some critical distance between our work and our hopes that any given workers’ movement will finally be the spark that revives the labor movement. I’ve recently read historians who wrote about contemporary struggles following the WTO protests in Seattle, Occupy Wall Street, and the rebellion against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Each of these incidents led historians to predict a resurgence for labor. Unfortunately it hasn’t happened, making some of this work dated mere months after its writing. I have no idea whether the CTU is an isolated case or the beginning of a more militant teachers union movement willing to push back against the bipartisan project of undermining teachers. The panel certainly didn’t help me decide this question. But it did provide valuable context and first-hand accounts of the struggle that we can hope becomes a model for other public sector unions across the country.