An Ascending Trajectory?: Ten of the Most Important Social Conflicts in the United States in 2012

[This article was written for a foreign audience, so I have spelled out some things that might otherwise be taken for granted when writing for an American reading public.]

The most important American social conflict of 2012—the Chicago Teachers Union strike—suggests that the rising trajectory of social struggle in the United States that began at the beginning of 2011 may be continuing to ascend. While the United States has a much lower level of class struggle and social struggle than virtually any other industrial nation—few American workers are unionized (only 11.8%) and unionized workers engage in few strikes and those involve a very small numbers of workers—still, the economic crisis and the demand for austerity by both major political parties, Republican and Democrat, has led to increased economic and political activity and resistance by labor unions, particularly in the public sector.[1]

The crisis has also created an atmosphere in which political and verbal racist attacks on immigrants by rightwing politicians and racist organizations have increased, leading to increased mobilization in those communities. In this climate, the same sorts of rightwing groups also often scapegoat women or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Women have responded politically, mobilizing to defend women's reproductive rights in particular and the LGBT community has taken action to promote and defend equal marriage rights. Finally, the economic crisis has had its most significant impact upon the African American and Latino communities, both of which in addition to the longstanding patterns of racial segregation and discrimination continue to deal with the continuing effects of the crisis of 2008 that brought exceptionally high rates of unemployment. These conditions have led both Latinos and Blacks to respond with defensive and sometimes proactive mobilizations.

Almost all of the significant social mobilizations of 2012 have been by labor unions, ethnic minorities, the LGBT community and women, and by liberals and groups on the left, with few rightwing organizations having mobilized their memberships to engage in social protest. Unlike the period from 2009-10 when the rightwing Tea Party movement mobilized thousands of its supporters in opposition to President Barack Obama's health care reform bill, the right has not engaged in popular mobilizations in 2012. This may be because the Tea Party was focused on campaigns for its many candidates who ran successfully in the primaries but were then clobbered in the elections. Nevertheless, the Republicans still control the House of Representatives and many governorships and state legislatures, political power which they have used to promote a conservative agenda on the state level in particular.[2] In any case, virtually all social mobilization and social conflict has been by the traditional forces of the left defending various sectors of society from conservative legislation and governmental action.

The Legacy of the 2011 Upheavals

The large and militant struggles of 2011—the Wisconsin public employees' strikes accompanied by demonstrations of as many as 100,000 people, together with the occupation of the state capitol building in Madison by thousands, and then the Occupy Wall Street movement, which spread to hundreds of sites across the United States, and especially its two shut-downs of the Port of Oakland—had a powerful impact on the society. The Occupy movement in particular, which began in late 2011 but continued into 2012, affected the national discourse, raising questions not only about the financial bailout but also the enormous gap between rich and poor and the inordinate role of corporate money in politics. During 2011 and 2012, Occupy set tens of thousands in motion around the country, and though they did actually begin to challenge the economic and political system they, unfortunately, did not have the organization, focus, numbers or political clarity to carry through.

At the same time, there have been significant struggles in virtually every other sector of American society, particularly by African Americans and Latinos, but also by other social groups including environmentalists, immigrants, LGBT people, and women. An account of the major and characteristic social struggles of 2012 paints a fascinating picture of American society with its assets and liabilities and of the social movements with their own strengths and weaknesses. Some of the events are militant and angry responses to tragic events, while others are humorous protests that ridicule the bigotry and hypocrisy of those who in the name of Evangelical Christianity, Republican conservative values, or sometimes in the name of Democratic liberalism would deny workers' rights and lower their standard of living, or take away the rights of immigrants, women, gays and lesbians. Whether with raised fists on the strike picket lines, exchanging gay and lesbian kisses, or disguised as giant vaginas, Americans protested to defend their rights, their working conditions, and their standard of living, in some cases with concern for the well-being of the society as a whole.

While none of these social conflicts reached huge proportions, several were national in scope, attained significant renown, and achieved limited victories. In the United States, where there has never been a mass national labor party, where there has not been a significant socialist party since 1916, where there has never been a nationwide general strike, and where the left only achieved a significant presence in the 1930s and again in the 1960s-70s, labor union actions and social movement protests tend to appear as sporadic and isolated events around specific issues, rather than contributing to the building of a left wing movement. Or, as frequently happens, the Democratic Party succeeds in coopting labor and social movements and smothering them in its bosom.

That being said, what do the movements of 2012 tell us? The election of Barack Obama to a second term as president, the defeat of several Republican anti-labor initiatives, and the slight improvement in the economic situation in the United States suggest that there could be even more militant social struggle in 2013. The question is: Will working people and society's discontented feel that now is the time to act? Or will they prefer to leave it to Obama and the Democrats to do the job for them, as seemed to happen during his first term? It will be tragic if the latter road is taken: in the absence of a strong political and programmatic alternative, today’ s “ debate ” between mainstream Democrats and the Republicans over how much to cut entitlements will prove to be only an introduction to more radical and brutal austerity measures down the road.

What follows are descriptions of 10 social protests in the United States presented in chronological order. Of course, there many other important progressive social struggles in the United States in 2012, not all of which could be included here. These have been chosen not only for their size, but also for their broader social significance, and in order to represent the diversity of social protests and conflicts in America in 2012.

The Chicago Teachers Union Strike—October 2012

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike represented a response to the continuing attack on public employees, especially on teachers. Since the opening of the new millennium, conservative political groups had increased their propaganda, organizing, and legislative initiatives intended to break or weaken teachers unions, among the most well-organized of public sector workers. The assault began much earlier. Beginning in the 1980s, conservatives pushed for the creation of charter schools (publicly funded schools only loosely accountable to the public and often without union contracts) and vouchers (giving parents public funds to send their children to private schools, including religious schools). Starting in the 1990s, states passed charter school laws and in 2001 President George W. Bush promoted and the U.S. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Law, which established what is called standards-based educational reform using high-stakes standardized testing and test preparation to drive school policy.

Beginning in 2010, Education Secretary Arnie Duncan pushed for more charter schools and the use of standardized testing to evaluate teachers. The ideological assault on public education and teachers continued with the prize-winning and popular film "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which blamed teachers unions for the problems of public education. At the same time wealthy individuals, foundations, the money managers who invest in charter schools, and advocacy organizations such as Stand for Children also tended to blame teachers unions.[3] The CTU strike of 2012 pitted teachers against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff. But what made the strike so significant was that it was clearly directed as well against the corporate and political forces behind the attack on teachers.

In 2010 the Congress of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a caucus within the CTU, put forward Karen Lewis for president and a new executive board running on a program opposing privatization, demanding the restitution of art, music, and physical education classes and calling for improvements in teachers' wages and benefits as well as protection from layoffs. Lewis and CORE won the election, pressed their demands on the city in the 2012 contract negotiations, and when no agreement could be reached, the CTU's 29,000 teachers walked out. The CTU advocated not only for teachers’ demands, but also for wrap-around services for children, parents and the community, a model of social unionism. Teachers, with strikingly broad support from the community, parents and older students, struck from Sept. 10 to 18 when they finally reached an agreement with the city. While the CTU was only partially successful in winning its demands in the final contract, the union had stood up and fought back in the new period of crisis and austerity. In that sense, many saw the CTU strike as the first American labor union victory in a long time.[4]

Having looked at this most important event of the year, let us now turn to look chronologically at significant labor and social movements of 2012.

Occupy Wall Street—January-May, 2012

Occupy Wall Street, which began in New York in September 2011, spread quickly across the country as Occupy tent cities sprang from North to South and from coast to coast. Occupy represented the largest and most important radical social movement in the United States since the 1970s. It inspired tens of thousands to participate in protests demonstrations, marches, and most important in the occupation of public spaces. The Occupy movement joined labor demonstrations over wages and conditions, community protests over foreclosures and evictions, and organized its own protests against the banks. At least for the moment, Occupy changed the national discussion in the media from tax cuts and eliminating the federal deficit through drastic cuts to social spending to social inequality and the inordinate power of money in politics. Occupy 2011 and 2012 represented one of those few moments in American history when a social movement appears that implicitly challenged the system as a whole and suggested that another more just and more fair economic, social and political system was needed. Without a doubt, in many ways, Occupy represented the high point of recent social conflict in the United States.[5]

The most significant development was Occupy's interaction with the labor unions in New York City and particularly on the West Coast where Occupy's radicalism challenged the labor union bureaucracy with its two successful, partial shutdowns of the Port of Oakland. By November of 2011 cold weather was beginning to test the Occupy movement, and by January 2012 police repression had swept Occupy from most public spaces. Altogether there were 7,719 arrests in 122 cities in the United States between September 2011 and December 2012, one of the highest levels of repression in U.S. history.[6] Nevertheless, Occupy as a movement persevered in the larger cities engaging in May Day actions, though after that its vital signs faded and the movement became moribund, only to leap to life again in New York with Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. (See below.)