Troublemakers School a Hit with Chicago Activists

Jenn Johnson from the Chicago Teachers Union and James Thindwa from In These Times address a workshop on labor's political agenda in Chicago. Photo: CTU.

As employers and politicians slash budgets, squeeze workers, and target union rights, labor activists are searching for answers. Two hundred found some in the tactics, strategies, tools, and sources of inspiration shared at the Labor Notes Troublemakers School May 21 in Chicago.

Attendees came heavily from education and other public sector unions—Chicago Teachers Union, AFSCME, University of Illinois graduate employees—but Teamsters, Electrical Workers (IBEW), and worker centers such as Arise Chicago came as well.

The event opened with a “Lessons from Wisconsin” plenary, where Madison teachers union president Peggy Coyne pointed out that students actually ignited the Wisconsin movement.

High school students in Madison and elsewhere walked out en masse when they learned their teachers’ rights were under fire, while graduate teaching assistants from the University of Wisconsin launched the occupation inside the statehouse.

Madison building trades council leader Eric Cobb remarked on another lesson: the power of social media. When police tried locking the statehouse doors to cut off the occupation, he said, “Twitter had 3,000 people there in an hour to keep the doors open.”

Workshops ranged from “Contract Campaigns” to “Fighting Discipline and Dismissal” to “Advancing Labor’s Political Agenda in Chicago.”

Kimberly Bowsky, a middle-school language arts teacher, was among 38 Chicago Teachers Union members in attendance.

Typically, “school is one place you don’t make trouble,” she said, adding that she liked seeing unionists teaching each other. “Usually you learn organizing by just joining a group and doing it. Nobody teaches you.”

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John Yaou was among 16 members who came from an AFSCME local at Northeastern Illinois University. He co-hosted a workshop on “101 Ways to Energize Your Local,” in which his local shared its success in getting members involved.

“I really enjoyed watching people take notes in our workshop,” he said, “because it made me realize that we are having an impact on other unions.”

Delores Withers, president of the clerical/technical employees union at Chicago community colleges, brought 20 members. Her local is working with students and community members to challenge a privatization program that is “blowing holes in student services.”

The Troublemakers School ignited her members, Withers said: “It’s very hard to be in a battle when you’re alone, and it’s reenergizing to feel part of a wider fight.”

Withers bought a dozen copies of Labor Notes’ Troublemaker’s Handbook to take back. “We’re training as many members as we can in coalition building and organizing,” she added.

Labor Notes has two more Troublemakers Schools coming up—in Los Angeles on June 11 and in the San Francisco Bay Area June 18.

While emphasizing education and training, the schools also promote a sense of labor community.

Bowsky said the unabashedly pro-union talk by Labor Notes director Mark Brenner “really shook me out of my chair. It’s something that someone like me doesn’t hear a lot—a passion for all workers and our oneness.”