Every year, TIME Magazine, announces its person of the year. As we learned again last year when The Protester won, it doesn’t always have to be a person. Instead, it can be a movement of people that captivated this country in positive or negative ways depending upon how you view the movement. From the teacher strike of Chicago to the Michigan union violence, the labor movement has us talking much like the protest movement of 2011. We don’t all agree on whether unions are a positive or a negative influence, but it is now part of our daily conversation. This is why the 2012 TIME Person of the Year should be Labor.
The election dominated the year, but labor played a huge role in the electoral narrative. In February, word began to spread that the Unions were gearing up to spend big money on the election to the tune of more than $400 million. They weren’t just involved in the presidential election either. Continuing their fight in Wisconsin, they were deep in the efforts to recall Governor Scott Walker. Walker’s ability to withstand the recall election set the stage for more Republican governors to follow his example of limiting public sector unions. The implications of this could go beyond 2012, as Ezra Klein wrote.
Labor also found a way to be a part of the narrative for the Democratic National Convention. Unions are usually very pro-Democrat, and often will play a huge role at the convention. However, when the Democratic Party chose to host the convention in a state that is perhaps less labor-friendly than most, (North Carolina) the national labor organizations stayed on the sidelines. Despite this apparent rift, unions still put together serious get out to vote efforts in support of Obama, and pushed back against other anti-union legislation in other states.
It wasn’t all about the election though. When the teachers in Chicago walked out right as school was set to begin, once again we were talking about labor. As teachers fought against longer hours, a longer school year, and student performance evaluations, parents of the third-largest school district in the country were left trying to figure out what to do with their children. The eight day strike became a focal point for a national discussion on organized labor, and whether it's necessary. The strike even had a teacher in a non-union state like North Carolina, missing the days of collective bargaining for teachers she had in other states.
It wasn’t just about education either. We saw Walmart workers strike on Black Friday, despite the efforts of the company to stop them by filing complaints of their own. While that was happening, labor tensions also flared up in New York. At the end of November, fast food workers began to walk out to the picket lines to demand better wages, and an end to retaliation for organizing. Across the country a push for workers organizing for better wages, workplace environment, and health care has been taking shape. The work has been marred by the violence in Michigan, as that has given way to the “union thug” moniker, which has made its way back into the conversation.
Regardless of how you feel about unions and the labor movement, from the beginning to the end of the year they have been a part of the conversation. They found a way to be part of some of the biggest conversations of the year — the election, education, and Black Friday; and they will continue to play a role in the health care fight that continues. Just like the protesters of 2011, they have helped shaped who we are and who we are becoming, and that's why Labor should be the 2012 TIME Person of the Year.