Executive Director Reports

Making our voices heard: Why protests matter

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch


“If protesting solved problems, Illinois wouldn’t have any problems.”

That’s what Governor Rauner had to say in response to the 10,000 concerned citizens who journeyed to the state capital on May 18 to express their opposition to his so-called “Turnaround Agenda.”

The governor had already sped out of Springfield by the time thousands of protesters marched from the Old State Capitol to the “new” Capitol a half-mile away.

Clearly he wanted to convey that he had no interest in hearing their concerns, much less heeding them.

But, of course, he couldn’t really escape. As soon as he arrived at his downstate destination, reporters began grilling him about the overflow crowd that jammed the street (and every other available space) in front of the Capitol.

That’s when he professed his contempt for the value of protests—a view that demonstrates a shocking ignorance of the history of our nation. Weren’t the American colonists who challenged British rule in 1776 effectively “protesters”? When they marched down to Boston Harbor for that incendiary Tea Party, weren’t they engaged in one of our country’s pioneering protests?

Of course that action alone did not drive out the British. But it did inspire countless colonists to enlist in the battle for freedom and liberty—a battle that, in case our governor hasn’t noticed, was indeed won.

That’s the thing about protests. Seldom does one march, one rally or one sit-in bring about systemic change. But the accrual of such actions educates, inspires and conveys a sense of urgency. Each protest builds on the one before. And it is this growing intensity that demands attention and achieves action. Protests are potent messages delivered in human form that can shake the complacency of the powerful and lift the spirits of the disempowered.

The simple truth is that protests have been an essential element of every successful movement for social and political change.

We need only reflect on the civil rights movement and the vast transformation it has effected in our own lifetimes. Would change on that scale—the dismantling of an entire system of legal segregation and discrimination—have been possible without the moral authority and passionate conviction expressed in the innumerable actions of protest, from lunch-counter sit-ins in the smallest of towns to massive marches in our nation’s capital?

Or we can think back on how workers in our country gained the right to join together in unions to improve their lives. Standing against an entire corporate class bent on denying their right to form unions, millions of workers all across the country walked picket lines, went out on strike, and occupied factories until the day finally came that the corporate elite could resist no more.

Today we too often forget the workplace struggles and tumult that shook the entire country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but there is no denying that those multitudes of protests were essential to forging the rights workers have today. Every day we are the beneficiaries of those protests when we exercise our right to bargain a contract, file a grievance and demand fair treatment on the job.

Now we are in a battle to defend those rights here in Illinois. Thousands of AFSCME members and retirees—from state government, local governments, universities and nonprofit agencies—joined the throngs at the State Capitol on May 18. We came to protest Rauner’s refusal to bargain with state employees, his efforts to take away the basic bargaining rights of local government employees, and his budget blockade that is forcing program cuts and layoffs at state universities and human service agencies.

We came to stand in solidarity with workers injured on the job whose benefits Rauner wants to cut, with construction workers whose right to a “prevailing wage” he wants to take away, with home health aides whose overtime hours he wants to eliminate, and with students whose MAP grants he has on hold.

We came building on dozens of smaller protests that have been held at the Capitol in recent months—by university students, by the homeless, by child care providers, by disability advocates, by teachers, by victims of domestic violence, by clergy, and by the scores of others who are being harmed by the governor’s insistence that laws to take away workers’ rights must be passed before he will allow passage of a state budget.

We used our vacation time or took a day off with no pay. We got up at dawn to make the bus or packed our cars full of co-workers, or rode our motorcycles with union colors flying. We scrambled to find child care or brought our children along for a great lesson in civic engagement. We came with canes and walkers, even in wheelchairs. And many of us who couldn’t make it wore our union t-shirts in solidarity, followed it all on Facebook or Twitter, and joined in the cheering from afar.

Will that one day of protest—even such a mighty day—turn around Rauner’s turnaround game plan? Not very likely. But this much is certain: We sent a message of labor unity and determination and built a stronger fighting force for the battles to come.

So yes, Governor Rauner, protests do solve problems—that’s what history has shown time and again. That’s why we’ll keep standing up together in our worksites, in our communities and at the State Capitol until we have gained the fair treatment that all working people deserve.