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Labor and Occupy Wall Street: An Appraisal of the First Six Months

The Occupy movement is a labor movement, in the broadest sense. Inequality and the relationship of wealth to power are among its key concerns.The direct actions and democratic practices of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and the hundreds of Occupations that have grown in its wake, confront the prerogatives of those who amass wealth, land, and influence. At the heart of the occupations and general assemblies lie questions of democracy and power—concerns that have been central to workers’ struggles for generations.

But in 2012, few would claim that the labor movement is an Occupy movement. Labor’s radical traditions have receded, if not disappeared. On rare occasions we see the boldness, direct action, and vision reminiscent of nineteenth and early-twentieth century workers’ struggles—the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, the takeover of the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison—but such moments are notable as exceptions. Today’s labor movement, by and large, is bureaucratic, risk-averse, and far from militant. Diminished numbers and power have engendered diminished aims that are captured in “safe” messaging, such as “we are only asking for the right to bargain” or “we are just trying to save the middle class.”

Yet while unions have taken a beating, with almost fifteen million members they remain the largest organizations of the working class. Unions have been fighting the 1 percent for more than 150 years and have learned much along the way.

Our purpose here is to lay out the overlapping spheres of these movements, tracing their common concerns, and to make conjectures—wish lists—about how they might most fruitfully work together. Occupy and labor have much to learn from each other’s pasts and present.

Labor and Occupy Wall Street: The First Few Months

While there was no formal union involvement in the planning of the initial Wall Street occupation that started on September 17, 2011, labor and OWS were connected from the beginning. In the spring of 2011, labor and community activists in New York pulled off a vibrant and visible week of protest against Wall Street. This group—the May 12th Coalition—conducted training sessions on civil disobedience and disruptive activity, as well as teach-ins on the contributions made by banks and Wall Street to our current economic woes. Organizers specifically made space for newer and younger activists to assume leadership roles in the “stick and move” protests that took place around the city that week. In June, a number of those activists then launched Bloombergville, an encampment in New York’s City Hall Park, which was in some ways a direct precursor to OWS.

When OWS was launched, many of these activists were involved from the start or came around quickly. In its first days, members of the City University of New York’s Professional Staff Congress (American Federation of Teachers, Local 2234) went to Zuccotti Park in support of OWS and, shortly thereafter, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 Executive Board announced its formal support as well.

Within weeks, a number of New York City unions endorsed OWS and gave material support, donating money, food, staff, time, and meeting space. In addition to official endorsements, support came from union rank-and-filers, who joined the protests on their own time, as well as from union staffers. TWU Local 100 filed for an injunction to prevent the city’s use of TWU bus drivers to transport arrested protesters to jail, and SEIU 1199 offered the occupiers food and medical training. Nationally, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions all spoke out in favor of the movement. When it first looked like Mayor Bloomberg would evict the OWS protesters from Zuccotti Park, labor made a widespread call for its members to come to the park at 6 a.m. to defend them. The two biggest OWS-related protests in New York during the fall of 2011—the one on November 17th turned out more than thirty-five thousand people in Manhattan’s Foley Square—came with labor’s support. One of the first working groups to form at OWS was the Labor Outreach Working Group, which mobilized protesters to support local labor campaigns, including those on behalf of locked-out Teamsters, Verizon workers, postal workers, and building service workers. Labor working groups also formed in other cities. The D.C. Labor Council and the Maryland State AFL-CIO voted to treat Occupy camps like a picket line, pledging to support any worker that refused to break up the camps. National Nurses United members  were arrested in Chicago in defiance of a police order to evacuate their camp. On the West Coast, Occupy and labor activists shut down several vital ports. But these events also gave rise to tensions and challenges that these two movements face as they try to work together.

When clashes have occurred, Occupy activists have typically found labor’s positions or actions too conservative or demobilizing, while labor has questioned Occupy’s tactics, decision-making, and adventurism. For example, Oakland (California) Occupiers voted overwhelmingly to call for a general strike on November 2, 2011. Skeptics felt there wasn’t enough time to organize it. They argued that although that general assembly vote was large—about fifteen hundred people—it was small relative to the city’s workforce numbers. But a few unions, including the Oakland Education Association and Carpenters Local 713, endorsed the strike, even encouraging their members to take personal leave for the day. Others, such as SEIU 1021, said that while they did not endorse the strike, members were encouraged to use “legitimate leave” to participate in a “peaceful day of action.” The Oakland Central Labor Council planned a large mobilization at 5 p.m. and encouraged union members to participate in other events during the day, including a protest against Wells Fargo. Ultimately, it was not a “general strike” in classic terms, but it was successful as a very large protest.

Since then, there has been more activity and increased tension between Occupy and the ILWU on the West Coast. Occupy called for a West Coast port shutdown in December 2011, initially in support of independent contractor truck drivers organizing in Los Angeles. But the call was opposed by the union’s leadership, who felt that it was not up to outsiders to make a decision affecting the ILWU. Still, the shutdown was relatively successful in Oakland and Portland, though less so at other ports. Many credit Occupy with helping the ILWU eventually win its contract battle with EGT in Longview, Washington.

As of this writing, it is clear that labor and Occupy are essential allies, but their institutional forms, constraints, tactical styles, and substantive demands can (at times) lead to fractious relations. Our following suggestions are aimed at grasping what we see as the strength of each group, and areas in which each movement—in learning from the other—can not only get stronger but closer to the other.

What Can Labor Learn from Occupy?

“We are the 99%!” is powerful, uniting, and bold—and it points to central limitations of the extant organized labor movement, including how labor frames its struggles and which struggles it chooses to engage in. With a shrinking membership base and less leverage, unions have adopted a “siege” mentality. They too frequently fight to defend “their own” in narrow terms and in narrow ways. The Occupy movement can teach more unions to articulate their vision and goals so they reach beyond members’ concerns and embrace problems facing workers more generally. Labor should consistently work more equally with community partners, invest its resources in organizing both the unorganized and the unemployed, and more thoroughly engage student and community issues as labor’s own. This is already happening in some places, with campaigns for living wages, coalitions of workers and riders for better transportation, and parent-teacher-student alliances. But unions frequently place coalition goals behind their more narrow, contract-defined objectives, and have a reputation for “selling out” alliances (including among each other) when their own demands are met. Especially in this time of movement growth, unions should hold out for broader demands. This means bracing themselves for more uncertainty—and even possible setbacks—but building deeper relationships with broader working-class communities.

Occupy’s success at getting the attention of politicians highlights the broader tension between direct action and electoral work. This year, unions will dedicate much of their staff and resources to the 2012 elections. But labor has won little in the electoral arena. And while it could be argued that worse defeats have been staved off, allocating such extraordinary resources toward elections has come at the cost of not directly engaging union members in social change campaigns. The direct action of Occupy—through the encampments but also through targeted protests against banks, at foreclosed homes, and on picket lines—provides a model that reminds labor of its more militant past and the power of such action in the present.

Unions face a host of constraints inhibiting direct action, from lawsuits to the possibility of arrests for public sector workers who strike. Union leaders want to protect their institutions and treasuries, and they feel they must preserve the relationships they spent years building with employers and politicians. These are real concerns. But unions have smart organizers and strategists who know that there are ways to work within and around legal obstacles. There will be risks but we believe there is no choice. Labor cannot win without an outside strategy. If we don’t take risks now, when will we?

In both the public and private sectors, we think unions should put at least half of the money and staff time spent on elections into supporting Occupy groups or Occupy-related activities (such as organizing for progressive taxes and student-debt relief, against foreclosures, and on behalf of innovative contract fight tactics such as uniting health care workers and patients to fight hospital closures) among their own members. In fact, unions would likely have more success electing Democrats with this strategy, while doing much more to build a long-term movement. Before Occupy this might not have seemed possible, but post-Occupy we can imagine unions organizing internally on a mass scale, building the kind of member -to- member mobilization networks created by the Teamsters to launch the nationwide 1997 UPS strike. With such networks in place, it is possible to imagine going further, with unions coordinating work actions, strikes, and contract campaigns to coincide with Occupy and other allies’ protests against corporations, banks, and the politicians who support them.

Occupy-style tools are also an end in themselves: the decision-making processes teach us skills of democratic self-governance; running Occupy camps helps us experiment with new ways to structure our daily lives collectively. So many of those who visited an Occupy camp or attended a general assembly meeting or ate an Occupy-provided meal were moved by the democratic nature of the Occupy movement. Of course, not everyone agrees that Occupy is as democratic as it appears, as the consensus process allows small numbers of people to block the wishes of the majority, and the lack of formal leaders can allow an informal leadership to develop with more, rather than less, power. Still, the public meetings and open process let some people feel like they got to be heard for the first time in their lives. Many who marched in the streets without a permit or police barricades felt transformed. Drawing  lessons from the horizontalism of occupations, unions should work to break down aspects of their vertical structures that alienate the rank and file. How are meetings conducted? Are websites and other media used for discussion and debate? And what kinds of social ties are our unions working to foster? Occupy camps created communities that provided food, child care, comfort, sanitation, and culture. Some unions once created similar spaces—summer camps, cooperative housing, schools, social halls, educational programs—but, for the most part, such cultural communities have been lost. Occupy makes it possible to imagine their rebirth

What Can Occupy Learn from Labor?

Occupy did in a few weeks what many in the labor movement have spent years (and tens of millions of dollars) trying to do—it created a message that captured the imagination and spread quickly. Occupy was unusual in that it quickly appealed to many people, but that only went so far. The numbers of people participating in Occupy activities are still relatively small and relatively homogenous. The Occupy core—overwhelmingly white, heavily represented by middle-class students and college graduates—itself does not reflect the diversity of the labor movement. The Occupy movement can’t sit back and wait for people to show up—it can learn from labor how to organize more broadly amongst the working class. Union organizers do house calls, going door to door to talk to people about their work or key issues. Union researchers study industries, looking for points of leverage, and map out workplaces, reaching out to potential members one by one, ideally developing leaders. Occupy organizers and working groups can learn a lot from their union counterparts and adopt similar strategies to expand their movement, reaching out to a much greater share of the 99 percent. This has already begun to some degree in New York where some activists are working to build neighborhood assemblies in the outer boroughs.

Unions can also help sharpen Occupy’s strategy by raising the questions of power and targets. Currently, there is ambiguity within the Occupy movement about its goals, as it has attracted people from across a broad political spectrum. Some focus on building camps to prefigure alternative societies; others prioritize getting money out of politics and building a more responsive government. But we believe that in order for Occupy to grow more powerful and relevant, and lead to fundamental change, it must expand the fight for democracy to the place where many people spend the majority
of their time and where wealth is produced—at work. If we are serious about attacking the inequality of wealth, and the power that comes with it, we need to address what goes on in the workplace. The historic challenge of the moment is for the freedom and democracy of the camps to penetrate the more formidable domain of the workplace. We must organize where we have the power to affect the 1 percent, which is inside the corporations and institutions where we spend most of our time, providing  them with much of their riches and leverage. Ideally, we should struggle for democratic
control over how our work is done, and what it is done for.

Cooperatives have been one form seized on by contemporary activists to confront private property and the usual rights it entails. But strong unions offer another path leading directly to the heart of the matter. The Occupy movement looks more like the labor movement of one hundred years ago, when many activists were building unions as stepping stones to a new and better society. Unionists argued then that they should organize in the workplace, not just to get a better wage but to fundamentally reorganize the capitalist economy. This, the call for economic democracy, is a bold demand—one that people have given their lives fighting for. It can sound idealistic or simplistic to suggest we return to these historic goals that have proved so illusive for so many. Yet Occupy has dreamt big from the start.

Moving Forward

Actions that are, as we write, being planned for May Day 2012 may serve as an opportunity to work through tensions and negotiate common ground. A few Occupy groups put out an early call for a general strike, leaving others to figure out a way to balance a desire for greater activity on the part of many activists, and a note of caution from a labor movement that realizes the serious limitations on unionized workers’ right to strike. In New York City, both sides have compromised to find a way to be inclusive, allowing for a diverse and creative approach to this upcoming May Day. It may be that, in the modern era, we need to change the way we think about “general strikes” that allow for actions inside and outside of the workplace, in schools and in communities. We end by considering the reach of both the Occupy and labor movements. May Day is the world’s Labor Day. Occupy is a global movement. The fight for real political and economic democracy can only be waged as an international fight. Labor and Occupy can (together) learn about workplace occupation from workers in Argentina; or how to sustain protest through an electoral cycle from the indignados of Spain. They can learn persistence from the Egyptians who continue their fight. These struggles around the world share some common themes: challenging the neoliberal policies of global institutions and national governments; attempting to expand democracy; fighting the 1 percent that indirectly influences domestic policies through political influence and threats of capital flight. But we must go beyond learning from others’ examples, and continue to build real links between our struggles and against common targets. Only through global solidarity is another world possible.

New Labor Forum 21(2): 43-49, Spring 2012
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/12 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.212.0000007

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