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Occupy Wall Street and the US Labor Movement
Michael D. Yates & Farooque Chowdhury interview Steve Early, Jon Flanders, Stephanie Luce, & Jim Straub
The Occupy Wall Street uprising has taken the nation by storm, beginning in the Financial District in Manhattan and then spreading to cities and towns in every part of the country and around the world.
One especially important opening is the possible alliance between those who are organizing OWS efforts and the labor movement. Workers, simply as a function of their daily activities on the job, can do what no one else can—stop production and the flow of profits that are the lifeblood of capitalist economies. Nothing would shake the powers that be more than the threat of a militant, organized working class, ready to demonstrate, picket, strike, boycott, and agitate against every manner of corporate and political outrage, from unconscionable bank fees to unbearable student loans to the super-exploitation of immigrants, to wars to, well, you name it.
However, if the embrace of OWS by the labor movement is an exciting prospect, it is not without its problems.
In order to assess the connections between OWS and the labor movement, we conducted email interviews with four labor activists during the first two weeks of November 2011. Collectively, our interviewees have spent many decades agitating, organizing, negotiating, writing, and teaching on behalf of the working class. Steve Early worked as a New England-based organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America between 1980 and 2007. Jon Flanders is a railroad machinist, past president of his IAM local, co-chair of Railroad Workers United (a cross-craft caucus of railroaders), and Trustee of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Stephanie Luce is an Associate Professor at the Murphy Institute, City University of New York. She was a founding member of the Student Labor Action Coalition in Madison, Wisconsin, and active in the Teaching Assistants Association. Jim Straub has been active in the anti-war, global AIDS treatment, and labor movements for more than a decade. Since 2004 he has worked for the US union of healthcare, building service and public sector workers SEIU, in Ohio, Nevada, Los Angeles and Washington state. He lives in Tacoma, Washington
Workers can do what no one else can—stop production and the flow of profits that are the lifeblood of capitalist economies.
Chowdhury and Yates (hereafter C&Y): What are your impressions of the OWS Uprising?
Stephanie Luce: Occupy Wall Street is the moment we’ve been waiting for. It isn’t perfect and it is often messy, but it somehow has become the message and movement to unite hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of isolated individuals who have been suffering in the worsening economy and feeling alienated and demoralized.
In the past decade, labor and left leaders have been scrambling to find the thing that would catch on: national networks, new slogans, targeted campaigns. Some had limited success but nothing seemed to click. Why this?
One reason the OWS has flourished is precisely because it wasn’t coordinated and imposed from above. There was no consultant hired to “message” the movement, no mass-produced signs and t-shirts. Those who joined the initial occupation on September 17, and probably everyone who has participated since, have felt some ownership of this movement.
Jon Flanders: The occupation movement represents both a generational shift and a beginning of much broader class consciousness in the United States.
Generational, because, for the first time, a movement has emerged that is not led by boomers of the anti-Vietnam War era.
…for the first time, a movement has emerged that is not led by boomers of the anti-Vietnam War era.
Class-conscious, because the realization finally sank in for the young ones that things were not going to get better, that in fact they were dealing with a corrupt and rigged political system that had no place for them, except as indentured debt slaves. The initial awakening was in Wisconsin, now it has spread countrywide, and the class genie is out of the bottle.
C&Y: Do you think that the Chicago factory occupation (United Electrical Workers) and the Wisconsin uprising were important precursors of OWS? If so, how?
Steve Early: OWS is a very worthy successor to the Wisconsin uprising (and UE’s 2008 plant occupation) and will be long remembered even if it leaves no other historical footprints than its brilliant popular “framing” of the deepening class divide in this country.
Jim Straub: I do not think the Republic Windows occupation was a precursor. Honestly I think that event was significantly overhyped by leftists who projected their own fantasies onto what was essentially a very small, marginal struggle by a left-wing union that unfortunately has practically no members left.
…the class genie is out of the bottle.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, I think was a very remarkable mass uprising; I spent a month there working on the struggle for SEIU, and it was among the greatest experiences of my life. I think Wisconsin’s eruption may go down in history as being the decisive thing that helped stop the Republicans’ attempt to essentially abolish what remains of labor unions at this moment in America.
I think you could say this: the enthusiasm a large portion of the public has shown for both the Chicago Republic Windows action and the Wisconsin uprising is part and parcel of a sense of anger about wealth inequality and the erosion of the middle class that has been building for some time but which has not been addressed by anything in mainstream politics. That same growing sense of unease is, I think, behind the surprisingly high public support for OWS.
C&Y: Have rank-and-file union participants and supporters of OWS been active in OWS as visible union members or simply as concerned citizens? Is there a difference between leadership and rank-and-file support for OWS?
Stephanie Luce: In the early days of OWS, there were a number of union members who participated. They were not representing their unions, but a number of them identify strongly as labor activists. A few of those people were members of Transport Workers Union Local 100, and they were instrumental in getting their union to come out in support of OWS a week and a half into the occupation.
Jim Straub: The original New York City Wall Street occupation was planned by folks from the protest-oriented radical left, without early involvement from unions. However, social media videos of NYPD officers attacking the demonstrators gave it wider exposure, and when its message against wealth inequality and the finance industry got out there, it struck a chord with the public in general.
When this happened and the demonstration blew up, many of the more active unions got involved, to different degrees depending on the city and the union. For instance, in New York City and many other cities, the unions have mobilized thousands of members to big marches connected to the OWS; in a number of cities activists from unions have been integral parts of the organization of the actual occupation camps; and in many other places, the unions provide assistance by donating food and tents and tarps or otherwise. One thing I would note is that while the OWS message is resonating with average working people, the occupation camps and general assemblies are much more geared to subcultural youth and hardcore leftists. I suspect, for all labor’s involvement in the ways I described above, there have still been very few actual union members camping out and hanging out at the occupations.
…the occupation camps and general assemblies are much more geared to subcultural youth and hardcore leftists…
C&Y: What role has the leadership of organized labor been playing in the OWS uprising?
Steve Early: As reported in the New York Times on November 9, 2011, union leaders have been making regular visits to our new Lourdes—Zuccotti Park—and similar high-profile camping sites around the country. Earlier this year, they were jetting into Cairo-by-the Lake in Wisconsin (aka Madison) in a similar quest for an infusion of young blood and “new energy” out there. I’m personally a little skeptical about what miraculous transformations are likely to occur among the organizationally old, blind, and lame of American labor, as a result of either pilgrimage. RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum claims that “the Occupy movement has changed unions,” both in the area of membership mobilization and “messaging.” As for mainstream unions suddenly embracing greater direct action and militancy by their own rank and file, that kind of change usually comes from the bottom up, not the top down.
Jim Straub: Most active, progressive-oriented unions have supported the occupation protests to varying degrees, which I think reflects the leadership’s enthusiasm that finally someone has managed to put the issue of wealth inequality front and center in the public eye.
I think it would be difficult to generalize accurately about rank-and-file workers’ view of OWS. Many I am sure are simply unaware—the US public remains deeply depoliticized, without a present-day tradition of mass struggle or collective action improving standards of living. However, opinion polls have shown that roughly a majority of respondents in the United States today have a positive view of OWS and agree with some of the message. I would strongly suspect that that percentage goes way up among poorer people, urban people, people of color, women, and progressives. And the portion of union membership that is dynamic and growing is among those demographics.
So I think we can infer that, to the degree that union members are aware and interested, there is significant support for the OWS. I can tell you that in my own day-to-day work as a rep for a nursing home workers’ union, two times a member has brought the topic up to me unsolicited and talked about how great they think it is. One of those times, the worker’s views were that he was excited the unions were getting involved in Occupy Wall Street, so that “it didn’t just look like a bunch of hippies.” I think this was a very telling comment—in the United States, the public often sees left protest as being for countercultural types, rebellious college students going through a phase, etc, and when protesters seem, for whatever reason, to be culturally different from average working people, it plays into this stereotype and limits the ability of the protest to grow.
I’m…skeptical about what miraculous transformations are likely to occur among the organizationally old, blind, and lame of American labor…
C&Y: How can OWS and organized labor best interact? What about selective strikes and similar actions? Do you think that rank-and-file movements in unions could be strengthened by OWS? Can unions learn anything from the way OWS is structured?
Stephanie Luce: One of the amazing things about OWS in New York has been the degree to which organized labor has come on in support and been able to intersect some of its own organizing with that of OWS. There is a long way to go, but this level of interaction seems remarkable to me in this city where unions have been known to be insular and not good at working with others. Unions have already contributed support in a variety of ways: offering money, food, medical training, supplies, meeting space, storage space and publicity.
And OWS has participated in ongoing labor activities, from the campaign to get a contract at Verizon to supporting locked-out Teamsters at Sotheby’s. Public-sector unions have been fighting to extend the millionaire’s tax in New York, and on October 11, 2011, the 99 % and unions joined together for a march against the millionaires and billionaires.
The general assembly, consensus model has drawbacks. It can be used poorly in ways that allow a small minority to block consensus and control decisions. With large groups of people, it can be possible for small cliques to develop and function in non-transparent ways. But the same can be said for our other models of functioning—notably, traditional union structures.
…it would be difficult to generalize accurately about rank-and-file workers’ view of OWS.
Despite its weaknesses, the Occupy model can provide tremendous inspiration for rank-and-file unionists. It has worked so far, to allow “ordinary people” to feel they are participating in democratic decision-making for the first time in their lives. They have seen how it’s possible to develop an idea and run with it, working to organize with others to make their vision a reality. The horizontalist model is new for many union members, and will take some work to learn and develop, but is a tool that can strengthen movements.
OWS provides another important lesson for unions, which I think expands on the UE fight at Republic Windows and Doors and the fight-back in Wisconsin. The lesson is that we should not be afraid of “the public.” Unions have been spending millions of dollars on consultants, polls, and focus groups to craft a careful message that will play with the public. But the messages that come out of these tend to be ones that people have been hearing in the media and from politicians. They tend to be conservative, backward-looking messages, and not ones that push people to new ideas and greater possibilities.
Steve Early: Yes, the model of more democratic decision-making, direct action, civil disobedience is very helpful. It shows how collective activity can be organized differently from staff and full-time officials running everything—or trying to. The real challenge will be transferring the OWS approach to the traditional arena of union struggle.
I think one labor leader quoted in the New York Times really nailed that challenge well. Said Los Angeles Central Labor Council’s Elena Durazo:
The question is: can the labor movement or the Occupy movement move its message about inequality down to the workplace, where workers confront low wages, low benefits, and little power? Can we use it to organize workers where it really matters, in the workplace, to help their everyday life?
Jim Straub: I think the interaction has been pretty good. About strikes, we should remember that, given the extreme weakness of US unions, most unions can’t win a strike in defense of their own immediate needs, much less leverage their strike power to advance larger political goals. Given that unions now represent something like 12% of the workforce, and are having extreme trouble in a good portion of that 12%, I think it would be a silly and potentially disastrous miscalculation for us to try to use strikes to advance political goals. Strikes are inherently divisive both among members and the public in general, and give an opponent aid in tarnishing your reputation and even legal grounds to dissolve your formal collective bargaining status. Labor needs to rebuild to something like 25, 30% before it can start using mass strikes as a useful political weapon again.
In terms of unions learning from the OWS structure, I guess it depends on what you mean by OWS structure. If you mean the large group assemblies, using some version of modified consensus to make decisions and “mic check” and all that, I would say definitely not. I spent many years in such meetings when I was an activist in various left groups, and I can say from my experience it is the worst, most counterproductive form of decision-making or organization-building in the world.
Jon Flanders: Both OWS and labor need each other. OWS needs labor’s muscle; labor needs the creativity and energy of OWS youth. And, of course, mutual aid works; witness the labor mobilization that kept Mayor Bloomberg from shutting down OWS, and the aforementioned solidarity actions by OWS with locked-out Teamsters.
The horizontalist model is new for many union members…
I think a real test in New York City will come around a possible transit strike. The president of TWU 100 has said they will make no concessions if New York does not re-instate the millionaire’s tax. Cuomo will not back down on this, so some kind of confrontation seems inevitable. Here we will have the confluence of a workers’ struggle very much tied to the OWS agenda vis-à-vis Wall Street. We can only imagine the scenes that might unfold in NYC if the subways and buses stop running and people are forced to walk to work. There will be plenty of chances for workers and OWS activists to interact and work on targets of opportunity.
C&Y: Given labor’s ties to the Democratic Party, are there reasons for OWS to be distrustful of organized labor’s support for OWS?
…consensus…is the worst, most counterproductive form of decision-making or organization-building in the world.
Steve Early: In his 1974 memoir and union history, Jim Matles, a founder of the UE, reminded readers that labor struggles are about “them and us”—or, as OWS puts it, “the 1 %” vs. the “99 %.” Unfortunately, most other unions have long relied on high-priced Democratic Party consultants, their focus groups and opinion polling, to shape labor’s public messaging in much less effective fashion. The results of this collaboration have been unhelpful, to say the least. Organizations that are supposed to be the voice of the working-class majority have instead positioned themselves—narrowly and confusedly—as defenders of America’s “middle class,” an always fuzzy construct now being rendered even less meaningful by the recession-driven downward mobility of millions of people.
So now, even some union officials are racing to catch up with a grassroots movement that has provided a far more favorable public opinion context for waging key contract fights like the ongoing CWA-IBEW battle with Verizon.
Jim Straub: Ha-ha, I think the unions would love to have as close ties to the Democratic Party as most leftists allege. They no longer have much juice at all with the Dems. I look at it this way: in the United States, we have a center party and a far-right party. Attempts to start other parties have met with roughly zero success, and our political structure makes smaller parties fairly useless. So, because the far-right party will absolutely attempt to wipe them out of existence (as in Wisconsin and Ohio last year, for instance), labor goes to great efforts to try to make sure the center party beats the far-right one. Is the center party also part of our problem? Certainly. After all, some of what has been so popular about OWS is it is attacking finance, which the Dems cannot do because they are, if anything, more owned by the financial sector than the Republicans. But, at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone has a good plan for how to deal with the problems our political system poses for the left and for unions.
One thing I would point out, though, is that from polls that have been done of the attendees at Occupy protests, we have learned that a large portion are left-leaning Democratic voters who are unhappy with their party and who say they want OWS to pull the Dems to the left just like the Tea Party has pulled the Republicans further right. I think that would be a good goal.
C&Y: How do you see OWS unfolding? Can OWS continue to expand without the active involvement of organized labor?
Stephanie Luce: OWS continues to surprise and amaze me, making it hard to predict where it is going. Every day it seems possible that the movement will die, given police brutality and political crackdowns. There are infiltrators and provocateurs, and serious debates about direction and strategy. There are internal problems related to living in tight quarters and having to learn how to self-govern in communities of strangers. The cold weather is brutal.
Yet the movement keeps going and expanding! In many cities, the occupations have begun to intersect with already existing organizations and activism, such as fights against foreclosures and tuition hikes. Even if the occupation camps themselves dwindle, it is hard to believe there is any going backwards from here.
The labor movement will not be able to revitalize itself by co-opting OWS. It will only benefit if it remains flexible and open, allowing the energy of Occupy to pull the labor movement to the left, to more radical demands and more militant tactics. Occupy must serve as a home base to unite seemingly disparate struggles, providing a larger narrative and maintaining a more revolutionary vision of how to do politics and how to rebuild the world. We’ve been failing in our struggles in part because we’ve been atomized, leading unions to believe that they can focus energy on a contract fight to “save the middle class” while ignoring the growing poverty among their unemployed neighbors. Unions believe they can change the world by turning out voters to elect labor-endorsed candidates who then build more prisons and allow more deportations.
The labor movement will not be able to revitalize itself by coopting OWS.
Jon Flanders: Occupations will have to reach out to workers if they want to become truly powerful. Right now, they are attracting some young workers and getting them excited about direct democracy, something that is sorely missing in most unions. Workers who are not hanging out with occupations will need to see concrete acts of solidarity coming their way, as the Teamsters at Sotheby’s in New York City have done.
Jim Straub: I don’t know that OWS needs to continue expanding. It was a protest wave that succeeded far beyond anyone’s hopes and has shown us that there is a hunger out there in America for somebody to stick it to the banks. But at some point camping out in these particular places will outlive its usefulness as a visibility tactic. I don’t know what will be the next big protest wave, but I know we will need one to resist the coming demands for austerity and cutbacks. Is it important that whatever happens next be called “occupy so and so” and include campouts and such? Maybe, but also maybe something else.
We on the left have a weakness for getting stuck on something if it seems to work once.
We on the left have a weakness for getting stuck on something if it seems to work once. For instance, after the anti-corporate protests against the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999, the entire US left threw all its energy into attempting to shut down other meetings of trade bodies for the next five years, with a declining rate of success and relevance.
The pattern of the protest-based left in the United States seems to be that, every few years, the left is part of an eruption of protest around an issue that captivates a large portion of the country in a dramatic way and then recedes without having left behind any ongoing organization. The anti-corporate globalization protests of ’99–01, the antiwar protests of ’04, the immigrant protests of ’06, Wisconsin and OWS in ’12. Who knows what the next one will be, but I bet it will erupt in two to four years.
Regardless, my own opinion is that we need to rebuild the ongoing, day-to-day institutions of a mass left, like the labor movement. So I spend a lot more of my political energy trying to help grow the power of the union for which I work than going to protests anymore. But it was been a wonderful thing, in Wisconsin and then during the Occupy thing, going to some great inspiring protests again. I hope these upsurges come more often and with more intensity.
Farooque Chowdhury, associated with Bangla Monthly Review, is editor of Micro Credit: Myth Manufactured. Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review and Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. He is the author of Why Unions Matter, 2nd Edition (2009) and editor of Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (forthcoming), both published by Monthly Review Press. His blog is at http://blog.cheapmotelsandahotplate.org.
This article originally appeared at http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/cy151111.html
[22 aug 12]