Occupy & Labor

The park had been the home base of the burgeoning protest movement, Occupy Wall Street, for two months. But in the pre-dawn hours of November 16, it is eerily empty and clean.

A 15-minute walk away, evicted, bleary-eyed protesters clutch pillows, laptops, cigarettes, blankets, medical supplies—anything they could snag before New York City’s police force and sanitation workers efficiently slashed, crushed, and scrubbed Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park of any evidence of human habitation. 

“What’s our next move?” is the question that keeps coming up at Foley Square, where the ousted protesters have gathered. For all the options on the table—go back to Zuccotti, occupy the nearby courthouse, organize a march—one move had to come first: get in touch with the unions.

All over the city, when phones began ringing as the word went out to union leaders, the unions moved quickly. Just after 2:00 PM, a pack of people clad in light coats with union patches on the sleeves cluster around the impromptu speakers’ pulpit. A light rain falls on the crowd and the two-deep row of news cameras record the succession of union leaders and pro-union politicians.“Union leaders, the overwhelming majority, support Occupy Wall Street,” Steve Kramer, executive vice president of SEIU 1199, tells the crowd. “We will not be moved, we will not be turned around. Occupy Wall Street will remain and Occupy Wall Street will grow with working people and unions throughout the country.”

As the press conference breaks up, a sudden cheer rises. Jackie DiSalvo, sitting across the park, perks up. A 68-year-old retired professor, DiSalvo is an unlikely early founder of Occupy Wall Street’s Labor Outreach Committee working group, the group responsible for reaching out to unions to gather support for Occupy Wall Street since the movement’s inception. Union members are cheering the news relayed from the nearby courthouse. A group of protesters arrested a month earlier have just been cleared of all charges.

From the start, DiSalvo says she was “shocked” by the union support of Occupy Wall Street. In her five decades of activism, she has never seen such strong union backing of a populist protest movement: “The whole labor movement is changing and that’s because it’s under attack and they have to fight back.” Indeed, not since the 1930s has the labor movement been this aligned with populist protest movements, according to historians. In the last 20 years, the interests of the two sides have grown together due to the combination of increasing income inequality in the United States and a steady decline in union power nationwide. Unions have harnessed the populist energy behind Occupy Wall Street. The protesters have also benefited, as unions have provided resources, structure, and humanpower.

But there could be friction ahead. The consensus principles at the heart of Occupy Wall Street inherently clash with the top-down unions. With both the labor movement and the protest movement on the cusp of big changes in the coming months, the two sides will be forced to confront these contradictions head on.

The Evolving Relationship

Two months after the eviction, a steady stream of people filter in throughout the meeting. Every Friday night, dozens of people from both Occupy Wall Street and the labor movement find their way to the end of the drab hallway and down a wide staircase leading below street level. “Oh, god, our meetings are crammed,” DiSalvo says, as she flips through a rain-soaked notebook stuffed with her slanting handwriting. “Our agendas are crammed.”

This is a meeting of Occupy Wall Street’s Labor Outreach Committee—6:00 PM every Friday at the District Council 37 offices, New York City’s largest public employee union. As the protest’s visibility increased, the meetings grew. There were maybe 10 people at the first meeting; now there are more than 60 on occasion, DiSalvo says. The committee is flooded with more requests for Occupy support than it can handle.

Tonight’s big news concerns ongoing labor disputes. On some disputes, the committee is working with the union to plan rallies. Others are just being observed from afar. For a select few, the committee is reporting back on direct actions they have planned on behalf of a union without that union’s knowledge.

It is these direct actions—the use of public forms of protest to achieve one’s demands—that got the union’s attention. Jason Ide, president of Teamsters 814, heard about a YouTube video he needed to see. Teamsters 814 represents the art handlers at Sotheby’s, the upscale auction house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Sotheby’s had locked out their art handlers during a contract dispute.

In the video, a small group of young men walk in to the Union Square Cafe owned by Danny Meyer, restaurateur and Sotheby’s board member. One man clinks a glass to gets people’s attention, as if calling for a toast. Instead, diners hear, “I have a message from the people of Occupy Wall Street. We’re here tonight to let you know about the practices of Danny Meyer, who owns this restaurant and sits on the board at Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s is a union buster and we will not stand for that. We came here to make sure that Danny Meyer is uncomfortable and anyone who supports him is uncomfortable.”

“Amazing,” Ide calls the video at an October 18 protest outside Sotheby’s. And unexpected. He had only seen it four days before the rally, which included both Teamsters and occupiers holding a variety of signs—“Stop the War on Workers,” “Solidarity 814.” Wearing a dark suit and yellow scarf, Ide stands next to a 15-foot-tall inflatable “corporate fat cat,” a giant besuited feline with a pocket watch, cigar in hand, and an evil grin.

Kevin Mahon, a decades-long member of Teamsters 814, and Tony Olivier, a man who traveled from Louisiana to spend a week occupying Zuccotti Park, scream in unison, “Shame, Shame!” whenever a well-dressed auction attendee leaves the front entrance with a security escort.

Ide admits he isn’t sure how Occupy Wall Street and the Teamsters are communicating: “If I wanted to pick up the phone today and call Occupy Wall Street, I don’t know who I’m calling.” But he believes the two groups jive intellectually. Many members of Teamsters 814 have been visiting the park regularly, he says. Ide notes what Occupy Wall Street realized from the start: “The institutional voice of working people in America is organized labor. So even though our density is low, historically low, we’re still that voice. Occupy Wall Street has managed to push that message in a way that appeals to a very broad swath of Americans. And we in organized labor haven’t been able to do that.”

When DiSalvo and others were planning the original occupation of Zuccotti Park, they knew that unions had the resources to get the message out. “We felt we needed to support labor and that was a principled position, not just a tactic to get support for Occupy Wall Street,” says DiSalvo, who is a member of Professional Staff Congress, the union representing education professionals at the City University of New York. “That’s really who we saw representing the 99 percent against the 1 percent. But I had no idea that unions would respond the way they did, with the level of enthusiasm.” DiSalvo is a partially retired associate professor in the English Department at Baruch College, a constituent college of the City University of New York. A self-described Marxist-Feminist, DiSalvo has spent five decades bridging the gap between protest movements and labor movements, which have largely run on different paths since the 1960s.

But she and others who planned and executed the beginning of Occupy Wall Street drew inspiration from a union-led occupation of the Wisconsin state house. For nearly two weeks—from February 20 to March 3, 2011—thousands of pro-union protesters lived full-time within the state house. Outside, tens of thousands protested in support each day. “That really paved the way for unions supporting us,” she says of the occupation (which ended peacefully when a judge ordered the protesters’ removal). “The unions had already had an occupation.”

That tent city spurred the activist group New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts to start Bloombergville, a tent city outside City Hall during the first three weeks of last July. Bloombergville brought together student activists and community leaders to protest the deep budget cuts and layoffs New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was trying to push through in the new budget.

Although the city passed the budget on June 29, New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts began holding what they called a “People’s General Assembly.” They wanted to take their occupation to Wall Street next. On July 13, the Canadian, anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters put out a similar call for a Wall Street occupation. The New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts answered the call and scheduled an August 2 “general assembly” to plan the occupation.

This was the genesis of Occupy Wall Street. Led by David Graeber—anthropologist, anarchist, and professor at Goldsmiths, University of London—and several of his ideological companions, the August 2 meeting transformed from a traditional rally into a general assembly. It is now what Occupy Wall Street is largely known for: a controlled, all-inclusive group discussion in which decisions are made only by consensus. Unsolved issues are moved to smaller “working groups” that were previously set up by general assembly consensus. Weekly general assemblies and a constant stream of working group meetings filled the next six weeks. On September 17, roughly 2,000 people flooded into Zuccotti Park. Some of them did not leave until the city forced them out eight weeks later.

DiSalvo helped found the Labor Outreach Committee, one of the initial working groups established prior to the Zuccotti occupation. She worked her contacts within unions she thought might be friendly to the cause. The transit workers at TWU Local 100 were the first to officially endorse the movement, although DiSalvo’s own union, PSC, was the first to support it with members at a rally. Within weeks, dozens of unions were fully behind Occupy. “After a while it got around,” DiSalvo says. “I didn’t even have to contact them, they called meetings with their executive committee and let me know.”

Then union support went nationwide. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, over 800 members of the AFL-CIO met for the organization’s second annual Next Up Young Worker Summit. All were in their 20s. Twenty-five-year-old Mary Clinton stressed the importance of getting young union members behind the protest movement. She pushed for an official statement of support, which was produced on the summit’s final day. It read, “We are one,” with Occupy Wall Street.

The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions in the U.S. Of the 14.7 million members in the States, 12.2 million are part of the 57 unions that comprise the AFL-CIO. Three days later, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka released a statement, putting the force and resources of those members behind Occupy Wall Street. “We will open our union halls and community centers as well as our arms and our hearts to those with the courage to stand up and demand a better America,” the statement read. 

In return, over the first few months of Occupy Wall Street, several union contract disputes received significantly more attention than they might have otherwise as a result of Occupy backing. The property services workers union, 32BJ SEIU, settled their contract without the concessions asked for by employers.

The New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) also settled a contract while the Labor Outreach Committee was looking into possible protest actions if NYSNA decided to strike. Occupy Wall Street also regularly sent dozens of protesters to support the Communications Workers of America protests of their workers’ contract with Verizon. “I think a lot of (contracts were settled) from the threat and general atmosphere that Occupy created,” says Amy Muldoon, a Verizon employee and active member of the Labor Outreach Committee. “It has created an atmosphere that has benefited labor.”

The Converging History

In the 1930s, the biggest growth era for unions, the labor movement resembled an economic populist movement similar to Occupy Wall Street. The labor movement pressed President Franklin Roosevelt throughout the decade for left-leaning economic policies benefiting the middle class. “But that relationship with Roosevelt drew them into a set of relationships that ultimately made them unable to maintain their independence and radicalism,” says Gary Gerstle, a professor of American History at Vanderbilt University and an expert on social movements and class dynamics in America.

By the 1960s and 1970s, labor had become part of the “ruling establishment and was comfortable with the arrangement it had with American business,” Gerstle says. The unions grew apart from the swell of youthful protests against the Richard Nixon administration and the Vietnam War. Officially, the AFL-CIO supported the Vietnam War, holding a series of pro-war marches throughout the 1970s. In New York City, the two sides came to blows on May 8, 1970, during an anti-war protest on Wall Street and the May 4 incident at Kent State University’s campus where the Ohio National Guard shot 13 protesting students, killing 4. Roughly 200 unionized, pro-war, counter-protesters rallied against the 1,000 student protesters on Wall Street. The demonstration erupted in violence, setting off a brawl during which 70 people were injured.

The event was dubbed the Hard Hat Riots, after the construction hats worn by many of the union members at the rally. The yellow hard hat quickly became a symbol of the labor movement and was used by the media as a metaphor for the growing schism over politics and cultural values, according to a 1997 article, “Manufacturing Dissent: Labor Revitalization, Union Summer and Student Protest,” in the social research academic journal, Social Forces.

“The AFL-CIO was conservative culturally and backward on the women’s movement” DiSalvo says. In the 1972 election, after significant efforts by the Nixon administration, the AFL-CIO agreed to remain neutral instead of fundraising for the democratic candidate as it had historically done. The progressive left had been “split wide open,” as Gerstle put it.

American progressives started to tune out the unions’ message and union growth declined. Between 1969 and 2010, unionized workers dropped from over a quarter of the workforce to 11.9 percent. In the process, unions got older. Between 1983 and 2010, the average age of union members went from 38 to 45, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The percentage of union members aged 16-to-34 dropped from 40 to 25 over the same span.

Today, it is these non-union, young, and downwardly mobile people that make up the bulk of the occupiers. “They wish they had unions,” DiSalvo says. But for this generation, joining a union is no longer seen as the silver bullet to upward mobility. “There’s a certain population that has the sense that unions are just out for themselves and not for the general welfare,” says Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown and author of Populist Persuasion, which chronicles the history of populist movements in the United States.

Union leaders are honest about their struggle to counter the increasing income inequality. Decades of talk about the issues facing middle-class workers’ rights have increasingly fallen on deaf ears. But Kazin calls unions the “one institution essential” to any large-scale economic populist movement in the country’s history. And Occupy Wall Street is an economic populist movement that, despite the anarchist principles at its core, hearkens back to the beginning of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. Back then, the two sides worked hand-in-hand. Today, the growth of the income gap has pushed the two together again.

The Unified March

It’s 36 hours after the occupiers were booted from Zuccotti Park and 24 hours after the impromptu union press conference at Foley Square. People shift anxiously, crammed together in Foley Square. An estimated 10,000 protesters wait for instructions at a November 17 march to celebrate the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and protest the recent eviction. 

In the sea of people are the telltale signs of union members: the purple and yellow Service Workers T-shirts, the blue Communications Workers signs and the black and red Transit Workers paraphernalia. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters. The massive group trudges off toward the Brooklyn Bridge, funneling through the police in riot gear lining the way. The group shuffles and  chants in unison. “Who took the money? Wall Street. And who’s gonna pay? Wall Street.” Projected on the brick facade of a nearby building are alternating messages: “We are the 99%” and “Look around, you are part of a global uprising” and a list of all the cities with occupy movements.

At the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, top New York City union leaders sit, their arms linked with protesters, staging a sit-in. The police methodically arrest most of the symbolic 99 sit-in protesters. High-ranking Service Workers union officials are taken away wearing white shirts reading “99%.” In total, the police reported over 240 protester arrests throughout the day; 40 were labor leaders, according to union officials.

“I think it absolutely is a new framework (for unions) and I think it’s quite powerful,” says Mario Dartayet-Rodriguez, a union organizer for DC37, which is part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Impressed at the movement’s commitment to direct action, Dartayet-Rodriguez joined the Labor Outreach Committee during the second week of the movement. “I think it’s quite radical for a labor movement to be so invested in this movement,” he says later. “There is no question that Occupy is about completely changing society to a society that is based on equality where everyone has a real voice. It’s very radical and opposite to what we’ve had before.”

It is energizing, he says, to see unions strongly backing a consensus-based, “horizontally” structured movement. Inherently, this structure is antithetical to the top-down, “vertical” union structure. “Labor doesn’t generally join something they’re not taking the lead on,” he says. “The leadership is now willing to be a passenger on this train as opposed to a conductor.”

But historic times push organizations into unique actions, according to Gerstle. “There are only certain years where the political landscape shifts very quickly, where new ideas can present themselves quickly and forcefully,” he says. “We are in one of those moments. People have been shaken out of complacency and orthodoxy. But it’s better to think of this in terms of fluidity than a wholesale change on the part of the unions.”

Which means there are potential pitfalls. Amy Muldoon admits to a “well-placed nervousness” about unions co-opting Occupy Wall Street’s rhetoric and trying to run things in a “top-down way,” she says. “There’s concern about autonomy and what kind of message people are putting out. The movement prides itself on autonomy.”

The unions are rightfully fearful of a movement that refuses to be confined by the establishment. Unions are restricted by contracts and long-standing relationships with employers. Unions have something to lose if they don’t play by the rules. The locked-out art workers of Teamsters 814 can tacitly endorse Occupy Wall Street crashing Danny Meyer’s restaurant with no repercussions. But when the occupiers plan direct actions that force union workers to break their contracts, conflict can arise.

“The Direct Action group is a militant group of mostly young people who take to the streets and don’t necessarily have a realistic understanding of where workers and unions are at,” DiSalvo says. “But they are very committed and creative and they’re what put Occupy Wall Street on the map.”

All along the West Coast throughout last December, a series of unions representing dockworkers were in a dispute with dock owners trying to open new, non-unionized shipping factories along the coast. Occupy movements from San Diego, California, to Anchorage, Alaska, announced that they would try to shut down docks on December 12 through the sheer volume of protesters. The majority of unions representing the dockworkers denounced this plan, but the Occupy movements went ahead. Not all of the shutdown attempts were successful, but nearly all of the relationships with local unions were severely strained.

“Most Americans are not crazy about people who want to destroy the system,” says historian Michael Kazin, making Occupy a potentially detrimental partner for unions. But atrophying institutions like unions need excitement, grassroots support, and increasing membership to survive. Historically, a populist movement eventually needs institutional resources and organization to grow and create societal change. For all the forces pushing them apart, necessity continues to push labor and Occupy together. 

The Changing Future

I had a fit last night with some of the things they did. It was completely undemocratic,” DiSalvo says in in her office at Baruch College in early March. The night before, hundreds of people had convened at the Service Workers local chapter, 1199, to set a final agenda for May Day, the next big day of action for both Occupy Wall Street and labor unions.

May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is historically a day of marches and demonstrations by labor unions and left-wing movements. For the past few generations, it has been scrubbed from the American consciousness after it became a big celebration for the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party, and leftist unions in Europe. But this year, says DiSalvo, May Day was a perfect opportunity for Occupy Wall Street and labor unions to work together. It also exposed the inherent tensions between the two forces: pure democracy vs. hierarchy, militant action vs. legal constraints. All were on display at the meeting to finalize the May Day agenda.

Three groups were represented: labor unions, Occupy Wall Street, and immigrant workers’ rights groups. The last two years, labor unions and immigrant workers’ groups held rallies in New York City’s Union Square and Foley Square on May Day. But this year, Occupy has a different approach in mind—a general strike.

On December 19, 2011, the Occupy Los Angeles general assembly passed a call for a general strike, technically a complete work stoppage nationwide. Several other occupations around the country expressed support with similar proclamations. But most people are blunt: this won’t happen. Certainly not without union support. “Any union we talked to laughed in our face,” DiSalvo says. The Labor Outreach Committee thought from the beginning that a general strike was unrealistic and was more likely to fracture Occupy and labor than create actual change in America’s economic system. A strike on this level would break countless union contracts and legal agreements. It could cost thousands of union workers their jobs.

“Some comments I’ve heard in (Occupy) meetings do show an unawareness of how unions operate,” says Muldoon. “Sometimes I think that people don’t understand that strikes are something that memberships vote for. It doesn’t come from a call outside their membership.”

For nearly a month, a May Day Coalition consisting of representatives of each group, met weekly to organize the agenda they were presenting at the final meeting on March 7, which included hundreds of constituents from each group, not just the four representatives that had attended each previous meeting. Through those four previous May Day meetings, Occupy had convinced unions to agree to a series of procedural measures that ran counter to the regular union process. At these planning meetings, Occupy refused to simply send four representatives. Because Occupy makes decisions on pure democracy and caucusing, they did not want one—or four—people speaking for the movement at the meetings.

“There were various points at which Occupy Wall Street’s emphasis on direct democracy clashed with the way unions functioned,” DiSalvo says. Occupy insisted on rotating their four representatives, even mid-meeting, and requested that all could attend if they wanted. If any attendee from Occupy Wall Street saw something he or she thought merited a caucus by the entire Occupy contingency, the meeting would stop and wait for it to be discussed. “They were so eager to work with us that they accepted it,” DiSalvo says. “I think we felt that it was a good learning lesson for the unions on democracy to see that we have to consult our rank and file,” DiSalvo says.

But some of the more aggressive forces within Occupy were dead set on the general strike. And that’s why DiSalvo was so irate at the March 7 meeting. After weeks of negotiation to create a May Day agenda, some inside Occupy were making a last attempt to get the general strike proposal in front of all those union members attending the March 7 meeting at the Service Workers’ union local chapter. “What a hassle we had over this,” DiSalvo says. It’s not that the Labor Outreach Committee doesn’t support general strikes as a concept. It’s just not realistic. It’s not a concept even familiar to the American public.

Which is why the Labor Committee released this statement: “Occupy Wall Street stands in solidarity with the calls for a day without the 99 percent, a general strike and more.” Without disavowing the calls, Occupy made sure it wasn’t the driving force behind them, allowing unions to affiliate themselves with Occupy, but not the general strike.

“Are there going to be people who attempt to push beyond what the majority are interested in? Sure,” Muldoon says. “But I think there is a conscious attempt to be both disruptive and inclusive.”

That is why May Day was broken into green, red, and yellow events. Green events are safe for everyone—pop-up, temporary occupations—yellow are large marches and rallies—some police presence, likely a few arrests, but largely safe. Red events are secret in planning and will be disruptive in practice. They are distinctly not for unions.“They accepted the fact that Occupy Wall Street, particularly direct action, would be doing a lot of other things that day,” DiSalvo says. After deciding on a large, after-work joint march between all forces involved—Occupy, unions, immigrant workers—the unions accepted that there would be some type of militant action by Occupy. And for perhaps the first time in 80 years, they were okay with that.


Cory Bennett has written for Newsday, the Poughkeepsie Journal, Gotham Gazette, the Brooklyn Eagle, and the Queens Tribune, among others.