Beware of Labor Leaders Bearing Gifts

The development, deepening and expansion of “Occupy Wall Street” activities over the past few weeks has been exciting to see:  well done, folks!  Even if things fall apart immediately—and I don’t think they will—what you’ve accomplished so far has been excellent.


When a movement like this emerges, demands, purposes, leadership, etc., all develop over time. I say this as one who has been politically active over the past 40 years, because I know there are a lot of people in the media particularly who are trying to seeking these “things” from you immediately. The honest folks in the media want to tell your story accurately, and they don’t know how to present something spontaneous, inchoate, etc.; something in the process of emerging: they want it all settled and now. (It’s not necessary to say anything about how the idiots want to portray your efforts.)


I don’t think you should give in to this. I have been down briefly to the Chicago occupation, but I have been following developments somewhat closely over a wide range of sources. And from what I’ve seen so far to date is that a wide range of people—although mostly white, so obviously not wide enough—have come together and are trying to democratically organize and educate yourselves about what are the most pressing concerns for the American people as a whole. (The nice surprise in Chicago was that when I was at the occupation, it was much more multi-racial that I had expected—and that’s exciting!)  And it’s going to take some time and effort to work through these issues and concerns—and, like I said, that’s ok. This “sedimentation” process is necessary and takes some time.


As you work through issues and concerns, you are going to probably come to a couple of different alternatives that you have to work out. This article is intended to (hopefully) help this process. And I want to encourage you to reject dichotomous thinking, where you limit your choices to “pepsi” or “coke,” and embrace complexity; social reality can be worked through and understood, although it oftentimes takes more time and effort but, believe me, it will be worth it in the long run!


However, one thing that has come through clearly is the disgust with the Financial Sector of our economy, and the corporations that dominate it. There are a lot of reasons to be pissed off at them. Not only have they perpetrated an economy that is more and more unequal—the United States is by far the most economically unequal of all of the major “developed” countries in the world, and is even more unequal than some of the poorest nations on earth, such as Bangladesh, Uganda and Vietnam, according to the CIA—but they fed the housing bubble, and when it collapsed, caused millions of people to lose their homes, etc. They’ve ripped off college students, charging outrageous amounts for student loans, and they treat credit card customers even worse. I could go on and on, but you know most of this already. (If you want to look at one of the most in-depth analysis of the US economy right before the recession—so the results are not caused by the recession, but are products of the political-economic system as a whole—see my 2009 article, “Neoliberal Economic Policies in the United States: The Impact of Globalization on a 'Northern' Country,” on-line at www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/21584.)


Now, as this becomes more and more clear to outsiders looking on, there have been more and more people who have joined your movement. That is good!  And among the most encouraging are the working people who are joining your ranks—including union members. While your challenge goes beyond “saving the middle class,” it’s still good that a growing number of working people and their families are supporting and joining your efforts.


Yet, along with the unionized workers have come their unions. This is both good and bad—and I say that as an elected union leader!  (I am the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union, which is part of the United Auto Workers, and a long-time activist in the labor movement.)


It’s good to see national and international unions get off their organizational asses and offer support to Occupy Wall Street. And it’s a little bizarre—but a welcome one—to see the ossified Executive Council of the AFL-CIO endorse your new movement. Unions have resources—including money, office space, connections with politicians, members and legitimacy—that could each be helpful, if used in the right way. They certainly have experienced leaders, organizational infrastructures, etc., that could contribute to building the movement. There is a lot to be excited about with their endorsement and especially their support.


Yet I know, for a considerable number of you, their participation is problematic—and I argue that at least for the foreseeable future, IT SHOULD BE!


In my experience, many people who have not participated in the labor movement really don’t have any clue about how the labor movement works internally, nor their politics. We tend to think of unions being “good,” in that they fight for the interests of their members.


The reality is much more complex. Sometimes they fight for the interests of their members. However, unions are incredibly political organizations—and I’m using “political” here in the larger sense that includes struggle for power over the organization and the resources it commands and can access, material and symbolic. Unions can be used by union leaders to advance their own organizational interests as defined by their elected officers, often in the name of the dominant members within a union, even when it screws over other working people. The tendency for this increases as one goes “up” organizational hierarchies, from local union, to regional level, to national/international level (some US-based unions have Canadian members, and some have members from US dependencies, etc.)


There has been a debate within the US labor movement for over 100 years as to whether unions should just serve the interests of their own members, regardless of affects on others (this is known as “business unionism”), or whether they should serve the interests of working people in general (known as “social justice” or sometimes “social movement” unionism in North America). While business unionism has predominated historically, since the end of the 1940s, it has almost totally dominated the labor movement. Yes, there have been many and continue to be many struggles within the unions to change this, but to date, business unionism is in control, and particularly at the national/international union level.


The importance of your knowing this is two-fold. First, what union democracy that exists (and it varies by union, and within unions) is located overwhelmingly at the local level, and becomes drastically truncated the higher up the hierarchy one goes.


Second, as my recent book—AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?—shows, the top-level foreign policy leadership of the AFL-CIO actively supports the existence and expansion of the US Empire. In other words, they work with the US Government, particularly through the incredibly reactionary and cynically misnamed National Endowment for Democracy, to help limit challenges by workers and their unions to US domination throughout the developing world. They have helped overthrow democratically elected governments in Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973), and they were involved in supporting efforts to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Venezuela in 2002. They have also supported dictatorships that were allies of the US Government. (For more details, please see my book.)


This labor imperialism is unknown by most labor leaders and almost all labor union members. It has been done behind the backs, but in the names, of American workers. And these foreign policy leaders have refused to honestly report their overseas operations, and in fact, they acted to make sure these issues could not even be discussed at the 2005 National Convention in Chicago. And this is all closely documented—I am NOT speculating.


So, Occupy Wall Street needs to recognize these things before wholeheartedly embracing the national/international union leadership, no matter how many gifts they bring.


I think there are several areas that require consideration. First, allowing block voting by unions is not democratic:  union members’ votes should count just as much as anyone else’s but not more. Please work to ensure that the unions as organizations do not dominate your popular democracy. Build ties and work with labor activists and union members, but don’t give unions institutional precedence.


Second, most union leaders will do all they can to channel your energy, your enthusiasm into institutional politics. They did this in Madison—I made two trips up there and watched that struggle very closely—and it will kill your movement. They will try to get you to shift your efforts to supporting the Democrats, even though the Democrats—while not as toxic as the Republicans—have collaborated in creating much of the death and destruction around the world and the in the US. Giving in on this issue will kill your movement:  you’ve got to stay “outside” and in the streets long enough that the institutional politicians come to you; you don’t want to go to them, no matter how eloquent the pleas.


Third, do not let labor leaders present themselves or be projected as “leaders” or “spokespeople” for your movement. Once they have this legitimacy, they can use their position to sidetrack your project—and you don’t want this. And, media people such as Ed Schultz—who strongly supports Labor but who accepts labor leaders at face value—will tend to actively project the labor leaders’ positions as though they were the positions of the movement as a whole.


Where this all comes together is regarding US foreign policy. The major reason this country is in such bad shape is because the United States has tried to dominate the world since at least 1945. We have an Empire—a term rarely heard in polite company, or the mainstream media—but it is based on political and economic domination and not territorial acquisition, and is always backed by military force that can be used when other methods (such as labor imperialism or CIA operations) are not sufficient. Our illegal wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, etc., are not aberrations, but are standard behaviors by the US Empire.


Our US Government budgets have been in deficit every year since 1970, with the exception of the four years of Clinton’s second term, and this has added to the National Debt. It has been military spending—for wars as well as for equipment acquisition and outrageously priced war contracts—that has so hurt our economy. Since 1981, according to data from the President’s Economic Report, a conservative accounting shows that the US has spent over $10 trillion on military-related expenditures, and this does not include nuclear weaponry or veterans’ services and benefits.


Think about this:  our National Debt, which is an accumulation of all budget surpluses and deficits from the founding of our country in 1789 to today, was “only” – $ .907 trillion in 1981, when Carter left office—this included debt from the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the war in Korea and the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, as well as Federal domestic projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority. Under “fiscal conservative” Ronald Reagan, and with no major wars, the National Debt DOUBLED in eight years:  from – $ .9 trillion to – $2.7 trillion. It has continued upward—with the exception of Clinton’s last four years—to where it is now well over – $14 trillion.


It is to the “goddess” of War that the elites in our country—Democrats as well as Republicans—want to allocate our tax dollars to, which means they have to devastate social programs, such as health care, education, and student loans, while not addressing global climate change, a crumbling infrastructure, high speed rail, etc. In other words, folks, we’re getting screwed so the elites can make war on poor and working people around the world—including here in the United States. And they want our young people to kill their young people:  the military is the only jobs program today in the USA!


If you let the union leaders take over your movement, this will all disappear:  they will not discuss this, and they will do all they can to keep anyone else from discussing it. The Democrats—and yes, I specifically include Barack Obama in this—are just as involved in advancing the US Empire as the Republicans, although the Dems play “good cop” to the Repugs “bad cop.”  The labor leaders don’t want this to be known.


Yet, in my opinion, without including the understanding that the US has an Empire, and it is a violent one that is killing people around the world while cutting social programs and services here at home—we cannot understand what’s going on in this country. I think it essential for Occupy Wall Street to specifically include this understanding of the US Empire in your analysis and project. Without this, you cannot really understand the situation of the 99% of us.


I have written this not to disrespect the unions nor their members:  I have written this to draw attention to the role of national/international labor leaders, and to suggest you work with them carefully and never accept their actions and statements at face value. Get to know these men and women, and when you find good ones who you can trust, work with them:  but be clear on how you want to work with them before you make any agreements. They are not “automatically” progressive, and it would be a terrible mistake not to recognize this beforehand.


Yet, then again, this is my own opinion. There are labor activists and labor educators who would probably disagree with at least some of what I’ve written. Don’t believe me:  check it out, discuss with others, and make your own decisions. I stand by what I’ve written, but I hope you will take a nuanced and non-dichotomous (rejecting either labor’s all good, or that labor’s all bad) approach to working with Labor leaders: there’s a lot of gray there, and you need to check it out, carefully.


Respectfully submitted,


Kim Scipes



Chicago Chapter Chair, National Writers Union/UAW #1981, AFL-CIO

Associate Professor of Sociology, Purdue University North Central, Westville, IN

Author, AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers:  Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books—for details, links to reviews, and 20% off paperback price, go to http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/book.htm) 

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