The Occupy Wall Street Uprising and the U.S. Labor Movement

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. The anger over growing inequality and the political power of the rich that has been bubbling under the surface for the past several years has finally burst into the open. Suddenly, everything seems different, and a political opening for more radical thinking and acting is certainly at hand.

One especially important opening is the possible alliance between those who are organizing OWS efforts and the labor movement. Workers are the 99 percent, and their organization as workers within the OWS framework could help to transform an uprising into a movement for a radical transformation of what is a sick and dehumanizing social system. Most OWS organizers, participants, and supporters are members of the working class, and thousands of rank-and-file union members have participated in and offered material aid to OWS. And recently, OWS encampments in various places have taken up specific labor struggles, while labor OWS contingents have spearheaded other concrete actions. These have included OWS Atlanta support for people facing foreclosures, New York City OWS protests on behalf of workers at Sotheby's, and, most dramatically, OWS Oakland's massive march that shut the Port of Oakland. An "Out of the Park and Into the Streets" demonstration called by Occupy Wall Street in New York City for November 17 has been endorsed by scores of unions.

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. United Auto Workers dissident Greg Shotwell put it bluntly and directly when he said,

Occupiers should be wary of trusting union leaders who have consistently undermined, sold out, and betrayed every militant uprising or cry for more democracy in the labor movement. Most union leaders in the U.S. are wedded to the prostitution of social ideals. Every union in the United States is in thrall to the number one pimp on Wall Street, the Democratic Party. Concession and compromise to the One Percent is the M.O. of U.S. unions. Rank-and-file workers should be able to see themselves in the bloody skull of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen, struck dumb by Oakland police. Every day workers make heroic sacrifices to provide a dignified life for their families. Every day union leaders shoot down workers' aspirations and incapacitate any chance workers have to shield their families from the latest act of economic terrorism.

Where is the union leader in the United States today who has the temerity to defy the capitalist oligarchy?  For the most part, we don't have genuine union leaders, we have corporate servants with union titles and six-figure salaries. When U.S. corporations invested profits "Made in America" overseas, labor unions in the U.S. cut wages for new hires and blamed foreign competition. When U.S. corporations underfunded pensions, U.S. labor leaders forced retirees to make sacrifices.

The operative word for rank-and-file workers isn't competition, concession, or compromise. The operative word is Occupy.

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 2012. 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. He is the author of Embedded with Organized Labor (Monthly Review Press, 2009) and The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor(Haymarket Books, 2011). 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. She is the author of Fighting for a Living Wageand co-author of The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy and A Measure of Fairness as well as many articles and book chapters on low-wage work, globalization, and labor and community organizing. Jim Straubhas 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.

(Note that the interviewees were able to choose which of our questions they answered. So each question has not been answered by each interviewee.)

Chowdhury and Yates (hereinafter 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?

I'd argue that 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. After the initial huge outpouring of opposition to the Iraq war, everything quieted down, despite the best efforts of experienced organizers who thought that history would repeat itself. Instead, it became clear that the young people did not see this war as an issue for them, partly because there was no draft, but also because they were preoccupied with getting a start in life in an increasingly difficult economy.

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.

Jon Flanders: Yes, they were both important, Wisconsin more so I would say. Although in the long run, perhaps the factory occupation will be more important, since to really have an impact on power, workers must weigh in. Wisconsin had more influence with capitol. A leading young trade union activist from this area went out to Madison, slept on the floor, and came back inspired. Now he is marching to NYC from Albany with a group of Communication Workers of America (CWA).

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.