What Can Unions Learn from the Occupy Movement?

Tens of thousands of occupiers nationwide are celebrating the two-month anniversary of the Occupy phenomenon today with teach-ins and marches onto bridges to highlight the need for infrastructure repair—and jobs.

In New York, the morning has seen hundreds of arrests during confrontations aimed to disrupt the financial architecture at the heart of the country’s concentrated wealth and rotted political system.

So why has the Occupy movement captured the public imagination, when unions, which have been saying many of the same things, railing against corporate overreach and the Wall Street bailout for years, decades, haven’t?

Unions, after all, have far more members than the Occupy encampments, including members who are strategically located to wield power.

We’re excerpting a talk Jane Slaughter gave this week to the Washtenaw County Community Action Team, an alliance of unions and community members in southeast Michigan.

I see three reasons why the Occupiers have garnered more support than unions:

1. The Occupiers chose a bold tactic. When was the last union occupation of a workplace that you can remember? Flint 1937?

Actually, just this summer, longshore workers in Washington state blocked railroad tracks, invaded a grain terminal, and opened the hoppers on a train carrying 10,000 tons of grain and spilled it onto the ground.

But in general unions seldom even strike anymore, much less occupy anything. Last year, there were only 11 strikes of more than 1,000 workers. The record low was set in 2009, at five.

In the 1970s, in contrast, there were 269 big strikes a year. In 1952 there were 470.

So Occupy Wall Street gained attention because of its new/old and bold tactic. The Occupiers symbolically seized a symbol—Wall Street. Today the Occupiers upped their attempt to disrupt in New York, preventing some Wall Streeters from getting to their nefarious work, for a while anyway, with the police closing off many streets.

2. The Occupiers have a better slogan.

Who is it that have unions been trying to defend for the last 20 years?

The middle class. By which is meant workers with middle-class pay levels.

Which captures better the idea that we have an unrighteous enemy—to proclaim that we’re the middle class, or that we are the 99%? To talk about the 1% points to the pinnacle of the economy and says that we’re on different sides. “The middle class” just says we’re differentiating ourselves from the poor.

Occupy has a better slogan, one that evokes class hatred. Even if “1%” isn't totally accurate for pointing out who’s on the other side, it does point out the complete lack of democracy in letting our country be run by a tiny oligarchy.

3. But the real reason unions haven’t ignited a movement is that mostly – with some major exceptions – we haven’t taken the actions that would ignite a movement. Unions have been stuck in stale, timid, conservative politics for too long.

Here’s a quote from United Auto Workers President Bob King, in an editorial in the Detroit News: “The UAW is fundamentally a moderate, pragmatic and socially responsible player in the dialogue.” Does that inspire anyone to want to join with auto workers? It sounds like the union is trying to impress the 1%, not the 99ers.

Working Together

The welcoming reaction of union leaders and members to the Occupy movement has been heartening. So has the willingness of the Occupiers to work with institutions—unions they had good reason to see as sclerotic. That’s the advantage of the 99% slogan—whatever problems you may see with unions, it’s clear that union members aren't in the 1%.

We’ve seen some great examples of unions and Occupiers working together: at Sotheby’s art auction house; when billionaire Mayor Bloomberg tried to evict the Occupiers to “clean” Zuccotti Park the first time; in Boston, when Occupiers joined telephone workers fighting concessions to surround a Verizon store; and in Oakland, when the Occupiers got plenty of union support when they marched on the docks.

In Detroit we’ve had labor marches to support the occupation, but what I found more impressive was the story of a GM retiree. He went to his monthly retirees meeting and collected $700. Who would have thought these older folks would be inspired by the Occupiers?

Many union activists have been surprised by and proud of the reactions of both members and officials. We groaned when the president of AFSCME, Gerry McEntee, declared that unions wanted to channel the Occupiers’ energy into the elections in 2012. Occupy Wall Street spokespeople immediately declared that was not going to happen.

Learn from Them

Unions need to learn some of Occupy’s lessons.

(1) Labor has been shy about a crucial aspect of movement-building: defining the enemy. The Occupy movement has succeeded in defining the enemy—the 1%—while for decades labor was caught up in cooperation plans and declaring partnership with our employers.

Remember the labor-management cooperation plans of the 1980s and 1990s? If you spend 35 months out of 36 declaring that the employer is your partner, when management comes in the 36th month to demand concessions, it’s hard to draw a line in the sand. We’ve known that cooperation is a dead letter for some years now, but we were weakened by our futile desire for partnership with our enemy.

(2) Unite the many. Look broadly for allies. Occupy has shown that people are willing to think broadly and think big about who is on the same side they are. Unions should shake the cobwebs out of their thinking and think about how to reach out to non-usual suspects—and offer support proactively, not wait till it’s our turn in the barrel.

(3) If you want to get the attention of the powers that be, you have to throw sand in the gears.

The uprising in Wisconsin this year was the most impressive response I’ve seen to the employers’ offensive since it began 32 years ago. It was huge in numbers and it was sustained over weeks. But what it mostly didn’t do was throw sand in the gears.

In the beginning, the uprising was touched off by the graduate employees union occupying the Capitol, and the teachers, who pulled a strike.

But most of the uprising was typified by rallies, all over the state and up to more than 100,000 people. You can imagine Scott Walker looking out his window at the crowds demonstrating on a Saturday and thinking, “As long as they’re back at work on Monday…”

We learned that you can rally hundreds of thousands on a weekly basis and still get steamrolled. The unions revved the engine of organized labor, then let it idle. We can’t mobilize that many people and have the answer to the question “What next?” be only “recall Republicans.” Or even only “come to the next march.”

Notice how important it is to city authorities all around the country to clear out the parks. At Zuccotti Park on November 15, after the eviction, 130 cops with riot gear and batons were assigned to guard it, to keep protesters from returning. We shouldn't forget how important order and control are to governments. They must show they’re in control even if it’s over something so seemingly unimportant as who’s sleeping where.

Let’s discover more ways to get sand in the gears. As long as labor’s strike statistics are 11 per year, there’s too much business-as-usual going on. We can learn from the Occupiers. 

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