Unions Coming

A version of this piece appeared in Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette, now entering its second printing and still available for free download.

It’s been a long time—since Seattle 1999—that so many US unions have thrown their support behind the kind of anti-corporate direct action we’re seeing in Zuccotti Park. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of locals; the internationals of AFSCME, SEIU, Teamsters, UAW, USW, among others; as well as the AFL-CIO itself—all have officially endorsed the protests. In its resolution of solidarity, TWU Local 100 hailed the courage of the protesters and described their occupation as a “dramatic demonstration of our own ideas.” And it’s true: runaway corporate greed, outrageous inequality, the corruption of our democracy—all are themes that have entered labor’s discourse these past few years since the economy went bust. The AFL-CIO has targeted banks, SEIU has spent millions in its Fight for a Fair Economy campaign, coalitions have fought foreclosures and marched on financial centers and conventions. Unionized Wisconsin graduate students and community allies demonstrated the power of an occupation, and in the process radicalized their brothers and sisters in the public sector there and beyond. Some of these public sector anti-austerity fights —like the one my own union has engaged—have challenged politicians and policies that give tax cuts to millionaires and just plain old cuts to us. These fights underscore why unions stand in solidarity with OWS.

But as institutions responsible for the wages and benefits of their members, unions must spend time and resources on their particular struggles, and they frequently focus on their members’ needs to the exclusion of broader, progressive, class-based goals. In these stark times, unions frequently follow cautious paths that avoid jeopardizing their relationships with the employers or politicians whose support they seek. The explosion of support for Occupy Wall Street validates the actions of those in the labor movement who have been encouraging their unions to push harder against the galloping kleptocracy we live in. Support for OWS opens the door for unions to challenge the broader policies that shape the economic climate they are bargaining in, and to pursue their particular fights in a way that’s connected to broader struggles.

It’s a sign that unions appreciates the scope of the opening created here that they’re allying with groups whose culture and organizational style are so foreign to their own: the “99 percent” has proven to be spacious territory. When asked to explain his union’s support for Occupy Wall Street, a spokesperson for the Transport Workers Union Local 100 said, “It’s kind of a natural alliance.” But it hasn’t always seemed so. Centralized, hierarchical unions and horizontal, “leaderless” social formations have tended to look at each other askance. The OWS movement, with economic grievances at its center, seems to have overcome such hurdles to labor’s embrace, at least for now. Unions have pledged material support, delivered such support, and come out in solidarity with OWS to protect it from police attacks, as well as the recent attempt to shut it down. It helps enormously that labor’s solidarity with OWS has been a two-way street from the get-go, and the drums and signs of Zuccotti Park have fast become a presence in local labor struggles. The movement’s labor outreach working group has brought the bulk of OWS to support locked out Teamsters at Sotheby’s, join postal workers in their rallies against looming cuts, and picket Verizon headquarters with communication workers.

Labor’s challenge is to keep the spark lit by OWS alive, and to generate the inspiration and sense of commitment that OWS has modeled beyond the circles it’s spreading to now. This means most of all among our own members and the communities we live in—which in New York includes millions of people in nearly every part of the city. New York is this country’s “union town,” with an incredible 25 percent of the city’s workforce organized—the highest percentage in the US. Labor is an inescapable part of the fabric of the city. If you’re a doorman, janitor or super, you’re probably in a union; public school teacher, union; municipal employee, hotel housekeeper, garment worker, electrician, printer, screenwriter, steamfitter, CUNY grad student, AP sports reporter—union. If unions work to animate even a fraction of their broad, diverse membership into concrete campaigns and solidarity work, we could see the issues raised by OWS translate into real changes at the level of our workplaces, our communities, and our policies.

So this is an incredible opportunity for more unions and more layers of labor to realign themselves. With great exceptions, for much of its history and to this day labor has fought sectional fights. OWS has opened a political and educational space for meaningful solidarity, and labor movement organizations would be smart to make this much bigger and increase its leverage.

Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Warehouse, Department Store Union, said it well:

Every hour that Occupy Wall Street continues, it can help revitalize a progressive movement nationally and globally that aims to achieve new victories for all working people and the unemployed. It’s up to us whether we harness their energy and commitment at the bargaining table, in the halls of government, and among the coalitions and alliances we try to sustain.

What would such “harnessing” look like? Maximal solidarity with one another, and real respect for the diversity of tactics across the movements—plural—that I hope will be gathering steam. From where I sit in labor education, I’d like to see unions strengthen their internal political education together with their external grassroots alliances. Like the public space created at Zuccotti Park, unions are institutions that can provide ongoing space and support for workers to collectively assess strategies used to make social change, revisit our history, and explore what people have done and are doing in other parts of the world to fight these same battles. Unions can continue to trust and learn from their allies across a labor movement more broadly conceived.

Much has been made the lack of clarity around OWS’s “demands,” but as I hear it they’ve issued a clarion call. Occupy Wall Street has framed our fight in broad and crisp terms: labor can play a central role in making these fights concrete. OWS reminds us of our own bold traditions, and union activists can teach the new movements about the endurance needed for long-term struggle. What is perhaps most clear of all is that we will need the democracy, innovation, diversity, and dedication of the whole of this movement—new and old—to put into effect the kinds of changes our society so desperately needs.

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