What Can Unions Learn from the Occupy Movement?

Transit workers were the first to join the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York; their contract negotiations opened this week, and they held teach-ins inside the subways to educate riders about their issues and Occupy's. Photo: Transport Workers Union Local 100.

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.



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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 unions—institutions 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. Unions have known that cooperation is a dead letter for some years now, but were weakened by the futile desire for partnership with the 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, which took place all over the state and attracted 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.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #393, December 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


VivaJoeHill (not verified) | 11/21/11

Hello, I wish to comment on this piece claiming why, personally, the writer feels in his/her opinion that OWS has been more successful than labor.

Personally, I completely disagree with the 3 as main reasons, although I do feel that they are 3 minor reasons. The 2 main reasons that I have encountered, as an anarchist electrician for 15+years, is, first and foremost-

1)Workers are uneducated in class politics and feel that because they make more money as a Union electrician as opposed one working for a private company, or because both the Union worker and private worker are "skilled labor", as opposed to a cashier at a retail store, that they are "middle class". I have even heard Verizon workers claim this "middle class" label. This is a barrier that is not even a barrier in our class structure anymore, it is most definately tattooed and etched into our minds. Class, in every sense of the word, was never about money, but was about power. Although many skilled labor workers make enough money to live in "middle class" neighborhoods, it is up to them to take the step and leave their class behind in the dust and embrace a "middle class" lifestyle. Any class conscious person, who sincerely lives life on the basis of this philosophy being laid by Marx and Bakunin and numerous other Communist and Anarchist philosophers, would not leave their working class neighborhood for a more affluent one. However, as expressed in these philosophical writings of the past, "middle class" men and women, such as Marx, MUST leave behind their "middle class" life and join the working class.

Which leads us directly into
2)OWS is PREDOMINANTLY "middle class". When speaking to many people involved in OWS, many who were there owned their own businesses that have buckled or is in the process of buckling, or students of colleges, who when I asked them "What their parents did for a living?", most replied 1 of 3 responses, which were

a)Sons and daughters of doctors
b)sons and daughters of bosses/small business owners
c)sons and daughters of lawyers

The other responses were varied, with the lowest person on the totem pole spoken with were children of teachers, who would, traditionally, be lower middle class. As OWS picked up after a few weeks, I started to run into more and more "workers", high and low paid, Union as well an non-Union.

This is exactly what Marx, who profetically foresaw all this, said. He said that the existance of the "middle class" is a shady one. That there is a very thin line between the lower middle class and the working class, as well as a thin line between the upper middle class and the ruling class. He also claimed that the whole existance of the "middle class" depends on their constant "struggle" not to become a working class individual to sustain their "middle class" identity. That is exactly what is happening with the OWS, they are trying to fight to keep their "middle class" existance.

In New Jersey, the teachers Unions are fighting now against Governer Christies "anti-Union" campaign, which includes the eradication of collective bargaining rights. However, although teachers, police and firefighters would lose their bargaining rights, they would be compensated with a "heftier" pension of a 1% increase if I'm not mistaken, while the upper middle class, such as judges, would get a "heftier" 12% pension increase. Although its a much better option than labor will get, which is up to a 40% increase in the amount paid for hospitalization, they view it as "slipping down the totem pole" to the working class.

Labor simply hasn't been successful because workers, once they can afford to do so, leave the working class neighborhood for a middle class one. Once a worker does that, they seem to get engulfed in their little bubble, which either goes one of 2 ways. Either

1)They usually tend to side with their new "middle class' neighborhoods and adopt extremely right wing politics that are conservative and contradictory to the life s/he leads. Or

2)They are class conscious individuals who get wrapped up in the bubble of their "higher paid" Union workers, and think that they represent the working people, when in reality they abandoned their working class brothers and sisters who are still renting, living pay check to pay check in numerous working class neighborhoods around theirs. I personally have met class conscious workers who live in the County of Morris in New Jersey, a County that as a whole represents not only the "1%" of the wealthy in the State, but was, at one time and possibly still could very well be, one of the Top 5 weatlhiest Counties in the United States. These people, other than the other men and women they work with as well as workers in a few other crafts that could generate a paycheck like that, never run into the 99% of working people who do not make the money to join their "social clique".

Maybe its time that the very few Unions that still are functional, eg. Verizon, in between fighting the causes of the Verizon worker, target other working class jobs, such as retail or landscapers, legal or not, and organize some "un-written rule" that working class cities and suburbs, such as Paterson, Garfield, Lodi, etc in NJ, are the areas that should be chosen for living arrangements because those areas, and others like, house the 99% of workers of our State.

At one time it was unanimous amongst working people that "the working class and the boss class have nothing in common". Unfortunately, now it is "The 99% of the working class and the boss class, along with the 1% of the highest paid workers, have nothing in common".

The 99% trend is simply what the middle class needs, once again, to use the workers to ally themselves with to sustain their class rank. The "middle class" is only, at best, 32%. This movement will eventually leave labor in the dust. You don't think that Joe Blow at OWS who just lost his business wouldn't jump at the chance to have his business become the next Arby's? As a kid growing up in the labor rich historical area of Paterson, NJ, I learned our labor history and studied from a very young age. The only difference from then to now is that although pro-Union workers notice the bosses tactics of dividing us by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc, we seem to have overlooked their tactics of "workers social placement", where they give someone a few extra bucks to afford to move into the "low" end of their fancy neighborhoods, and they are left to organize with other "high paid" workers, with the ideological rich college kids looking to participate in some sort of social rebellion, which would translate into rebellion against their rich parents, as their cheerleaders. This has to stop if we are to get anywhere.

Arthur (not verified) | 11/21/11

In the book Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice; labor activists Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin open the book with a meeting between the US based SEIU and the South African NEHAWU. In the meeting the SEIU commented that the role of a union is to represent the intersts of its members. the NEHAWU replied, "Comrades, the role of the union is to represent the interests of the working class. There are times when the interests of the working class conflict with the interests of the members of our respective unions."

Occupy represents the interests of the working class. That is the lesson to be learned. This is a class struggle. Occupy Oakland put out a call yesterday to shut down the ports on the westcoast. This can only be done with Union support. Will the American Unions serve the interests of their members? Or will they serve the interests of the working class? The Unions should throw their entire weight behind Occupy and quit throwing members dues on millionaire Democrats. The Capitalist Dems are why we're losing! We need to take control of our own destinies. We need to show that we run the country. We run the ports, the construction, the services, the schools, the sanitation, the vast logistical operations. We are the 99%! We are the working class? Capitalism has never served us, and our union forefathers knew it-- Unions in the 1930s, the 1920s the 1910's, the 1900s and so on recognized this!

Lets take back the call to close the ports on the Westcoast. Lets show the 1% capitalists our strength! Lets use this as an opportunity to call for an end to ALL union busting legislation including the disgusting Right to Work laws! We can reshape this country, but only with Solidarity!

My name is Arthur, I am with the outreach working group of Occupy Everett (WA), I am an apprentice member of Carpenters Local 70, I organized a shop with Teamsters in 2005 at the age of 22, and I am proud to be apart of the working class. Push your locals toward the militancy of those who built them! Let us not stop at demands to stop the cuts, but to push forward TO END THE TAFT HARTLEY ACT that destroyed the strength of Unions! Lets organize those RTW states and the organize undocumented workforce!

"The amendments enacted in Taft-Hartley added a list of prohibited actions, or unfair labor practices, on the part of unions to the NLRB, which had previously only prohibited unfair labor practices committed by employers. The Taft–Hartley Act prohibited jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing, closed shops, and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns. It also required union officers to sign non-communist affidavits with the government. Union shops were heavily restricted, and states were allowed to pass right-to-work laws that outlawed union shops. Furthermore, the executive branch of the Federal government could obtain legal strikebreaking injunctions if an impending or current strike imperiled the national health or safety, a test that has been interpreted broadly by the courts." -Wikipedia

Marian Swerdlow (not verified) | 11/18/11

It's not what labor could have done. I'm pretty much convinced that if unions had occupied Zucotti Park with the slogan Occupy Wall Street, the media would have ignored us. It's not what labor "can learn."

It IS that labor NOW has to take advantage of the new openings created by this movement. These are two-fold: the new acceptance of direct action, and the new acceptance of blaming the rich and powerful for the crisis and making them, not us, pay.