What Occupy taught the unions

SEIU and others are embracing the movement that has succeeded as they have faded

Published February 2, 2012 5:30PM (EST)

 Unions and Occupy: who's leading who?
Unions and Occupy: who's leading who?

Unions are in a death spiral. Private sector unionism has all but vanished, accounting for a measly  6.9 percent of the workforce. Public sector workers are being hammered by government cutbacks and hostile media that blame teachers, nurses and firefighters for budget crises. To counter this trend organized labor banked on creating more hospitable organizing conditions by contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the Democratic Party the last two election cycles. In return Obama abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made union campaigns marginally easier, failed to push for an increase in the minimum wage, and installed an education secretary who attacks teachers and public education.

The Obama administration’s dismal record on labor issues has been compounded by the rise of the Tea Party movement, which portrays unions as public enemy No. 1, and the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the political floodgates to corporate money. By last year, organized labor realized that its days were numbered unless it took a different approach.

So it went back to basics. Across the country unions threw resources into community organizing, aiming to build a broad-based constituency outside of the workplace for progressive politics. In cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., newly formed community groups found ready support for organizing around issues of economic justice, but they were stymied by a national debate dominated by voices blaming government spending for an economic crisis caused by Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street changed that. It flipped the debate from austerity to inequality, uncorked a wellspring of creative energy and started taking creative risks that unions typically shun. Within weeks unions adopted the 99 percent versus the 1 percent and started organizing actions under the Occupy banner. One labor leader said “the Occupy movement has changed unions’” messaging and ability to mobilize members. Union-affiliated organizers around the country say it has helped workers win better contracts and bolstered labor reformers.

While union organizers stress the importance of the movement’s autonomy, they are also joining in, providing advice, experience, supplies and access to money and space. Many believe, as one Chicago labor activist put it, that “Occupy is too big to fail.” In fact, the Occupy movement is in the vanguard of labor, enticing workers into the streets, making them negotiate harder and think bigger.

But the Occupy movement is also a double-edged sword. Some observers say organized labor shares the blame for its decline because unions treat members as clients who pay dues in return for benefits, are riddled with self-serving leaders, stuck in a busted collective bargaining system, too close to Democrats and too willing to ally with big business in return for jobs. If the Occupy movement revitalizes labor, as the left did during the 1930s, then it could invigorate rank-and-file militancy, foster internal democracy and sweep out officials who protect their fiefdoms and perks at the expense of fighting for the 99 percent.

"Point of no return"

Angus Maguire is communications director at We Are Oregon, a community group active in Portland that was established last summer by two Service Employees International Union locals. In 2011, he says, “there was a general conversation throughout SEIU, taking a sober look at the decline in labor organizing. It was an explicit acknowledgment that if labor doesn’t change how it engages with people it would cease to exist in a meaningful way. It was reaching a point of no return.”

In Oregon, SEIU locals 49 and 503, which represent more than 30,000 workers, decided they needed to organize non-union members outside of the workplace “around the most pressing issues relating to the economic crisis.” The genial 35-year-old father of two says, “We did a door-to-door outreach campaign in East Portland, the poorest part of the city, talking to people about unemployment and foreclosure.” Maguire says We Are Oregon’s goals are twofold. “One is to organize and achieve material wins. The second is to change the political environment and conversation. When we started last summer there wasn’t much conversation in the media around wealth disparity.”

On the East Coast, Anne Gemmell, political director of Fight for Philly, says the organization was founded in May by labor and faith-based groups such as the SEIU, to organize around issues of economic justice. One factor was Citizens United, which she says “was a scary development for churches and labor. If the gates are thrown wide open to corporate money, then traditional organizing models could be in danger.”

Fight for Philly also began with a door-knocking campaign, she says. “We were testing interest in fighting back against inevitable service cuts as the economic meltdown hit municipalities, and we had over 10,000 conversations.” Fight for Philly, she went on, is “trying to educate people that the budget crisis is due to the 2008 economic meltdown caused by banking and corporate greed, not by government waste, fraud and mismanagement as many anti-government voices would have the public believe.” But last summer, she explains, the media discussion “was all about austerity debates, the super committee and how we are going to cut social spending. It was not about growing inequality.”

In stepped Occupy Wall Street on Sept. 17, but nearly every left, progressive and labor group was skeptical or even dismissive of the few hundred scruffy campers raging against the machine in downtown Manhattan.

Some of the wariness stemmed from OWS’s congenital aversion to establishment politics. On the first day of the occupation Zuccotti Park I talked to organizers, seasoned and new, who were committed to radical democracy, skeptical of electoral politics and opposed to capitalism. Their politics couldn’t have been more distant from unions like the SEIU, Teamsters and United Auto Workers, which are top down and centralized, joined at the hip with the Democratic Party and eager, even desperate, to be the junior partner of capital.

Even before Occupy Wall Street pitched its first tent, the politics were so amorphous that one person kept blocking outreach to unions on the grounds that it needed to attract Tea Partyers. “When Occupy was conceived there was no outreach to labor," says Ari Paul, a New York City labor reporter. "They were hesitant to even let unions be a part of it, because they were seen as bureaucratic and short-sighted.”

Jackie DiSalvo, who attended pre-occupation general assemblies, helped change that by forming the labor outreach committee the first week of OWS. She is a retired associate professor of English who took part in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer.

“I was attracted to the movement because they adopted the line of the 99 percent against the 1 percent," DiSalvo said in an interview. "It was very class-conscious politics. I thought the only way it was going to have any strength was to have a working class and trade union base because they bring resources, numbers and political realism. They would give Occupy a broader constituency than the young people sleeping in Zuccotti who were precarious workers, unemployed or students.”

For the first few days, however, the unions stayed away because “the initial press reports were Occupy Wall Street was a bunch of freaks,” says DiSalvo.

On Sept. 22, five days after it began, Occupy Wall Street received its first union backing: delegates from the City University of New York’s 25,000-member Professional Staff Congress marched to the park in a show of support. Other unions “were hesitant,” says DiSalvo, “because they didn’t know who we were and what we were going to do, but they very quickly got over their hesitancy and embraced us, endorsed us, and provided support such as supplies, storage room, printing literature and meeting space.”

What changed?

On Saturday an unpermitted march that began at Zuccotti Park swelled to more than 2,500 people as it coursed through the streets of Lower Manhattan. It was set upon by riot police, and in the first iconic incident of casual police violence against occupiers, a commander was filmed pepper-spraying women in the face who were standing on a public sidewalk.

The video of the women falling to the ground and screaming in agony went viral. When I visited Zuccotti Park on Monday, Sept. 26, it was bursting with occupiers and support. Unions started showing up, and I heard the same story from two reputable sources. A group of SEIU organizers with the gigantic healthcare workers Local 1199 stopped by to deliver blankets, ponchos, food and water. The labor organizers said that the previous Friday they had been barred by their union leadership from visiting the occupation, but now SEIU was on board.

DiSalvo says, “It was the police attacks that made them move. But it was also progressives in the unions who won the leadership over.” Over the next few months around 30 unions endorsed Occupy Wall Street including SEIU and the AFL-CIO executive board, whose president, Richard Trumka, traveled to New York to meet with the labor outreach committee. “Trumka felt that unions had been raising the point about the growing inequality and the seizure of power of the rich,” says DiSalvo. “Occupy Wall Street was the first time those issues received massive attention in the press. He felt we were creating a lot of support for labor that they were unable to generate because we broke through the media blackout.”

"Spillover effect"

There is widespread agreement that the Occupy movement has directly benefited labor.

In Chicago an organizer with SEIU who wished to remain anonymous called the Occupy movement “a game changer.” He said his union “recognized that it can no longer focus just on what happens in the workplace. Our members who work in a hospital go home to a community that is being devastated by foreclosures and school closures.”

The SEIU co-founded Stand Up! Chicago, which kicked off last June with a protest against a convention for CFOs of major corporations. When Occupy Chicago formed it coincided with Stand Up! Chicago’s week of actions last October in the financial district. Occupiers were maintaining an around-the-clock protest at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  The organizer says, “We had this great synergy because we were doing actions in the financial district and Occupy Chicago was right there and would join us. They helped us get the attention of the press in a way we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

“Occupy is a true left expression and expansion of free speech," Anne Gemmell of Fight for Philly says. "We are going to occupy this space until you pay attention to us. It has empowered the organizations that do the door knocking, phone calling and rally planning.” She explains that the occupation at Philadelphia City Hall helped workers in contract negotiations. Gemmell says about 1,000 support staff and stagehands “were in negotiations that were tense and confrontational with the Kimmel Center, a major arts center near the occupation.” A week after Occupy Philadelphia set up camp the workers won a contract on better-than-expected terms. Following that victory 2,500 office cleaners who were negotiating with the management of some 100 corporate high-rises around City Hall inked a contract with wage increases for three years in a row.

“Occupy has a positive spillover effect, even if it’s not directly involved in the organizing campaign,” says Gemmell. “There were very few office cleaners or stagehands … sleeping in tents at city hall, but they are all part of the 99 percent and benefited from the new political climate that occupations created.”

"Thrown together"

Steve Early, a former union organizer and author of "The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor," says, “I was encouraged by the positive interaction between Occupy Wall Street and the Communication Workers of America,” which staged a 15-day strike against Verizon last August. Early says after the CWA called off the strike with inconclusive results, “the union was struggling to find ways to take action against Verizon.” Because Zuccotti Park is close to the work locations of CWA Local 1101, which was involved with the strike, CWA workers were regulars at the occupation.

“Things have gotten so bad in the private state of Verizon that workers are much more open to different viewpoints,” says Early. “At Zuccotti, unemployed youth were being thrown together with workers who’ve been with Verizon for 20 years and are trying to hold on to their pay and benefits.”

The cross-pollination aided dissidents in Local 1101 who had been organizing for four years, Early says. “The reform slate swept out the incumbents in the Local 1101 election held in November. Their victory was positively impacted by their work with the Occupy movement as well as other organizations like Labor Notes and the Association for Union Democracy.” Early adds, “The synergy works best when there is an organized group within the unions. The Occupy movement needs someone to relate to within labor.”

Early claims Occupy’s ability to organize with labor is hamstrung by the tendency of many unions to undermine rank-and-file militancy and democracy. He says union attempts to mobilize the public against corporations – like SEIU's Fight for a Fair Economy campaign – have not resonated as well as the more spontaneous and grass-roots activities of OWS.

A year ago the 2.1-million member union launched the Fight for a Fair Economy to mobilize low-income workers in urban areas against public sector cuts. The price tag for the campaign was in the millions of dollars, according to the Wall Street Journal. Early says, “The campaign looked good on paper, but was top-down, staff-driven and a consultant-shaped message that was boilerplate union rhetoric. The ground troops for Fight for a Fair Economy did not have much visibility.”

As for another campaign run by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United, which called for a financial transaction tax on Wall Street traders, Early says it was “much more savvy and programmatic but it framed the fight as ‘Main Street vs. Wall Street,’ without actually reaching many Main Streeters beside nurses themselves.”

Early says contrast that with the Occupy movement. “It is bottom up, decentralized, has much better framing and uses direct action creatively. These unions and others have glommed onto it and have adopted the 99 percent versus the 1 percent rhetoric.”

Like many, Early sees potential for occupiers and unions to learn from each other, but he puts the emphasis on the workers themselves. He says, “Hopefully, rank-and-filers will realize they don’t need to wait for grand plans and official orders from union headquarters. As Wisconsin workers demonstrated a year ago, they can take their own creative initiatives and have much more impact. Plus, exposure to Occupy will hopefully foster more Madison-style cross-union activity and bottom-up decision making. By continuing to organize, agitate and educate around labor issues – while learning from union members in the process – occupiers can help spread an anti-capitalist message that is relevant to day-to-day workplace struggles but very different from the much fuzzier official messaging of organized labor.”

The Occupy movement's 99 percent message could prove troublesome for labor leaders. Ari Paul argues. “There is a limit to how much union leaders will fight the 1 percent because they do depend on the 1 percent.” By way of example he points to the issue of healthcare: “One of the reasons unions don’t call for universal healthcare is because it is more politically expedient to get companies to fund good healthcare plans for union members who will keep voting you into office.”

DiSalvo echoes this sentiment. “The labor movement has fairly narrow orientation of just fighting for their own members’ contract demands to the point they don’t fight for their own members when they become unemployed. They should have set up an unemployed workers council by now.”

That is a big question on many people’s minds. While organized labor is potentially a powerful force with 17 million Americans in unions, it’s dwarfed by the more than 25 million people who are unemployed or can’t get full-time work.

“The labor movement has so far missed an opportunity in organizing the unemployed and underemployed," admits Maguire of We Are Oregon. He says there are parallels with the Great Depression when unemployed councils were pivotal to securing relief and jobs programs as well as eviction defense on a mind-boggling scale. (Some historians claim that councils in New York City moved 77,000 evicted families back into their homes.) Maguire maintains, however, that there “are also big differences today in terms of the political climate and class consciousness. It’s fair to say there is an opportunity in organizing the unemployed, and no one including the labor movement has figured out how to do that.”

Unions are trying to think more creatively. On Nov. 17, as thousands of occupiers were trying to actually shut down Wall Street, unions organized actions in three dozen cities, focusing on shutting down bridges to highlight the crumbling infrastructure across the United States and the jobs that could be created by funding repair and rebuilding. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested in the peaceful sit-down protests and some bridges shut down for hours, but the unions seem afraid to escape the confines of the very system responsible for their demise.

The aim was to put pressure on Congress to pass the Obama administration’s jobs bill that could be most charitably described as inadequate. Paul, the labor reporter, notes that many unions back corporations in the hopes of getting union jobs: Carpenters and electricians unions in New York City side with the real estate industry in support of mega-construction projects and the United Steel Workers has been pushing for World Trade Organization sanctions against China over allegations of “unfair trade practices.”

More broadly, Steve Early has taken SEIU to task for collaborating with the healthcare industry against the interests of its union members. And Paul notes that leaders of New York’s Transit Workers Union Local 100, which was one of the first unions to endorse Occupy Wall Street, has not actively challenged the investment banks that make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit on the bonds New York State relies on to fund mass transit. Paul says while Occupy Wall Street has been calling for the public transit debt to be canceled, TWU leaders “do not publicly criticize the Wall Street banks too much because the same banks are managing the workers’ pensions.”

Many union organizers counter that labor is in a different position than the Occupy movement, but they can still work together. An SEIU organizer in Chicago, who asked not to be identified by name, says, “When you are a labor leader you have to be very pragmatic because you are making decisions about contracts, wages and healthcare that affect your members. What’s exciting about Occupy is that it doesn’t have those contradictions. Occupy doesn’t have to have a million conversations to mobilize its members. They just do it.”

Anne Gemmell seconds that. She sees Occupy benefiting labor in part because it doesn’t have any issues of potential liability that a union with resources, members and paid staff do. “There are no leashes holding Occupy’s energy back.”

That energy will intensify this year. Occupy Los Angeles has put out a call for a general strike on May Day. There are plans for a month-long occupation of Chicago in May when the rulers of the world come to town in the form of the G-8 and NATO, and it seems likely that many occupiers will flock to the Democratic and Republican national conventions next summer.

Next fall the presidential election could see both sides at odds as occupiers will be decrying both parties as hopelessly corrupted by corporate dollars, even as organized labor mobilizes tens of thousands of union members to get out the vote for the Democrats and Obama.

The Chicago organizer says, “The revolution is not going to come through the labor movement.” And that is true, at least in its current configuration. But the revolution that many occupiers dream about can’t happen without workers either. If the Occupy movement keeps growing, then organized labor will have to decide which side it is really on.

By Arun Gupta

Arun Gupta, a New York writer and co-founder of Occupy the Wall Street Journal, covers the Occupy movement for Salon.

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Occupy Wall Street The Labor Movement