#OWS and the U.S. Labor Movement

If you go to Zuccotti Park looking for the U.S. labor movement, you might be disappointed.  Other than a presence in the October 5 march and a series of public endorsements, you will find no purple SEIU banners, no occupiers in red & black UNITE-HERE t-shirts, no AFL-CIO booth at Liberty Plaza, and no permanent presence of organized labor or the trade union movement at Occupy Wall Street.  And this, I’d argue, is a good thing.

Since the economic collapse, organized labor has held a series of rallies, issued a slew of tough-talk press releases, and made an array of attempts to energize working Americans to stand up to the corporate elite.  “We are building the labor movement’s outreach to young workers like never before,” AFL-CIO’s Liz Shuler shouted at last fall’s One Nation rally in Washington, DC.  Yet workers, particularly young workers, have not, until recently, heeded big labor’s call.

“Labor tends to be somewhat one hit wonders,” Bernie Hesse, Director of Political Projects at UFCW 1189 in Minneapolis said of the dichotomy between trade union rallies and the Occupy Wall Street movement.  “I am hopeful that more rank & file will jump on board and participate on their own.”

And this is exactly what’s happening in lower Manhattan.

“I personally came down here because I’ve basically been waiting for about three years, ever since the financial crash and the bailouts and the bonuses, I’ve just been waiting for something to explode,” a New York union ironworker told me in Zuccotti Park yesterday.  “Personally, I was just full of rage and wanted to just explode and demonstrate it.  And I felt like I was isolated,” he continued, “and I didn’t realize that there were a million other people that felt the same way.  I was wondering where they were.  Why aren’t the people taking to the streets with pitchforks?”

Big labor stands to learn a very important lesson from the young workers and the disenfranchised, unemployed, working- and middle-class occupiers of Wall Street.  It’s the same lesson they should have learned three years ago from workers who occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory on Chicago’s Goose Island.  Working people, particularly young, immigrant, and disenfranchised workers, don’t want rallies, slogans, and press releases.  They want militant action.

“I came down here.  On my own,” one young union worker emphasized.  “I saw a couple other union tradespeople sitting together.  I sat down with them and we formed a little impromptu unit.”  But this worker also stressed how important it was for his union sisters and brothers not to wait for the union hierarchy to bring their members down to Wall Street: “We’ve got a sign and hardhats lying around so that other union people will see that we’re here.  So that union people will feel comfortable that it’s not just a bunch of hippies and anarchists.  A little area where union people will feel comfortable and bring their friends.”

Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA, suggested that trade unions “should be mobilizing members to participate, should use mass media and social media to spread the word, and link Occupy Wall Street to other labor campaigns.”  Other labor organizers I spoke with also stressed tactics more focused on urging workers to the Occupy movement sites across the country than on strategies for bringing big labor’s organizing machine into play.  But it will be difficult for the U.S. labor movement hierarchy to resist this temptation.

Huge Union Presence at OWS

The workers I spoke with in Zuccotti Park felt it was incredibly important that trade unions’ participation in Occupy Wall Street “originates in the rank and file” and that “the leadership is going to follow, not lead.”  There’s a huge union presence here, one worker pointed out, “but it’s not official.  It’s not everyone with banners and matching t-shirts.  There’s union people all over the place.  They’re just incognito.”

When I asked if an official presence would help or whether it was more important that labor’s presence at Occupy Wall Street remained a rank-and-file movement, another union worker said, “Union officials, once they officially endorse this, are obligated to do what they know how to do, which is provide a lot of money and organization and hierarchal structure.  And I think they’re almost forced into that by the nature of what they do.  They can’t do it any other way.”

“But I think once that happens,” this NYC union worker continued, “it may cause some problems integrating that top-down thing with what’s going on here.  I think it’s going to happen.  And I don’t know how it’s going to work out.  But at this point right now, we’re at the beginning, bottom up.”

Mark Nowak is the author of Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009) and Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2004).  Read his blog Coal Mountain at <coalmountain.wordpress.com>.

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