Trade Unions and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

The OWS movement has succeeded in bringing the issues of concentrated wealth, inequality, and the threat that oligarchy poses to democracy to public attention in the United States in a way that the labor movement has been unable to do on its own or even in coalition for decades.

By Dean Hubbard (Senior Adviser, Transport Workers’ Union of the US)

Welfare Conference 2012, Oslo, Norway


We are living through a critical and inspiring moment in history, as ordinary people around the world, many for the first time, have been stepping up in movements like

Occupy Wall Street all over the United States, the “indignados” movements in Spain and Greece, the student hunger strikers in Chile, independent trade unionists in Mexico, labor-led uprisings in the Middle East, and other anti-austerity movements throughout Europe. 

They have all been using the human mic to say “NO!” with one voice to a world of corporate greed, where the richest 1%, who have everything, have used that power only to create unemployment, inequality, homelessness, environmental devastation, and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and alienation on the part of ordinary people everywhere.

People are through waiting, and are moving themselves to create a new world in which the 99% have a voice, in which human rights become more important than property interests.  And they are saying, in essence, “we will occupy our public spaces and we will carry out direct actions and build a new democratic community until we believe that new world is being born.”

Who would have thought that a tiny band of young people in New York would have helped inspire such a powerful worldwide mobilization?  If we take a look back, it’s not that surprising. 

For at least the last 30 years, elites in the United States have been the chief proponent of a particularly brutal form of capitalism known worldwide as neoliberalism, and referred to in Latin America as the “Washington Consensus.”

The predictable result of this globalization of market fundamentalism has been a rapidly widening gulf between the haves and have-nots. And 30 years ago there was already a gulf that can be traced back to colonialism and slavery and the industrial revolution. 

But it is in the last 3 years that the global Lords of Finance and acolytes of market fundamentalism have used the system shock of the current global financial crisis to attempt to impose the same “structural adjustment” on the working classes of the empire that they did on the former colonies. And it is only since then that massive, class-based resistance movements have awakened in Europe and the United States.

In the United States, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010 relied on a finding that corporations are persons and money is their “free speech” to open the floodgates of corporate spending in politics. Transnational corporations and billionaires used this opening to fund the “Tea Party,” drowning the November 2010 mid-term elections in a flood of corporate cash. This lead to the takeover by the far right of the U.S. House of Representatives, 638 state legislative seats, and control of both the state legislature and the Governor’s mansion in 21 states.

The extreme right then chose Wisconsin as the launching pad for the most vicious all-out nationwide assault on organized workers, immigrants, people of color and poor people in our lifetimes.  But students led the Capitol occupation in Wisconsin, voters rejected anti-union legislation in Ohio, and immigrants and their advocates fought back with marches, hunger strikes and lawsuits nationwide.  These events and others combined with the uprisings in Europe, Latin America and the so-called Middle East to create the necessary conditions for the birth and growth —so far— of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States. 

Although severe state repression succeeded in reducing the size and even shutting down many of the U.S. occupations over the winter, the movement has begun blooming again this spring.   Around the country, people turned out for the most widespread and militant May Day mobilizations in the United States in a century. We prepared for this event and many more to follow with a historic grass roots mobilization to train 100,000 people around the country in the techniques of nonviolent direct action. It was called the 99% Spring.

The OWS movement has succeeded in bringing the issues of concentrated wealth, inequality, and the threat that oligarchy poses to democracy to public attention in the United States in a way that the labor movement has been unable to do on its own or even in coalition for decades.   These issues raised by OWS are core, existential issues for the labor movement and for the working class in the United States and around the world.

In Europe, as you all know better than me, similar movements have helped begin to turn the tide against European austerity.  Resistance to the politics of austerity has spread from the young indignados of Spain and Greece to the general European electorate.  In recent weeks, voters in Germany, France, Greece, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Romania have rejected politicians they see as proponents of Europe’s neoliberal austerity. In Ireland, the anti-austerity tide is swelling support for a “no” vote in the May 31 referendum on the European Union's neoliberal fiscal pact.

While voter discontent has opened space for the emergence of left alternatives to hopelessly compromised Social Democrats, like Greece’s “True Left Party” (Syriza), it has also led to massive gains for far-right, anti-immigrant parties. As you all experienced so tragically here in Norway last year, and we have experienced over and over again in the U.S., right wing populism presents a particularly dangerous and repellent response to capitalism in crisis. Le Pen in France, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and the Golden Dawn in Greece, all mirror the politics of Tea Party conservatives in the U.S. 

In my country, the racist right stokes the fears of the white working class by blaming immigrants and people of color for the destruction of the promise of the so-called American Dream, distracting workers’ attention from the corporate elites who outsourced their jobs and the compromised and corrupt politicians who allowed it to happen. Sadly, this kind of demagoguery often succeeds in spurring violent reactions that shut down progressive change.   

Given this context, where are we headed?

For me, as someone who has spent the last nine months with one foot in the Occupy movement and one foot in the labor movement, the answer to that question depends on the answer to another question.  How deeply invested will the labor movement be in the OWS movement as it re-emerges this spring and summer? Will the Occupy movement be viewed as a distraction from the real business of re-electing the President, or will it be treated as an equally necessary element of the struggle for workers’ human rights and social and economic justice?

Some U.S. unions, including my own, were among the earliest supporters of the Occupy movement, and share many of its ideals.  However, the labor movement and the Occupy movement are also quite different. Unlike most U.S. unions, many participants in the Occupy movement take an explicitly anti-capitalist position. At the same time, other Occupy activists display a strong streak of economic libertarianism, which is at odds with the Social Democracy favored by many U.S. union members. The Occupy movement makes a point of not having a set of demands or a defined leadership, while, as we all know, trade unions are structured representative bodies that carefully formulate programs and demands. 

One benefit of the collaboration between labor and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States has been the revival of what were once the basic tools of the labor movement—strikes, occupations, and other militant appeals to solidarity. The experience of these last months has also reminded us, however, that in the U.S. labor unions have weaker rights to freedom of association than other activists, consumers, and, of course corporations.

These legal restrictions on workers’ collective action are far more repressive than what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and association, allows for other types of popular protests.  Occupy activists learned this from hard experience when their labor allies were reluctant to employ militant tactics favored by the Occupiers in key actions.

For example, while dock workers in California would have liked to join Occupiers in shutting down the Oakland port in solidarity with the workers who had a dispute with a grain shipper seeking to open a non-union facility in Washington, that likely would have been a secondary strike, which the law treats as unprotected and unlawful.  Union participation would have allowed employers not only to shut down picket lines with injunctions and punish unions with fines, but to fire the workers involved.  Occupy activists recognized no such limits and proceeded to shut down the port of Oakland, California on November 2nd and December 12th, over the objections of their union allies.

The Occupy activists’ ability to defy or avoid the worst parts of federal labor law gave them a freedom to act that labor did not have—and in the example I just discussed may have helped win the battle with that non-union grain shipper. Let me be clear.  OWS protesters did not just act when they knew the law permitted them to do so.  They also risked arrest, and inspired many in the labor movement with their creative, militant actions.

Although the strategies, tactics and cultures of the labor and OWS movements are different, they share the goal of greater economic justice and democracy.  Each movement stands to benefit from working with the other. The U.S. labor movement, for example, desperately needs an infusion of the youth, courageous street action and willingness to challenge the fundamental injustices of our economic system that permeate the Occupy movement.  Many, perhaps most, unions need challenges from below to ossified, overly cautious, bureaucratic decision-making structures that have contributed to decades of decline. 

Some labor leaders feel threatened by these kinds of changes, and therefore resist them or believe they can ignore the Occupy movement.  This would be a historic error on the scale of the failure to embrace and become part of the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s.  However, many unions do recognize the importance of the movement and are getting on board, at least with material support, if not mobilizing their members to participate.

On the other hand, some participants in the Occupy movement make the mistake of seeing all law and government and even leadership and organizational discipline as the enemy.  They believe that a participatory democratic process and street action are all that are needed to transform society. Participants in the Occupy movement will benefit from working with veteran trade union activists who do not lecture from on high but demonstrate through joint action over the course of time that this is a naïve and overly simplistic view of how social change works.

As someone who has been part of the movement for economic justice for many years, my intuition is that this long overdue class-based uprising in the United States and Europe will evolve and grow over the course of the spring and summer, if we continue to apply sustained, politically strategic “street heat” that is too strong for too long for politicians to bear.

Many Occupy activists and rebellious European youth are understandably fed up with and completely cynical about electoral politics. Yet, as every trade unionist knows, it cannot be ignored.  Electoral politics is a site of real contestation over power that directly impacts workers’ livelihoods and their families’ futures.

So what do I mean by politically strategic? The reason the right in my country made such a concerted effort to pass voter suppression, anti-immigrant and anti-union laws in 2010 was simple:  The 2008 Presidential elections saw record numbers of union members, students, people of color, recent immigrants and low income voters cast their ballots.  Members of these communities voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008.  These are the same communities whose votes would be blocked disproportionately if voter ID and anti-immigrant laws were passed.  And weakening unions removes one of the last obstacles to total political and economic hegemony by billionaires and their political agents.

So the US labor movement, instead of focusing exclusively on electing helpful politicians, should be organizing and mobilizing our members and building coalitions with the Occupy movement and others around the issues of immigrant rights, voter suppression and responses to the attacks on collective bargaining in politically strategic states. If they remain truly independent, these coalitions have the potential both to build on the momentum of the Occupy movement to create sustained political pressure from the streets, and to energize the electorate to vote out proponents of austerity, as we are seeing in Europe.

The chief internal problem the labor movement faces is that, in the half century since the Great Depression, many unions have become so institutionally entangled with the Democratic Party and so focused on servicing members and lobbying politicians that they have lost the capacity to effectively mobilize mass movements for systemic change.

This is why the Occupy movement presents such an important opportunity for labor.  It is only by building a sustained popular global movement on a greater scale than anything any of us have ever experienced that we will be able to halt the rise of right wing hate groups, stop the politics of austerity, and shift power relations in favor of the global majority. 

This is serious business. Neoliberal capital will seek to crush those who stand in its way. Practically speaking, how are we preparing to help the Greek left win the elections on June 17, and to survive the onslaught if they do?  If the left wins and makes good on its promise to stop repaying or renegotiate the debt, and the dominant states of the European Union and their neoliberal paymasters decide to crack down, where will Greece get its oil? Where will they get financial credits?

Given that the Lords of Finance have turned the weapons of empire on the people of the colonizing countries, perhaps it is time for those us who live in those countries to look south for inspiration.  I am thinking in particular of Latin America, where decades of broad popular resistance to neoliberalism among formerly colonized countries has paid off in long-term shifts in political and economic power relations. Cuba, for example, is no longer an isolated beacon of socialism.  It has been joined by Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, several Caribbean nations, and to a lesser extent even Argentina and Brazil, in building a regional alliance for integration premised on social solidarity and mutual aid rather than exploitation and market fundamentalism.

The member states of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America, or ALBA, are in the process of introducing a new regional currency, the SUCRE, and an alternative banking system.  They already have a regional television network, and member states have developed trade agreements based on solidarity and mutual need, such as the exchange of doctors for oil between Cuba and Venezuela. 

With respect, the experience of the ALBA countries suggests that it may not be the vision of European unity that is flawed, but the existing neoliberal model of the European Union.  ALBA suggests that a path towards an alternative vision for a United Europe is not a pipe dream.  As they say in Spanish, “se hace el camino por andar.” You make the path by walking it.

If we in the labor movement give ourselves heart and soul to the Occupy and indignados movements, and articulate a clear vision for an alternative to the neoliberal status quo, we will help sustain and build the global mass mobilization against austerity for the long term. Then, we will win the argument where it counts—in the workplace and the streets. Our voices, our bodies, our actions have power—let’s use them.

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