Saturday, December 17, 2011

Growing Pains in the Labor Occupy Alliance

Left Eye on Books
December 17, 2011

Although labor unions and Occupy groups are beginning to work together, differences in their approaches and attitudes are creating tensions. Two months ago, we argued that Occupy movements were likely to trigger the next upsurge of working class strike activity. Since then, it has become easier to see some of the ways this is playing out and some of the challenges that will be faced. It has become common to hear about labor unions participating in marches called by Occupy groups, or Occupy groups turning out to support labor actions, such as the picket line at Sotheby’s auction house called by the Teamsters in support of locked-out art handlers.

Yet two recent developments highlight tensions between Occupy and unions.  On November 17, Occupy and unions co-sponsored a demonstration that would march to the Brooklyn Bridge. Reportedly, in planning meetings, it was agreed that the march would be “lightly marshalled,” that people participating would judge for themselves whether to risk arrest by marching in the road rather than the pedestrian walkway. Organizers close to labor, the Beyond May 12 Coalition, had stated on Facebook that this was likely to be a disruptive protest.  As it happened, protesters stayed on the pedestrian walkway, because the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) produced a wall of marshalls, in effect doubling police lines, and eliminating the option of taking the streets.  

This was not the only way that the unions reneged on their agreements with Occupy. The plan was to have a “people’s mic” magnifying the voice of speakers by the crowd repeating their words, as  is done in many general assemblies and Occupy protests. Instead, there was a very loud, electric amplification system that left little doubt about who was doing the speaking and who was supposed to be listening.

Last week on the West Coast tensions of a different sort surfaced. Occupy Oakland called  to shut down the ports. The goals of this action include a show of strength after the wave of police repression of encampments, support for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in its struggle with the employer EGT Development, and support for non-unionized port truck drivers. The call was picked up and endorsed by numerous Occupy groups on the West Coast and even further afield. But the ILWU, ostensibly one of the groups that will benefit from the action, and a union with an impressive history of militancy, issued a couple of statements disavowing the action. It is not entirely clear what the union’s position is. Some have suggested that they must legally distance themselves, even as they encouraged their members to respect this “community picket line.” Others have suggested that the union was frustrated with this effort, which they saw as interfering with the strategy they have developed to combat EGT. A number of writers used the appearance of a gap between the unions and the Occupy movement to denounce “adventurism” (in Doug Henwood’s words) or “lack of democracy” (according to Cal Winslow) in Occupy Oakland. On the other hand, some close to the action are claiming that Occupy Oakland, as well as other Occupy groups, is working closely with a network of port workers who strongly support the action. Although I strongly supported the ports action, it is difficult to shake the impression that the connection to unions, whose members work in the ports every day, could have been handled better.

What should one make of these two incidents? First, Occupy groups and unions are very different sorts of organizations. Unions are composed of dues-paying members. Their leadership is well paid and professionalized. Lawyers are closely consulted, and alliances with elected officials patiently cultivated. 

Unions are well prepared to negotiate contracts and address grievances. By contrast, Occupy groups don’t really have members. Everyone is welcome at general assemblies, and even, for the most part, in working groups. Officially leaderless, the networks of activists in general assemblies and key working groups who de facto lead groups are unpaid and accessible, even if formal lines of accountability are lacking. Occupy groups have only the most tentative links to the legal system and elected officials. These differences help explain their different attitudes and tensions that have emerged and will likely continue.

Unions will always ask about any action, “How does it fit into our larger strategy?  Does it benefit our members?” Caution is one trait that is endemic among unions these days, particularly given the poor track record of bold strikes and ambitious organizing campaigns over the last three decades. Unions also have a great deal of trouble convincing the wider public (or even the unorganized majority of workers) that they are acting in a general interest, rather than pursuing the narrow interests of their members. Their greatest achievements sometimes seem behind them, but these achievements, including decent wages, job security, and grievance procedures, are substantial and will not be risked lightly. The Occupy movement has shown considerable elan positioning itself as a fighting force for the 99 percent, precisely what unions have been unable to do. Occupy groups embrace daring tactics, such as calling general strikes and leading snake marches that confound police efforts to keep protesters on sidewalks. At the same time, Occupy has difficulty translating its tactics into material improvements in the lives of the 99 percent. It may attempt to blockade Wall Street, but does this change the overwhelming burden of debt and job insecurity? Add together the concrete benefits Occupy has attained for people — it has moved some families into foreclosed homes, its encampments were sometimes a welcoming place for homeless people otherwise abused and unwanted — and it would be difficult to not conclude that even in their shrunken, defensive state, labor unions currently make a bigger difference in more people’s lives in this sense of material benefits. At least at this time, the Occupy movement does not substitute for this function.

Labor unions and Occupy groups complement each other, even if the sort of conflicts described above may be foreordained in their differences. Labor unions will want to tap into the widespread moral outrage generated by Occupy, but they will temper their actions as they seek to maintain legalistic strategies and political alliances. Occupy groups sympathize with labor and envy the union’s grounding in working class communities, but the desire to use audacious tactics will likely lead to fresh tensions. Best to keep our eyes on the prize and not let the inevitable tensions and frustrations on both sides derail the larger movement gathering steam.

After all, it has been a remarkable couple of months. Occupy Oakland has brought the concept of a general strike back into the realm of possible tactics to employ. Notwithstanding the tensions with the ILWU, the ports shutdown was a remarkable demonstration of collective power, involving groups from Anchorage to Houston. Voters in Ohio, reportedly influenced by the Occupy movement, voted down an effort to revoke collective bargaining for public sector workers. And even as unions disregarded some of their agreement with Occupy Wall Street on November 17, they abandoned the traditional format of having labor leaders offer fiery denunciations of bosses culminating in calls to defeat Republicans in favor of using the speakers platform and sound system to communicate individuals stories – a remarkable embrace of Occupy culture.   All of this has left both the Occupy movement and the labor movement stronger than they were two months ago.

Patience, respect and flexibility are necessary now and in the future. Because if you think the tensions described above were frustrating, just wait. The next couple of years will see the initiation of a debate about what, if any, of the features of post-war unions (union bureaucracies, legalistic orientation, collective bargaining, focus on dues-paying members’ wages and benefits, etc) are appropriate to the present-day struggle of the 99 percent. It promises to be an even tenser period.

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