The wintertime months of political and economic justice protests in Wisconsin last year were a dramatic appetizer for the sort of democratic uprising that would erupt into the public sphere in 2011. On Friday, February 17th, numerous journalists and scholars will discuss where the Wisconsin Uprising currently stands as well as exploring the lessons the movement has to offer popular democratic efforts in America. (For more details click here or here)
After Wisconsin: Labor Fights Back
The most important thing that has taken place since Wisconsin is another uprising, the phenomenal Occupy Wall Street (OWS). It began in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011 and spread rapidly to more than 2,600 towns and cities around the world. With OWS, the anger over growing inequality and the political power of the rich that has been bubbling under the surface for the past several years has finally burst into the open. Suddenly, everything seems different, and a political opening for more radical thinking and acting is certainly at hand.
One especially important opening is the possible alliance between those who are organizing OWS efforts and the labor movement. Workers are the 99 percent, and their organization as workers within the OWS framework could help to transform an uprising into a movement for a radical transformation of what is a sick and dehumanizing social system. Most OWS organizers, participants, and supporters are members of the working class, and thousands of rank-and-file union members have participated in and offered material aid to OWS. No doubt, the Wisconsin uprising helped prepare working people for OWS. Jon Flanders, one of the authors in this book, tells us that “A leading young trade union activist from this area went out to Madison slept on the floor, and came back inspired. Now he is marching to NYC from Albany with a group of Communication Workers of America (CWA).”1 What Wisconsin helped do was make workers less afraid to take action and better aware that much of the public shares their frustrations and anger. Now that OWS, which is broader than the labor movement in terms of the groups and individuals who support and have participated in it, has erupted, workers have seen that they have a place to go to vent their grievances and others who will support them in their struggles.
OWS encampments in various places have taken up specific labor struggles. New York City OWS protested on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters workers who handle the art that is auctioned at Sotheby’s. The art handlers perform a variety of tasks, which can include packing and crating valuable works of art, driving the trucks that deliver the art to galleries and auction houses, preparing condition reports, and photographing artworks. Sotheby’s, which has made record profits but wants major concessions from the handlers, locked the employees out in August 2011 and hired temporary replacements. The workers and their OWS supporters joined forces on Wednesday, November 9, when a major auction took place. The contrast between the picketers and the rich patrons could not have been more striking; it was a real-world juxtaposition of the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
So far, the most dramatic labor-OWS alliance took place in Oakland, California, where a massive march on November 2, part of a call for a general strike, shut down the Port of Oakland, one of the nation’s busiest. The International Longshore and Warehouse Workers (ILWU) has strongly supported the OWS uprising, and the occupiers have reciprocated. One of the demands the marchers made was in support of the ILWU dispute with the companies that own the new Export Grain Terminal at the Port of Longview in Washington:
The historic blockade of the Port Of Oakland on November 2nd by thousands of people is our response to what EGT has done to Longshoremen in Washington—we feel that an injury to the livelihood of the Longshoreman and their families who have been adversely impacted by your practices is an injury to all of us in the Occupy Oakland movement.
As EGT continues to move forward with union busting practices as well as repression and recriminations against the Longshoremen in Washington, we want you to know that Occupy Oakland will still be watching. We have done research on EGT and we know who you are. We know about a range of destructive capitalist ventures your company is involved in as the 1% both here in the United States and in countries like Argentina.
Let the shut down of the Oakland Ports by tens of thousands of protesters on Wednesday November 2nd be a strong message to you—when we stand in solidarity with Longshoremen, we mean it.
Hands off the Longshoremen in Longview Washington!
There was another “shut the port” march on December 12, 2011. In an interesting sidebar, ILWU Director of Organizing Peter Olney suggested that union hiring halls be tied to protests against foreclosures. Olney put it this way:
The New Bottom Line reports that in California alone there are 2,107,984 mortgages under water. Many of those drowning in debt and in danger of losing their homes are our union members. When our building trades leaders say that 40% of their members are on the bench they are talking about the 40% of their members most likely to face foreclosure. The link can be graphically made between unemployment and foreclosure by using our hiring halls for mortgage workshops and mobilizing centers for home defense. The dispatcher announces to the hall: “If you do not go out on a job you go out to a home defense.”3
The “Out of the Park and Into the Streets” demonstration called by Occupy Wall Street in New York City for November 17 was endorsed by scores of unions, and union members were enthusiastic participants. And around the country, students protesting conditions at their schools have been allying themselves with college employees and immigrant workers. In California, where campus police have responded to student occupiers with violence, including the infamous pepper spraying at the Davis campus of the University of California, students have begun to argue that campuses should become “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants, most of whom are workers.
A very heartening aspect of the developing OWS-labor bond is the active participation of young workers. In Baltimore there is a group called the Young Trade Unionists. One of its founders, Cory McCray, marched in the OWS actions in New York City on November 17 and was a part of the Maryland and District of Columbia AFL-CIO Biennial Convention that passed a resolution stating that its members should consider OWS sites the same way they treat picket lines and refuse to do work that undermines OWS, such as hauling away tents, equipment, and books when public officials decide to close OWS encampments. When asked about OWS and labor working together, he said:
I think they go hand in hand because the labor movement has always fought against the foreclosures, the high cost of education, the workplace violations, the large corporations . . . So many of the things that OWS are bringing to attention and putting to the forefront are always things that labor has taken action on. But right now it’s such a visible one because it’s very strategic and placed all across the country. Right now, the labor movement has a great possibility of having something come to fruition with the OWS movement. But I think that this is probably the beginning, that’s what it looks like. And it’s ready to come to something big. And when we do these types of things, we always are going to need partners. It’s definitely not only going to be labor. It’s also going to have to be the communities, the churches, LGBT, the minority factor. I think that it takes everyone as a whole to lift up the workers.
On November 8, 2011, elections and referendums in various states seemed to confirm that the spirit of the Wisconsin uprising, energized by OWS, is bearing still more fruit. In Ohio, a bill that took away collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees was overturned by referendum, by an astounding 61 to 39 percent margin. A virulent immigrant-bashing legislator in Arizona was defeated in a primary election, and in Iowa a special election saw the victory of a labor-friendly legislator, a victory that denied Republicans control of the Iowa senate.
Workers, simply as a function of their daily activities on the job, can do what no one else can—stop production and the flow of profits that are the lifeblood of capitalist economies. Nothing would shake the powers that be more than the threat of a militant, organized working class, ready to demonstrate, picket, strike, boycott, and agitate against every manner of corporate and political outrage, from unconscionable bank fees to unbearable student loans to the super exploitation of immigrants to wars to, well, you name it. And if students, the unemployed, the homeless, retirees, and other disenfranchised groups build alliances with workers, the 1 percent will be shaken to their foundations.
However, if the embrace of OWS by the labor movement is an exciting prospect, it is not without its problems. United Auto Workers dissident Gregg Shotwell put it bluntly and directly when he said,
Occupiers should be wary of trusting union leaders who have consistently undermined, sold out, and betrayed every militant uprising or cry for more democracy in the labor movement. Most union leaders in the U.S. are wedded to the prostitution of social ideals. Every union in the United States is in thrall to the number one pimp on Wall Street, the Democratic Party.
Concession and compromise to the One Percent is the M.O. of U.S. unions. Rank-and-file workers should be able to see themselves in the bloody skull of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen, struck dumb by Oakland police. Every day workers make heroic sacrifices to provide a dignified life for their families. Every day union leaders shoot down workers’ aspirations and incapacitate any chance workers have to shield their families from the latest act of economic terrorism.
Where is the union leader in the United States today who has the temerity to defy the capitalist oligarchy? For the most part, we don’t have genuine union leaders, we have corporate servants with union titles and six figure salaries. When U.S. corporations invested profits “Made in America” overseas, labor unions in the U.S. cut wages for new hires and blamed foreign competition. When U.S. corporations underfunded pensions, U.S. labor leaders forced retirees to make sacrifices.
The operable word for rank-and-file workers isn’t competition, concession, or compromise. The operable word is Occupy.
One possibility is that labor leaders will try to co-opt OWS and fold it into the Democratic Party politics that Shotwell deplores. Already the SEIU, which predictably gave an early endorsement to President Obama, has begun an Occupy Congress effort. Blogger Greg Sargent describes the SEIU plan in a recent post:
One of the enduring questions about Occupy Wall Street has been this: Can the energy unleashed by the movement be leveraged behind a concrete political agenda and push for change that will constitute a meaningful challenge to the inequality and excessive Wall Street influence highlighted by the protests?
A coalition of labor and progressive groups is about to unveil its answer to that question. Get ready for “Occupy Congress.”
The coalition—which includes unions like SEIU and CWA and groups like the Center for Community Change—is currently working on a plan to bus thousands of protesters from across the country to Washington, where they will congregate around the Capitol from December 5–9, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry tells me in an interview.
“Thousands of people have signed up to come to Capitol Hill during the first week in December,” Henry says, adding that protesters are invited to make their way to Washington on their own, too. “We’re figuring out buses and transportation now.”. . .
One goal of the protests, Henry says, is to pressure Republicans to support Obama’s jobs creation proposals. More generally, the aim is to highlight Congress’s misguided obsession with the deficit and overall inaction on unemployment.
“We’re talking about it as an effort to take back the Capitol,” Henry says. “It would be great if we could build pressure that goes beyond the jobs act.”
Of course, Occupy Wall Street is distinguished by its organic, bottom-up nature and its critique of both parties’ coziness with Wall Street. Does a coordinated effort by labor and liberal groups to channel the movement’s energy into pressuring one party risk compromising the essence of what’s driven the protests?
Henry said she wasn’t worried about that happening, noting that Occupy Wall Street had created a “framework”—which she described as “we are the 99 percent”—within which such activities would fit comfortably.
“The reason we’re targeting Republicans is because this is about jobs,” she said. “The Republicans’ insistence that no revenue can be put on the table is the reason we’re not creating jobs in this country. We want to draw a stark contrast between a party that wants to scapegoat immigrants, attack public workers, and protect the rich, versus a president who has been saying he wants America to get back to work and that everybody should pay their fair share.”
But Henry added she salutes Occupy Wall Street for finding fault with both parties, adding: “We agree that on domestic social programs, we have not won the day with either party. And we are applying pressure to both.”6
Journalist Glenn Greenwald puts his disgust with SEIU in pointed terms. “Having SEIU officials—fresh off endorsing the Obama reelection campaign—shape, fund, dictate and decree an anti-GOP, pro-Obama march is about as antithetical as one can imagine to what the Occupy movement has been.”
Besides co-optation, another problem is that organized labor has to confront legally binding collective bargaining agreements and a hostile labor law that usually prohibits various kinds of strikes and solidarity action. The ILWU, for example, has issued a statement saying, “To be clear, the ILWU, the Coast Longshore Division and Local 21 are not coordinating independently or in conjunction with any self-proclaimed organization or group to shut down any port or terminal, particularly as it relates to our dispute with EGT in Longview [Wash].” Members were advised as well that a public demonstration was not a picket line as defined by the collective bargaining agreement.
Despite any and all caveats, there are many hopeful things going on that will keep the spirit of Wisconsin alive for the foreseeable future. This is especially true when we note that labor revolts are now worldwide and spreading. Those of us who have written for this book have, to use Gramsci’s memorable phrase, always had an “optimism of the will.” It might be time for an “optimism of the intellect” as well.