Labor & the Occupiers: A Natural Fit
Think of what a combined effort by unions and the Occupy Wall Street movement could do to weaken the tight grip of corporate greed on the economy. Think of how it could greatly strengthen both the labor movement and the occupiers.
OWS and labor have worked together in some locations. But many occupiers consider labor a part of the economic and political establishment that they're protesting, and fear that union leaders might try to take control of their movement, which, unlike unions, is based on direct rather than representative democracy.
As for unions, they are not happy that OWS has no clearly identified leaders or formal demands, which is of course how unions operate.
Unions and the occupiers, however, have the same powerful enemies. They need each other if they are to overcome them. It seems to me that unions are in the best position to bring the two much closer together.
So, how to go about it? Unions need to make clear, in words and deeds, that they are indeed facing the same problems and opponents as the occupiers and that they need to join together so as to act as forcefully as possible to overcome their mutual enemies. They must make clear as well that union leaders do not want to take over their movement, but seek to strengthen it.
There's an old, but still highly effective tactic that labor must stress to its potential OWS friends. It's called solidarity.
Clearly identified unionists must march and otherwise demonstrate with occupiers, join them in their rallies and in their tent cities and elsewhere. They should provide them with food, blankets, medical care and other necessities. They should organize joint actions and show that labor leaders are doing important work in the occupiers' behalf.
At the same time, unions should make clear that they do not support the destructive vandals who've tried to attach themselves to the OWS movement.
If necessary, labor should also take dramatic actions such as were taken in California on November 2nd by Occupy Oakland protestors who had been camped in front of Oakland's City Hall for close to a month. They led a rally and then a march of some 7,000 people through downtown Oakland to the city's port, one of the most important on the West Coast.
Occupiers and their supporters forced the port to close by blocking delivery trucks from loading or unloading cargo on the docks. At any rate, many dock workers, union members all, didn't show up for work.
The march and port closure were planned as part of a citywide general strike that, while drawing many words of support from Oaklanders and others, was not widely supported otherwise.
Most notable among those who showed their support physically as well as verbally were more than 300 teachers who did not report to school. Some other teachers used the day to explain the nature of such protests to their students.
Unions certainly have had a long experience in doing what needs to be done to build the strength for battling powerful economic and political enemies. During the Great Depression, for instance, unions waged massive organizing drives to recruit workers and give them the strength they needed to overcome the greedy oppressors of the 1930s. That led to the laws that guarantee workers the right to unionization and regulate their hours and other working conditions.
Like the union activists of the thirties, occupiers have helped focus widespread attention on the financial interests which are responsible for battering the economy and on what the financial interests must do to make it right.
That has helped OWS gain support from the AFL-CIO, and from more than two dozen national unions and many of their local affiliates. Some of the unions have made participation in the occupy movement a major activity.
Unions already have spent lots of money and put lots of members into the occupiers battles to win much better treatment for workers from the same forces that are denying decent treatment to unionists.
A partnership of labor and the Occupy Wall Street movement could very well lead to reforms as far-reaching and vital as those won by activists eight decades ago.
Dick Meister, former labor editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and a former city editor of the Oakland Tribune, has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com.