On Friday, January 27th 2012 I walked into a packed room, every seat taken with several standing, at the Murphy Institute, CUNY. For two reasons, I was taken aback at the crowd of more than 175. 1) It was 8:30 a.m; in my limited New York experience, less than 6 months, I was under the impression that New York does, contrary to popular belief, sleep—between the hours of 4 and 10 a.m. 2) The event was a forum entitled “Can the Labor Movement and Occupy Wall Street March down the Same Road?” In my OWS experience, beginning August 6th—my third day in New York, the very mention of unions generally precedes a heated argument, abruptly cut off by “Mic check!—[Mic check!]—We will—[We will]—not be—[not be]—co-opted!—[CO-OPTED!]. Twinkle fingers all around. Many (most?) at Occupy Wall Street feel that the relationship between unions and the worker is a direct parallel of that between government and the citizen—exploitative and suppressive, a carefully decorated puppet of big business. We ally with workers, we’ll take donations from unions, but an explicit “partnership”? Well that’s an OWS four-letter word.
So who were these early risers so interested in the relationship between Occupy and the Labor Movement? As far as I could tell, it was a fairly diverse group in terms of age, gender, race, and class. But I only recognized a couple “occupiers,” later confirmed when only twenty or so hands responded to the question, “who here is from an Occupy working group?”: mostly members of the OWS Labor Outreach Committee that co-hosted the event. Were the rest organized workers? From 8:30 to 10:30a.m. on a weekday? Not likely. Midway through the Q&A portion—it hit me—these were the “others.” Whereas OWS turns out radical teens and twenty-somethings, unions bring the rank-and-file and retirees. At meetings, rallies, marches, that’s pretty much what you see—organized labor and youth. But there they were, the some-where-in-betweens—older folks, non-recruited youth, academics, middle-aged-middle-classers, etc.—those members of the 99% who had not yet found their place in the movement. And who had drawn them out? Labor.
Having also been involved in the Madison, Anti-Scott Walker protests, I have often drawn comparisons between it and Occupy Wall Street. Many an occupier has heard me rant, “If we want revolution, we need an Occupy-Madison middle-ground.” I’d been thinking of the rank-and-file turnout as the key difference, the weight of union members in the numbers game. But the forum made me realize the most important factor is who turns out as a byproduct of union turnout, and how that effects public opinion.
Though many at Occupy scorn “big labor” for failing to mobilize a general strike that, in their opinion, would have halted Scott Walker’s union busting bill, it cannot be denied that the effort was far more accessible, and more supported, or at the very least, better understood by the general public. On the other hand, many find OWS inaccessible in that it lacks a clear political platform—if I had a nickle for every, “But really, what are your demands!?” However, Occupy serves as an attractive alternative to stagnant modes of political participation through the empowering act of direct democracy; “OWS is a leaderless, horizontal, anti-capitalist driven movement…based on principles of direct action that argue that doing together, for ourselves, is the only real solution for addressing the crises that we, the 99%, are facing” explained panelist Mario Dartayet-Rodriguez, Organizing Director, AFSME DC 37, and member of Labor Outreach Committee and Direct Action working group of OWS.
Addressing the public perception of the Occupy movement, panelist Amy Muldoon, as both union member, CWA, local 1100, and Occupy participant, CWA district 1 relationship, offered a unique perspective: “…when people look at Occupy what they want to capture is the spirit of the occupy movement, and I think too often people talk about style and not substance. Because I think the success of occupy is about substance; it’s about the class anger that’s out here. Besides the anti-capitalist tone that really resonates with people, it was the commitment to disruption that really was satisfying to turn on. People want to shut the disgusting system down.”
Comparing Occupy directly to the labor movement, Mario Dartayet-Rodriguez noted, “We clearly differ on many issues including the endorsement of political candidates, reforms versus real change, representative democracy vs. direct democracy, but we agree on the most central issue: power distribution. And at the end of the day, unions have generally been about taking power through direct action… organized labor is the most natural ally that OWS could possibly have.” Panelist Tammy Kim, staff professional at the Urban Justice Center and member of the OWS Immigrant Worker Justice Working Group, further enumerated the ways in which Occupy and labor relationship is mutually beneficial: “OWS is challenging labor to practice radical democracy, to allow individuals and dissenting voices to be heard, to go beyond electoral politics and pursue radical tactics that flout the law–the law never had being good for us any way. …Occupy too, had to learn from labor to be sure; More than any other entity on the left, unions know how to take the long view, to strategically design and pursue campaigns, and how to scale up.”
Though labor and Occupy may be partners en route to social change now, Tammy Kim closed her speech on a foreboding note: “At this point, moving forward, planning for May 1st will be a test of the relationship between Occupy and big labor. Will unions step up… to support vulnerable pockets of the American working class and practice social justice unionism? Or will a push towards election year drive a visible wedge between us and labor?” Panelist John Samuelson, leader of Transport Workers Union, Local 100–notably the first union to endorse Occupy Wall Street pledged his support for a May Day general strike. However, he remained skeptical that “we may be the only ones out there.” Nevertheless, he concluded, “It’s clear how OWS has helped organized labor, it was clearly stagnated across the city. The Occupy movement has provided the electrical spark that got organized labor out on the street. …It would be logical and practical for labor and OWS to join together to organize one huge [May Day] event in the city.”
Cecily McMillan is Northeast regional coordinator for the Young Democratic Socalists. She studied at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. In addition to her participation in YDS, previous political involvement includes co-founding and leading her campus’ FairWisconsin student organization, as well as organizing campus-wide political debates and small discussion groups. Before college, she was employed in Atlanta by Georgia PIRG, canvassing for community support on key environmental issues.