Labor and Occupy on the Same Road?

   by Cecily McMillan

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.

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A Lesson for Labor From Occupy Wall Street

 by Steve Early

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has given our timorous, unimaginative, and  politically ambivalent unions a much-needed ideological dope slap. Some might describe this, more diplomatically, as a second injection of “outside-the-box” thinking and new organizational blood.

Top AFL-CIO officials first sought an infusion of those scarce commodities in labor when they jetted into Wisconsin last winter.  Without their planning or direction, the spontaneous community-labor uprising in Wisconsin was in the process of recasting the debate about public sector bargaining throughout the U.S. So they were eager to join the protest even though it was launched from the bottom up, rather than in response to union headquarters directives from Washington, D.C.

This fall, OWS has become the new Lourdes for the old, lame, and blind of American labor. Union leaders have been making regular visits to Zuccotti Park and other high-profile encampments around the country. According to NYC retail store union leader Stuart Applebaum, “the Occupy movement has changed unions”—both in the area of membership mobilization and ”messaging.”

It would be a miraculous transformation indeed if organized labor suddenly embraced greater direct action, democratic decision-making, and rank-and-file militancy.  Since that’s unlikely to occur in the absence of internal upheavals, unions might want to focus instead on casting aside the crutch of their own flawed messaging. That means adopting the Occupation movement’s brilliant popular “framing” of the class divide and ditching labor’s own muddled conception of class in America.

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Occupy Wall Street and America’s Democratic Tradition

by Amy Dean

Amy B. Dean

I was recently talking with some friends who work at the Chicago Board of Trade. Hearing the opinions voiced by Occupy Wall Street protesters, the traders agreed that they’d seen disturbing changes within their industry. While they might have written off criticisms 15 years ago, they’ve since watched the financial sector become more and more based on speculative gambling—with people trying to make profits by moving money around rather than by supporting real economic activity. To a surprising degree, my friends were willing to consent that the system has grown bankrupt. Yet, while they share some of the activists’ criticisms, they don’t like the street protests and are doubtful that the occupations will help our democracy.

I have been sympathetic to their concerns, but I ultimately disagree with their assessment of the protests’ importance. Occupy Wall Street is rooted in a deep tension in American life. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville illuminated how the conflict between equality and liberty is at the center of the American political drama. That we are now having an open and spirited debate about the optimal balance between these two values is a crucial, and welcome, development.

For decades, we have focused on extending liberty in the realm of the marketplace, but this has come at the expense of democratic equality. There was a time when our government approached economic policies with a dual bottom line: Policies were meant to create not only competitiveness, but also social well-being. In recent decades, however, our policy-makers have shifted to pursuing competitiveness as an end in itself, without regard for social benefit. As a result, we now witness a failure to create broadly shared prosperity—a failure that takes the form of glaring inequalities of wealth.

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Let’s Meet the 99 Percent Where They’re at

by Chris Maisano

Chris Maisano at Occupy Wall Street

As the #OccupyWallStreet protests in lower Manhattan near their one-month anniversary, it’s worth taking stock of what has been accomplished so far and what remains to be done in the weeks, months, and even years ahead.

Since its birth on September 17, this phenomenon (I still hesitate to call it a movement) has accomplished very much indeed. It has captured the imagination of countless people in the United States and around the world, and garnered a great deal of attention in the mainstream media. It has shown that discontent with the exceedingly bleak political-economic situation that confronts us does not come exclusively from the libertarian and conservative Right. While the populist cry of “we are the 99 percent” may set my Marxist teeth on edge, it nonetheless speaks to the aspirations, insecurities, and interests of the working-class majority and points toward the construction of a solidaristic, collective political subject—a highly welcome development for a Left that’s typically been far more concerned with the politics of recognition and difference in recent decades. And in inspiring at least 150 copycat protests in cities and towns across the country, it has fired hopes that—at long last—a new period of mass social protest has begun.

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Labor Occupies Wall Street, But Democrats Go in Reverse

by Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw
As the grassroots campaign against Wall Street grows, Democratic politicians are moving in the opposite direction. President Obama has secured the House Republican support necessary to pass three trade bills strongly opposed by organized labor and most Democrats. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who like Obama was elected with huge labor funding and ground support, took a particularly hard public line against the state’s second largest public employee union for voting down a concessionary contract; Cuomo seeks to avoid charges that he is “too beholden” to labor unions. And then we have California’s Governor Jerry Brown. After being hailed at a recent labor event as the virtual second coming of Joe Hill, Brown vetoed a bill to facilitate the unionization of low-paid childcare workers. He also vetoed a measure that would have given San Franciscans the right to fund public services by voting to raise their own taxes. With “allies” like these, no wonder labor unions decline while Wall Street’s power grows.Amidst growing protests against Wall Street, leading Democrats remain more concerned with being viewed as “standing up to labor” rather than as boosting labor’s clout.

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