Trade Unions and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

By Dean Hubbard (Senior Adviser, Transport Workers’
Union of the US)

Welfare Conference 2012, Oslo, Norway

 

We are living through a critical and inspiring moment in
history, as ordinary people around the world, many for the first
time, have been stepping up in movements like

Occupy Wall Street all over the United States, the
“indignados” movements in Spain and Greece, the student
hunger strikers in Chile, independent trade unionists in Mexico,
labor-led uprisings in the Middle East, and other anti-austerity
movements throughout Europe. 

They have all been using the human mic to say “NO!”
with one voice to a world of corporate greed, where the richest 1%,
who have everything, have used that power only to create
unemployment, inequality, homelessness, environmental devastation,
and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and alienation on the
part of ordinary people everywhere.

People are through waiting, and are moving themselves to create
a new world in which the 99% have a voice, in which human rights
become more important than property interests.  And they are
saying, in essence, “we will occupy our public spaces and we
will carry out direct actions and build a new democratic community
until we believe that new world is being born.”

Who would have thought that a tiny band of young people in New
York would have helped inspire such a powerful worldwide
mobilization?  If we take a look back, it’s not that
surprising. 

For at least the last 30 years, elites in the United States have
been the chief proponent of a particularly brutal form of
capitalism known worldwide as neoliberalism, and referred to in
Latin America as the “Washington Consensus.”

The predictable result of this globalization of market
fundamentalism has been a rapidly widening gulf between the haves
and have-nots. And 30 years ago there was already a gulf that can
be traced back to colonialism and slavery and the industrial
revolution. 

But it is in the last 3 years that the global Lords of Finance
and acolytes of market fundamentalism have used the system shock of
the current global financial crisis to attempt to impose the same
“structural adjustment” on the working classes of the
empire that they did on the former colonies. And it is only since
then that massive, class-based resistance movements have awakened
in Europe and the United States.

In the United States, the Supreme Court’s Citizens
United
decision in January 2010 relied on a finding that
corporations are persons and money is their “free
speech” to open the floodgates of corporate spending in
politics. Transnational corporations and billionaires used this
opening to fund the “Tea Party,” drowning the November
2010 mid-term elections in a flood of corporate cash. This lead to
the takeover by the far right of the U.S. House of Representatives,
638 state legislative seats, and control of both the state
legislature and the Governor’s mansion in 21 states.

The extreme right then chose Wisconsin as the launching pad for
the most vicious all-out nationwide assault on organized workers,
immigrants, people of color and poor people in our lifetimes. 
But students led the Capitol occupation in Wisconsin, voters
rejected anti-union legislation in Ohio, and immigrants and their
advocates fought back with marches, hunger strikes and lawsuits
nationwide.  These events and others combined with the
uprisings in Europe, Latin America and the so-called Middle East to
create the necessary conditions for the birth and growth —so
far— of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United
States. 

Although severe state repression succeeded in reducing the size
and even shutting down many of the U.S. occupations over the
winter, the movement has begun blooming again this spring.
  Around the country, people turned out for the most
widespread and militant May Day mobilizations in the United States
in a century. We prepared for this event and many more to follow
with a historic grass roots mobilization to train 100,000 people
around the country in the techniques of nonviolent direct action.
It was called the 99% Spring.

The OWS movement has succeeded in bringing the issues of
concentrated wealth, inequality, and the threat that oligarchy
poses to democracy to public attention in the United States in a
way that the labor movement has been unable to do on its own or
even in coalition for decades.   These issues raised by
OWS are core, existential issues for the labor movement and for the
working class in the United States and around the world.

In Europe, as you all know better than me, similar movements
have helped begin to turn the tide against European austerity.
 Resistance to the politics of austerity has spread from the
young indignados of Spain and
Greece to the general European electorate.  In recent weeks,
voters in Germany, France, Greece, the Netherlands, the Czech
Republic and Romania have rejected politicians they see as
proponents of Europe’s neoliberal austerity. In Ireland, the
anti-austerity tide is swelling support for a “no” vote
in the May 31 referendum on the European Union’s neoliberal fiscal
pact.

While voter discontent has opened space for the emergence of
left alternatives to hopelessly compromised Social Democrats, like
Greece’s “True Left Party” (Syriza), it has also
led to massive gains for far-right, anti-immigrant parties. As
you all experienced so tragically here in Norway last year, and we
have experienced over and over again in the U.S., right wing
populism presents a particularly dangerous and repellent response
to capitalism in crisis. Le Pen in France, the Freedom Party in the
Netherlands, and the Golden Dawn in Greece, all mirror the politics
of Tea Party conservatives in the U.S. 

In my country, the racist right stokes the fears of the white
working class by blaming immigrants and people of color for the
destruction of the promise of the so-called American Dream,
distracting workers’ attention from the corporate elites who
outsourced their jobs and the compromised and corrupt politicians
who allowed it to happen. Sadly, this kind of demagoguery often
succeeds in spurring violent reactions that shut down progressive
change.   

Given this context, where are we headed?

For me, as someone who has spent the last nine months with one
foot in the Occupy movement and one foot in the labor movement, the
answer to that question depends on the answer to another
question.  How deeply invested will the labor movement be in
the OWS movement as it re-emerges this spring and summer? Will the
Occupy movement be viewed as a distraction from the real business
of re-electing the President, or will it be treated as an equally
necessary element of the struggle for workers’ human rights
and social and economic justice?

Some U.S. unions, including my own, were among the earliest
supporters of the Occupy movement, and share many of its ideals.
 However, the labor movement and the Occupy movement are also
quite different. Unlike most U.S. unions, many participants in the
Occupy movement take an explicitly anti-capitalist position. At the
same time, other Occupy activists display a strong streak of
economic libertarianism, which is at odds with the Social Democracy
favored by many U.S. union members. The Occupy movement makes a
point of not having a set of demands or a defined leadership,
while, as we all know, trade unions are structured representative
bodies that carefully formulate programs and demands. 

One benefit of the collaboration between labor and the Occupy
Wall Street movement in the United States has been the revival of
what were once the basic tools of the labor movement—strikes,
occupations, and other militant appeals to solidarity. The
experience of these last months has also reminded us, however, that
in the U.S. labor unions have weaker rights to freedom of
association than other activists, consumers, and, of course
corporations.

These legal restrictions on workers’ collective action are
far more repressive than what the First Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and association,
allows for other types of popular protests.  Occupy activists
learned this from hard experience when their labor allies were
reluctant to employ militant tactics favored by the Occupiers in
key actions.

For example, while dock workers in California would have liked
to join Occupiers in shutting down the Oakland port in solidarity
with the workers who had a dispute with a grain shipper seeking to
open a non-union facility in Washington, that likely would have
been a secondary strike, which the law treats as unprotected and
unlawful.  Union participation would have allowed employers
not only to shut down picket lines with injunctions and punish
unions with fines, but to fire the workers involved.  Occupy
activists recognized no such limits and proceeded to shut down the
port of Oakland, California on November 2nd and December
12th, over the objections of their union allies.

The Occupy activists’ ability to defy or avoid the worst
parts of federal labor law gave them a freedom to act that labor
did not have—and in the example I just discussed may have
helped win the battle with that non-union grain shipper. Let me be
clear.  OWS protesters did not just act when they knew the law
permitted them to do so.  They also risked arrest, and
inspired many in the labor movement with their creative, militant
actions.

Although the strategies, tactics and cultures of the labor and
OWS movements are different, they share the goal of greater
economic justice and democracy.  Each movement stands to
benefit from working with the other. The U.S. labor movement, for
example, desperately needs an infusion of the youth, courageous
street action and willingness to challenge the fundamental
injustices of our economic system that permeate the Occupy
movement.  Many, perhaps most, unions need challenges from
below to ossified, overly cautious, bureaucratic decision-making
structures that have contributed to decades of decline. 

Some labor leaders feel threatened by these kinds of changes,
and therefore resist them or believe they can ignore the Occupy
movement.  This would be a historic error on the scale of the
failure to embrace and become part of the anti-war and civil rights
movements of the 1960s.  However, many unions do recognize the
importance of the movement and are getting on board, at least with
material support, if not mobilizing their members to
participate.

On the other hand, some participants in the Occupy movement make
the mistake of seeing all law and government and even leadership
and organizational discipline as the enemy.  They believe that
a participatory democratic process and street action are all that
are needed to transform society. Participants in the Occupy
movement will benefit from working with veteran trade union
activists who do not lecture from on high but demonstrate through
joint action over the course of time that this is a naïve and
overly simplistic view of how social change works.

As someone who has been part of the movement for economic
justice for many years, my intuition is that this long overdue
class-based uprising in the United States and Europe will evolve
and grow over the course of the spring and summer, if we continue
to apply sustained, politically strategic “street heat”
that is too strong for too long for politicians to bear.

Many Occupy activists and rebellious European youth are
understandably fed up with and completely cynical about electoral
politics. Yet, as every trade unionist knows, it cannot be
ignored.  Electoral politics is a site of real contestation
over power that directly impacts workers’ livelihoods and
their families’ futures.

So what do I mean by politically strategic? The reason the right
in my country made such a concerted effort to pass voter
suppression, anti-immigrant and anti-union laws in 2010 was
simple:  The 2008 Presidential elections saw record numbers of
union members, students, people of color, recent immigrants and low
income voters cast their ballots.  Members of these
communities voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008. 
These are the same communities whose votes would be blocked
disproportionately if voter ID and anti-immigrant laws were passed.
 And weakening unions removes one of the last obstacles to
total political and economic hegemony by billionaires and their
political agents.

So the US labor movement, instead of focusing exclusively on
electing helpful politicians, should be organizing and mobilizing
our members and building coalitions with the Occupy movement and
others around the issues of immigrant rights, voter suppression and
responses to the attacks on collective bargaining in politically
strategic states. If they remain truly independent, these
coalitions have the potential both to build on the momentum of the
Occupy movement to create sustained political pressure from the
streets, and to energize the electorate to vote out proponents of
austerity, as we are seeing in Europe.

The chief internal problem the labor movement faces is that, in
the half century since the Great Depression, many unions have
become so institutionally entangled with the Democratic Party and
so focused on servicing members and lobbying politicians that they
have lost the capacity to effectively mobilize mass movements for
systemic change.

This is why the Occupy movement presents such an important
opportunity for labor.  It is only by building a sustained
popular global movement on a greater scale than anything any of us
have ever experienced that we will be able to halt the rise of
right wing hate groups, stop the politics of austerity, and shift
power relations in favor of the global majority. 

This is serious business. Neoliberal capital will seek to crush
those who stand in its way. Practically speaking, how are we
preparing to help the Greek left win the elections on June 17, and
to survive the onslaught if they do?  If the left wins and
makes good on its promise to stop repaying or renegotiate the debt,
and the dominant states of the European Union and their neoliberal
paymasters decide to crack down, where will Greece get its oil?
Where will they get financial credits?

Given that the Lords of Finance have turned the weapons of
empire on the people of the colonizing countries, perhaps it is
time for those us who live in those countries to look south for
inspiration.  I am thinking in particular of Latin America,
where decades of broad popular resistance to neoliberalism among
formerly colonized countries has paid off in long-term shifts in
political and economic power relations. Cuba, for example, is no
longer an isolated beacon of socialism.  It has been joined by
Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, several Caribbean nations,
and to a lesser extent even Argentina and Brazil, in building a
regional alliance for integration premised on social solidarity and
mutual aid rather than exploitation and market fundamentalism.

The member states of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of
our America, or ALBA, are in the process of introducing a new
regional currency, the SUCRE, and
an alternative banking system.  They already have a regional
television network, and member states have developed trade
agreements based on solidarity and mutual need, such as the
exchange of doctors for oil between Cuba and Venezuela. 

With respect, the experience of the ALBA countries suggests that
it may not be the vision of European unity that is flawed,
but the existing neoliberal model of the European
Union.  ALBA suggests that a path towards an alternative
vision for a United Europe is not a pipe dream.  As they say
in Spanish, “se hace el camino por andar.” You make the
path by walking it.

If we in the labor movement give ourselves heart and soul to the
Occupy and indignados movements, and articulate a clear vision for
an alternative to the neoliberal status quo, we will help sustain
and build the global mass mobilization against austerity for the
long term. Then, we will win the argument where it counts—in
the workplace and the streets. Our voices, our bodies, our actions
have power—let’s use them.

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