Occupy the Workplace

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Chicago police arrest mem­bers of National Nurses United, and tear down their first aid tent at Occupy Chicago.

The Occupy Wall Street phe­nom­e­non has achieved a stature and longevity unri­valed by recent demon­stra­tions in the United States, and has under­stand­ably struck a chord with a wide range of peo­ple dis­mayed by the bar­baric level of inequal­ity that is the defin­ing fea­ture of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can soci­ety. As the small encamp­ment in lower Man­hat­tan has swelled and spread to cities across the coun­try, the ral­ly­ing cry of the “99%” has at least momen­tar­ily intro­duced the main­stream dis­course to a con­cep­tion of class, which is usu­ally miss­ing from the polit­i­cal the­ater show­cased on cor­po­rate news out­lets. The risks posed by an over-reliance on mass media cov­er­age notwith­stand­ing, the orga­niz­ers’ abil­ity to attract the pub­lic eye has been impres­sive and is an encour­ag­ing reminder that most peo­ple are yearn­ing for a polit­i­cal vision that res­onates with the mate­r­ial anx­i­eties they feel. As the most bru­tal eco­nomic cri­sis in over a gen­er­a­tion grinds on for the third con­sec­u­tive year, per­haps most sur­pris­ing is that it has taken so long for such an upsurge to occur.

How­ever, while an inner-core of par­tic­i­pants may remain for months, with time the size of the direct occu­pa­tions will likely wane and media atten­tion will slowly grav­i­tate to more prof­itable ven­tures. The trav­esty that unfolded in Wis­con­sin over the past ten months should serve as a painful reminder of that inevitabil­ity. And though the moment’s polit­i­cal salience may briefly per­sist, it will be fleet­ing unless anchored in some­thing more durable than a demon­stra­tion, throw­ing into sharp relief the need for a level of orga­ni­za­tion that can sus­tain and expand upon the Occupy energy. The slo­gan of the “99%” may have tremen­dous rhetor­i­cal cur­rency, but his­tory shows that there is no short­cut to the long-term, painstak­ing task of gen­er­at­ing a real move­ment: meet­ing peo­ple where they are, build­ing trust and strug­gling with them over the issues they’re wor­ried about, con­nect­ing those anx­i­eties to a coher­ent polit­i­cal pro­gram, and con­sol­i­dat­ing those efforts into a force to be reck­oned with. While many of the Occupy work­ing groups may be begin­ning this project, most of the mil­lions who con­sti­tute the “99%” have been unable or unwill­ing to par­tic­i­pate and need to be reached by some other means. OWS can be an oppor­tu­nity to start this process, but it is not a spark that will spread on its own.

Here the civil rights move­ment, which is often invoked in rela­tion to OWS, is instruc­tive. Unmen­tioned in most grade school lore on the sub­ject, the strug­gle for racial jus­tice grew out of a deeply rooted orga­ni­za­tional appa­ra­tus that had been con­structed through decades of dili­gent labor and com­mu­nity orga­niz­ing. Rosa Parks was a sea­soned activist who had been trained at the leg­endary left­ist orga­niz­ing acad­emy, the High­lander Folk School, and Mar­tin Luther King Jr. owes his begin­nings to vet­eran trade union­ists who recruited him. No mir­a­cles ini­ti­ated this his­toric fight; it was planned and exe­cuted by indi­vid­u­als and their orga­ni­za­tions who through years of strug­gle in pur­suit of con­crete demands had cul­ti­vated pow­er­ful bases of sup­port in spe­cific communities.

Only through fol­low­ing this long-term orga­niz­ing approach can OWS begin to har­ness the anger and energy it has made vis­i­ble and trans­late it in into a dynamic, class-conscious move­ment. And only the labor move­ment has the expe­ri­ence and orga­ni­za­tional capac­ity to take on the chal­lenge. Weak­ened though they may be, and with all the lim­i­ta­tions of their seden­tary bureau­cra­cies, unions are still the most demo­c­ra­tic mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tions in the United States, with estab­lished activists and infra­struc­tures in cities across the coun­try that pos­sess the prac­ti­cal skills and resources nec­es­sary to carry on the fight, par­tic­u­larly when it becomes less vis­i­bly excit­ing. Though union den­sity has pre­cip­i­tously declined in recent decades, still today mil­lions of peo­ple have expe­ri­enced real improve­ments in their lives through work­place strug­gles led by exist­ing labor unions, a much larger and more rep­re­sen­ta­tive cross-section of the pop­u­la­tion than is likely to turn out at any “Occupy” event.

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that his­tor­i­cally, orga­nized labor has been the most effec­tive vehi­cle for chal­leng­ing eco­nomic inequal­ity; it is an empir­i­cal real­ity that when unions are weak wealth con­cen­trates in the hands of the few, and when they’re strong it is at least a bit more evenly dis­trib­uted. A recent study demon­strated that between 1973 and 2007 pri­vate sec­tor union­iza­tion decreased by over 75% and inequal­ity increased by 40%. In this spirit, OWS might best be con­sid­ered as an oppor­tu­nity to push the main­stream labor move­ment toward a more aggres­sive orga­niz­ing strat­egy and, hope­fully, an alter­na­tive polit­i­cal vision. Rank-and-file mil­i­tants in a vari­ety of unions have engaged in this gru­el­ing project for decades, with some suc­cesses and many set­backs, and per­haps the most encour­ag­ing fea­ture of OWS is the space it might cre­ate for more work of this sort. How­ever, an oppor­tu­nity is only as valu­able as the con­crete steps taken to cap­i­tal­ize on it, and unless the strate­gic think­ing needed to ori­ent and ini­ti­ate that process begins in earnest, this wave of activism will likely join the recent anti-globalization and immi­grants’ rights demon­stra­tions in the annals of mod­ern left his­tory while neolib­er­al­ism con­tin­ues its plun­der unscathed.

A num­ber of unions have taken up the OWS man­tle and some inspir­ing labor-community part­ner­ships have grown out of it. The New York City Trans­port Work­ers Union (TWU) Local 100 was an early sup­porter, and even went to court to pre­vent police from order­ing union dri­vers to bus arrested demon­stra­tors to jail. The National Nurses United (NNU), one of the most pro­gres­sive and mil­i­tant unions, has been present at occu­pa­tions around the coun­try admin­is­ter­ing flu shots and pro­vid­ing basic med­ical assis­tance. And the coura­geous art han­dlers of Team­sters Local 814 who have been locked-out of Sotheby’s auc­tion house – a quin­tes­sen­tial sym­bol of the “1%” – have cul­ti­vated a remark­able level of sol­i­dar­ity with the New York occu­pa­tion, turn­ing out bus loads to their ral­lies and gain­ing inter­na­tional atten­tion in the process. These three exam­ples rep­re­sent ele­ments of the most dynamic and forward-looking wing of an oth­er­wise rather glacial labor estab­lish­ment that always seems to be on the defen­sive. The best chance OWS has to become the kind of force nec­es­sary to win a more just soci­ety lies in fol­low­ing their lead.

Author of the article

is a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. He has worked for SEIU.