The Working Class and Occupy Wall Street
Union membership doesn’t increase much due to patient organizing work, as sociologist Dan Clawson explained in “The Next Upsurge : Labor and the New Social Movements”, published in 2003. Instead, it shoots up during upsurges of strike activity, and then levels off. According to Clawson, in the 1980s and ’90s, unions had slowly developed new tactics, including corporate campaigns, labor-community alliances, and new attitudes towards social movements, which improved their chances in the difficult new political and economic conditions. Thus, even though membership was flat or declining, the stage was being set for a new upsurge.
Around 2005 I saw Clawson at a panel at the American Sociological Association’s yearly convention. Perhaps impatient for the next upsurge to materialize, his most memorable comment was “Where is the left? There is always a left that helps propel the upsurge.” But there was no left visible in the U. S. The following years were not kind to Clawson’s thesis. Far from a new upsurge, strike activity in the U.S. declined to stupefyingly low levels. A sociologist just arrived from another planet might suspect that strikes are repressed with brutal force in the U.S., given their rarity. In fact, a more relevant consideration is probably the fear of both unions and workers that they would lose what they have.
In December of 2008, as the U.S. was reeling from the financial crisis, workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago began a sit-down strike when the owner closed the factory because he could no longer get loans from Bank of America. The workers won severance pay, and in February, prodded by the new president, Barack Obama, the factory was reopened after an investor was found. Many of us who sympathize with the labor movement hoped that this strike would be a model for other workers, but little materialized. Meanwhile, Obama quietly shelved the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier to unionize.
2009 and 2010 were fairly quiet, but this year has been another story. In February, public sector workers took over the state capital in Wisconsin in a bid to stop the legislature from passing a bill stripping them of collective bargaining rights. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the struggle clearly energized the workers, and many, many supporters around the country. But that was just the start. In July, workers in an Ikea factory in Virginia voted to join a union. That victory was particularly sweet as it followed on the heels of a widely circulated article describing the awful conditions at the factory. In August, 45,000 workers struck at Verizon, although they returned to work without a contract. In early September, longshoremen in California, long known for their militancy, engaged in a confrontation exceptional even by their standards. Also in September, teachers in Tacoma, Washington illegally struck and won their major demands. That wasn’t all that happened in September: Nurses rallied nationwide to demand a financial transaction tax. Also, nurses held a large one-day strike in California. That is a very substantial amount of working class activity, particularly since both the longshoremen and the teachers far exceeded the cautious boundaries usually followed by the labor unions. Unions and workers are losing their fear, because, at this point, if they DON’T act they will lose what they have.
You know what else happened in September? Occupy Wall Street. What started as an encampment of a few hundred somehow exploded into a national movement, concerned above all with the question of inequality in the U.S. The hundreds of “Occupy” movements nationwide are quickly networking, sharing information, and figuring out strategies to effect change. In other words, they are acting like a new left, confounding numerous declarations that the American left is dead. They are pulling in vast numbers of people, especially but not only young people, newly excited about acting politically.
Clawson’s question (“Where is the left?”) seems to finally have an answer. And that is perhaps the most important reason I believe this year’s uptick in activity is going to turn into a genuine upsurge. Although the Occupy movement is often described as ideologically adrift and amorphous, there is considerable intuitive support for unions, as when Occupy Wall Street marched to support protests against cuts to the Post Office on September 27 (another union action, held at every congressional office in the country). There was widespread elation when unions leaped to endorse a major march supporting Occupy Wall Street on October 5. Ultimately, it seemed the bulk of protesters on that day were not union members, but the gesture of unions endorsing a march with no specific demands was startling.
Presuming the Occupy movement does not go nuts or fall apart, it can play a key role in making the next upsurge a reality. I am optimistic about this prospect, particularly because the movement is relatively dispersed right now. Some Occupy efforts will probably do better than others; some might hit dead ends due to one mistake or another, but others will likely become effective, and as they do, their example will be followed.
Here are some things the movement might do to support workers’ struggles. The Occupy movement can act as an amplifier for strikes and other activity. I suspect many readers of this post were unfamiliar with most of the actions I listed above from this year, excluding the Wisconsin mobilization. Workers’ struggles have not been foregrounded, either by the mass media, or the Twitter/Facebook left. But Occupy Wall Street has galvanized the attention of both. And to the extent that the Occupy movement adopts a workers’ struggle as its own, both the mass media and the social media will hear about it. When workers are successful in one place, it should be much easier to communicate their tactics nationwide than it was in the stillborn moment of Republic Windows and Doors.
The Occupy movement can also take direct action to support workers’ struggles, for example, by swelling the numbers at picket lines or promoting boycotts. Furthermore, the Occupy movement, because it is not a bureaucratic organization with a large membership, full-time officers, and concerns about funding, can take risks. It has more room to try something new at the risk of falling flat on its face than unions or non-profits whose ability to experiment is constrained by their established practices. I’ve often heard grumbling about the lack of organizing efforts among the unemployed in the U.S. Maybe the Occupy movement will have a go at that.
For all this to happen, the movement needs to educate itself. Learn about the existing unions in your city and town, learn about the most important points of struggle nationwide. In most cities, there are established unions, workers centers which help non-unionized members, and struggles to unionize. Sometimes there are fights outside of any of these “legitimate” channels. All are important.
That education will be facilitated by bringing the labor-community coalition to the fore of each Occupy movement. In most cities, there are activists within the unions, non-profits, and churches, who have worked to build ties between unions and the communities they are embedded in. They should be near the center of the Occupy movements. I know this movement is “leaderless,” but we all know that even in leaderless movements, there are core groups of people. That core can either look like a bunch of white countercultural types, or it can look as diverse as the working class itself, if it brings in the labor-community coalition.
The struggles of the working class are absolutely essential to the “99%“. None of the struggles identified above can be accurately described as relatively privileged union workers seeking another raise. They all touch on issues of concern to all Americans who work for a living, issues like saving the public sector, maintaining decently paying jobs and maintaining workers’ rights. Hell, the nurses began protesting Wall Street, demanding a transaction tax, back in June, before you ever heard of Occupy Wall Street. And there are many more workers who need to be brought in. Most of the large retail chains are not unionized, for example. Maybe this time next year we will be talking about Occupy Walmart.
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