Occupy Wall Street and the US labor movement.

Author:Yates, Michael D.
Position:Thinking Economically

The Occupy Wall Street uprising has taken the nation by storm, beginning in the Financial District in Manhattan and then spreading to cities and towns in every part of the country and around the world.

One especially important opening is the possible alliance between those who are organizing OWS efforts and the labor movement. Workers, simply as a function of their daily activities on the job, can do what no one else can--stop production and the flow of profits that are the lifeblood of capitalist economies. Nothing would shake the powers that be more than the threat of a militant, organized working class, ready to demonstrate, picket, strike, boycott, and agitate against every manner of corporate and political outrage, from unconscionable bank fees to unbearable student loans to the super-exploitation of immigrants, to wars to, well, you name it.

However, if the embrace of OWS by the labor movement is an exciting prospect, it is not without its problems.

In order to assess the connections between OWS and the labor movement, we conducted email interviews with four labor activists during the first two weeks of November 2011. Collectively, our interviewees have spent many decades agitating, organizing, negotiating, writing, and teaching on behalf of the working class. Steve Early worked as a New England-based organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America between 1980 and 2007. Jon Flanders is a railroad machinist, past president of his IAM local, co-chair of Railroad Workers United (a cross-craft caucus of railroaders), and Trustee of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Stephanie Luce is an Associate Professor at the Murphy Institute, City University of New York. She was a founding member of the Student Labor Action Coalition in Madison, Wisconsin, and active in the Teaching Assistants Association. Jim Straub has been active in the anti-war, global AIDS treatment, and labor movements for more than a decade. Since 2004 he has worked for the US union of healthcare, building service and public sector workers SEIU, in Ohio, Nevada, Los Angeles and Washington state. He lives in Tacoma, Washington

Chowdhury and Yates (hereinafter C&Y): What are your impressions of the OWS Uprising?

Stephanie Luce: Occupy Wall Street is the moment we've been waiting for. It isn't perfect and it is often messy, but it somehow has become the message and movement to unite hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of isolated individuals who have been suffering in the worsening economy and feeling alienated and demoralized.

In the past decade, labor and left leaders have been scrambling to find the thing that would catch on: national networks, new slogans, targeted campaigns. Some had limited success but nothing seemed to click. Why this?

One reason the OWS has flourished is precisely because it wasn't coordinated and imposed from above. There was no consultant hired to "message" the movement, no mass-produced signs and t-shirts. Those who joined the initial occupation on September 17, and probably everyone who has participated since, have felt some ownership of this movement.

Jon Flanders: The occupation movement represents both a generational shift and a beginning of much broader class consciousness in the United States.

Generational, because, for the first time, a movement has emerged that is not led by boomers of the anti-Vietnam War era.

Class-conscious, because the realization finally sank in for the young ones that things were not going to get better, that in fact they were dealing with a corrupt and rigged political system that had no place for them, except as indentured debt slaves. The initial awakening was in Wisconsin, now it has spread countrywide, and the class genie is out of the bottle.

C&Y: Do you think that the Chicago factory occupation (United Electrical Workers) and the

Wisconsin uprising were important precursors of OWS?

If so, how? Steve Early: OWS is a very worthy successor to the Wisconsin uprising (and UE's 2008 plant occupation) and will be long remembered even if it leaves no other historical footprints than its brilliant popular "framing" of the deepening class divide in this country.

Jim Straub: I do not think the Republic Windows occupation was a precursor. Honestly I think that event was significantly overhyped by leftists who projected their own fantasies onto what was essentially a very small, marginal struggle by a left-wing union that unfortunately has practically no members left.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, I think was a very remarkable mass uprising; I spent a month there working on the struggle for SEIU, and it was among the greatest experiences of my life. I think Wisconsin's eruption may go down in history as being the decisive thing that helped stop the Republicans' attempt to essentially abolish what remains of labor unions at this...

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