The Occupy Wall Street uprising and the US labour movement

November 30th, 2011

Published on Pambazuka News, by Farooque Chowdhury and Michael D. Yates, Nov. 24, 2011.

As the Occupy Wall Street uprising creates a political opening for more radical thinking and acting around the world, Farooque Chowdhury and Michael D. Yates speak to four US labour activists to explore possible alliances between the organisers of OWS efforts and the labour movement, to help transform a dehumanizing social system … //  

… However, if the embrace of OWS by the labor movement is an exciting prospect, it is not without its problems. United Auto Workers dissident Greg Shotwell put it bluntly and directly when he said,

Occupiers should be wary of trusting union leaders who have consistently undermined, sold out, and betrayed every militant uprising or cry for more democracy in the labor movement. Most union leaders in the U.S. are wedded to the prostitution of social ideals. Every union in the United States is in thrall to the number one pimp on Wall Street, the Democratic Party. Concession and compromise to the One Percent is the M.O. of U.S. unions. Rank-and-file workers should be able to see themselves in the bloody skull of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen, struck dumb by Oakland police. Every day workers make heroic sacrifices to provide a dignified life for their families. Every day union leaders shoot down workers’ aspirations and incapacitate any chance workers have to shield their families from the latest act of economic terrorism.

Where is the union leader in the United States today who has the temerity to defy the capitalist oligarchy? For the most part, we don’t have genuine union leaders, we have corporate servants with union titles and six-figure salaries. When U.S. corporations invested profits “Made in America” overseas, labor unions in the U.S. cut wages for new hires and blamed foreign competition. When U.S. corporations underfunded pensions, U.S. labor leaders forced retirees to make sacrifices.

The operative word for rank-and-file workers isn’t competition, concession, or compromise. The operative word is Occupy …


  • OWS continues to surprise and amaze me, making it hard to predict where it is going. Every day it seems possible that the movement will die, given police brutality and political crackdowns. There are infiltrators and provocateurs, and serious debates about direction and strategy. There are internal problems related to living in tight quarters and having to learn how to self-govern in communities of strangers. The cold weather is brutal.
  • Yet the movement keeps going and expanding! In many cities, the occupations have begun to intersect with already existing organizations and activism, such as fights against foreclosures and tuition hikes. Even if the occupation camps themselves dwindle, it is hard to believe there is any going backwards from here.
  • The labor movement will not be able to revitalize itself by coopting OWS. It will only benefit if it remains flexible and open, allowing the energy of Occupy to pull the labor movement to the left, to more radical demands and more militant tactics. Occupy must serve as a home base to unite seemingly disparate struggles, providing a larger narrative and maintaining a more revolutionary vision of how to do politics and how to rebuild the world. We’ve been failing in our struggles in part because we’ve been atomized, leading unions to believe that they can focus energy on a contract fight to “save the middle class,” while ignoring the growing poverty among their unemployed neighbors. Unions believed they can change the world by turning out voters to elect labor-endorsed candidates who then build more prisons and allow more deportations.
  • For many decades, the left has been without a competing vision for the world. With the supposed triumph of capitalism we had nothing to point to as an alternative. Occupy encampments have their challenges, but as people do the hard work to communicate and work together, to feed and care for one another, to learn how to collectivize space and self-govern, perhaps they can provide some reality to the slogan “Another World is Possible.”


  • The occupation movement has been unfairly but predictably criticized in the mainstream media for having an ill-defined political agenda and no clear path to institutionalizing its struggle against longstanding abuses of corporate power in America. While all that gets sorted out in its free-wheeling “general assemblies around the country, Occupy Wall Street has already given our timorous, unimaginative, and often politically confused unions a much-needed ideological dope slap, as noted above in discussion of pre- and post-OWS “framing” of key labor struggles. Organizationally, OWS would do well to attach itself — and that’s already happened in places like Portland, Oregon — to Jobs with Justice, the “action faction” of the labor movement most capable of interacting productively with more amorphous student/community forces.


  • Occupations will have to reach out to workers if they want to become truly powerful. Right now, they are attracting some young workers and getting them excited about direct democracy, something that is sorely missing in most unions. Workers who are not hanging out with occupations will need to see concrete acts of solidarity coming their way, as the Teamsters at Sotheby’s in New York City have done.


  • I don’t know that OWS needs to continue expanding. It was a protest wave that succeeded far beyond anyone’s hopes and has shown us that there is a hunger out there in America for somebody to stick it to the banks. But at some point camping out in these particular places will outlive its usefulness as a visibility tactic. I don’t know what will be the next big protest wave, but I know we will need one to resist the coming demands for austerity and cutbacks. Is it important that whatever happens next be called “occupy so and so” and include campouts and such? Maybe, but also maybe something else.
  • We on the left have a weakness for getting stuck on something if it seems to work once. For instance, after the anti-corporate protests against the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999, the entire U.S. left threw all its energy into attempting to shut down other meetings of trade bodies for the next five years, with a declining rate of success and relevance.
  • I think most cities will have their police clear the protest camps out of the visible downtown locations over the next couple weeks. Those encampments that remain will dwindle in the cold weather and eventually be abandoned. Eventually, the fickle public majority that has expressed support will move on. The pattern of the protest-based left in the United States seems to be that, every few years, the left is part of an eruption of protest around an issue that captivates a large portion of the country in a dramatic way and then recedes without having left behind any ongoing organization. The anti-corporate globalization protests of 99-01, the antiwar protests of 04, the immigrant protests of 06, Wisconsin and OWS in ‘12. Who knows what the next one will be, but I bet it will erupt in two to four years.
  • Regardless, my own opinion is that we need to rebuild the ongoing, day-to-day institutions of a mass left, like the labor movement. So I spend a lot more of my political energy trying to help grow the power of the union for which I work than going to protests anymore. But it was been a wonderful thing, in Wisconsin and then during the Occupy thing, going to some great inspiring protests again. I hope these upsurges come more often and with more intensity.

C&Y: Thank you all for your remarks. We think that readers are going to find them of great interest. (full long long interview text).

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