Occupy Wake-Up Call Caps Remarkable Year

Photo: David Sachs/SEIU.

It’s been an exhilarating year. Crowds of people finally moved into resistance after decades of misrule.

The year began with Egypt, moved quickly to the snowy streets of Wisconsin, and re-erupted in August with Verizon workers out on strike and longshore unionists in Washington state dumping scab grain onto railroad tracks.

What no one could have predicted was that a relatively small number of young people at Occupy Wall Street would touch off a wave of imitators across the country, from Detroit to Abilene.

November’s electoral victory in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich’s anti-union bill went down to sound defeat, capped off a remarkable year for American workers.

The pervasive resonance of the “We Are the 99%” message forced even a complacent media to begin reporting on the soaring inequality—in income, in taxes, in wealth, in power—that has worsened most Americans’ lives for more than three decades.

The new-found energy is rejuvenating, making it easy to forget that we haven’t won most of these battles yet. Our side is now fighting, but the other side is still on offense. The continuing strife in Egypt reminds us of the staying power it takes to transform a society. No one knows what will become of the Occupy movement, though its message is sure to persist.

Still, we’re way ahead of where we were this time last year. It’s heartening to see the welcoming reaction of union leaders and members to the Occupy movement. Likewise for the willingness of Occupiers to work with unions—institutions they had good reason to see as hidebound.

LEARNING FROM OCCUPY

It’s ironic that for years unions have been saying many of the same things as the Occupiers but Occupy captured the public imagination and unions haven’t.

Unions are far larger than the Occupy assemblies, with members who are more strategically located to wield power. So why did Occupy take off?

1. The Occupiers chose a bold tactic, symbolically seizing Wall Street, the symbol of the 1%. Unions seldom even strike anymore, much less force themselves into the public eye. In 2010 we saw only 11 strikes of more than 1,000 workers.

In the 1970s, in contrast, there were 269 big strikes a year.

To see what a workplace occupation might do for labor, we have only to remember the Republic Windows workers’ occupation of their Chicago factory in December 2008. That small group not only won their demand but gained admiration nationwide.

2. The Occupiers have a better slogan.

For the last 20 years unions have insistently defended the middle class, by which is meant workers with middle incomes.

The 99% slogan captures far better the idea that we have an unrighteous enemy. Naming the 1% points to the pinnacle of the economy. Harping on “the middle class” just says that union members differentiate themselves from the poor.

3. A crucial aspect of movement-building is defining the enemy. Occupy’s slogan evokes class hatred. The notion of a 1% says a tiny oligarchy has killed democracy.

Many unions, in contrast, spent the 1980s and 1990s trapped in cooperation plans and partnership with employers. If the employers were our partners, who was it that was downsizing, globalizing, speeding up, demanding concessions?

Unions are still sometimes weakened by the futile desire for partnership with their adversaries. United Auto Workers President Bob King recently wrote: “The UAW is fundamentally a moderate, pragmatic and socially responsible player in the dialogue.” Who is that supposed to inspire, the 1% or the 99ers?

4. If you want to get the attention of the powers that be, you have to throw sand in the gears.

We shouldn’t forget how important order and control are to governments and corporations. They must show they’re in control even when it comes to who’s sleeping where. That’s why the defiance implied by the park encampments had to be crushed.

In labor’s own biggest uprising in years, in Wisconsin last winter, most of the action was rallies. Some attracted more than 100,000 people—a monumental showing. But they didn’t impede business as usual: profit-making and the functions of government.

Members and supporters were mobilized as never before, and the answer to the question “What next?” was “recall Republicans.”

Labor needs to relearn an old lesson: We make progress when we disrupt business as usual. It will take risk and sacrifice—not necessarily sleeping out in the cold, but the risk of losing the “middle-class” respectability that our leaders have grown so fond of.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #394, January 2012. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.