Occupy Activism Shows the Way Forward for Labor


The Occupy movement has played a big role in building solidarity for the labor movement in recent months. From supporting the Sotheby workers in New York City, to the LA port drivers and longshore workers on the west coast, many in the Occupy movement are looking to link up with the unions to build a powerful movement of the working class.

And the Occupy movement is demonstrating the way forward. Although activists should have worked through the democratic structures of the unions and not unilaterally, the recent December 12 port shut down marked a step forward for the Occupy and labor movement. Coordinated actions on December 12 blockaded, disrupted or shut down ports in a number of cities on the west coast. This has helped put the idea of mass determined collective action – traditions from the 1930s labor struggles that built the unions in the first place – back into the discussion about how to fight back against the 1%.

However, the December 12 protest brought out tensions between Occupy and labor leaders. It provoked a major debate in the movement and created tensions both within AFL-CIO west coast labor councils and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) – between those that supported the bold action and those that opposed it.

In many ways the Occupy movement, since its inception, has provided a challenge to the main union leaders in the U.S. The Occupy movement has inspired a new generation of young people who want to build a dynamic, powerful movement of working people, relying on our power to protest, organize, and disrupt business as usual. But, this vision is not shared by many union leaders today whose outlook has been shaped by a period of huge setbacks for labor.

While workers and unions have been on the defensive for decades, the union leaders have hesitated to put forward bold fighting policies that measure up to the needs of waging a successful struggle against Corporate America. Instead, the union leaders have focused on helping Democrats get elected, wasting billions of dollars on a party that has sided with the 1% again and again.

Supporting the Democrats is a dead end for labor. What is needed to reverse the situation for workers and the labor movement is exactly what the Occupy movement has demonstrated – bold, mass, direct action and strikes that utilize our power as workers.

It’s encouraging that many labor leaders have enthusiastically supported the Occupy movement. But, at the same time, when many labor leaders have taken the lead and organized under the slogans of the Occupy movement, they have often done it with the same old conservative methods and policies.

On November 17, SEIU leaders used their resources and staff to usurp control of the NYC bridge protest on the two month anniversary of the beginning of Occupy Wall Street after weeks of planning with other Occupy activists. They imposed their speakers using their sound amplification – not the people’s mic – and they advocated support for the Obama administration. They also imposed their stewards to direct the protest onto the sidewalks, in spite of Occupy’s traditional tactic of organizing unpermitted marches through the streets.

Many union leaders, like SEIU, have even used the movement as a platform to help the Democrats’ attempts to co-opt the movement, despite the fact that this movement emerged precisely because the Obama administration, elected by a wave of anger at the bailouts and the destructive big business policies of the Bush administration, failed to deliver for the 99%.

It’s indicative of the conservative nature of the present union leaders, that the successful December 12 action was called by Occupy and not by the leaders of AFL-CIO unions. Moreover, a number of union leaders opposed and, in some cases, actively discouraged participation in the December 12 action. A delegate from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595 even tried to put forward a resolution condemning the action in the Alameda County Labor Council.

Despite this opposition an important section of rank and file union members and non-unionized port workers still offered a lot of support on December 12, showing the potential for building a powerful challenge to the conservative policies of the present union leaders, and rebuilding the labor movement on the basis of fighting policies and mass determined action.

The Occupy movement has demonstrated the way forward and has opened up a new chapter for the labor movement, laying the groundwork for a new unionism in 21st Century U.S., based on returning to the traditions of the 1930s – occupations, mass actions, and general strikes. But, this possibility will only be fully realized if the Occupy activists and rank and file union members systematically organize inside the unions to transform them, campaigning for fighting policies, waging campaigns against the conservative policies, concessionary contracts, and hopeless reliance on the Democrats.

More importantly, activists need to support every step forward the labor movement takes, starting with the important solidarity campaign for longshore workers in Longview, Washington.

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