Occupy and the Unions

  1. The Occupy movement inspired the active ranks of the labor movement and challenged conservative union leaders. At the same time, for the Occupy activists the problem of how to relate to the unions is causing substantial political debate. On the West Coast especially, both the conservatism of union leaders and the ultra-leftism of sections of the Occupy movement is on full display. It’s worth taking a closer look at the conflict between the leadership of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and Occupy activists because it provides the best window into this broader process.
  2. Following the major police crackdown on Occupy Oakland in October, a 2,000-strong general assembly called for a “general strike” and a march to shut down the huge Port of Oakland on November 2. With widespread sympathy for Occupy among union ranks, many labor leaders were pushed further than they wanted to go, officially supporting the action, which was respected by the longshore workers. In reality, there were very few actual workplace strikes, but many workers took personal or sick days, students walked out, and longshore workers didn’t cross the mass community pickets set up at the Port of Oakland. Estimates range from 15,000-30,000, making it the biggest Occupy protest outside of NYC. This excellent mass action, while not a general strike, dramatically boosted the confidence and authority of Occupy Oakland. At the same time, through a positive example of what is possible, it exposed the shameful failure of labor leaders to organize similar actions of their own against Corporate America.
  3. For this reason, the subsequent West Coast Port Shutdown on December 12 and actions called by Occupy groups to defend the Longview ILWU in their dispute with EGT met with public denunciations from leaders of the ILWU and other union tops. Union officials bitterly complained that Occupy groups failed to get agreement through official union channels when they called for the December 12 shutdown or the subsequent call to shut down the Longview port when the EGT ship docked to be unloaded with scab labor. But with important sections of ILWU ranks supporting the actions – particularly in Longview, where the labor dispute was centered – it’s clear the leadership’s attitude flowed from fear of losing authority and having their conservative, law-abiding, failed methods of struggle challenged.
  4. At the same time, mistakes conditioned by ultra-left political trends within Occupy handed unnecessary opportunities for union leaders, the corporate media, police, and government officials to isolate the port shutdown actions. Rather than dismissively avoiding direct negotiations with union leaders, Occupy activists – including left-wing rank-and-file longshore workers – should have clearly proposed joint action for the West Coast Port Shutdown through official union channels. Even if this had been rejected, the union leaders would not have been able to hide behind the issue of democratic process.
  5. Similarly, when Occupy activists connected with the “Black Orchid Collective” organized a solidarity meeting in Seattle for the ILWU Local 21 workers in Longview, WA, they did so without seriously attempting direct dialogue with ILWU leaders. Conservative elements within the ILWU seized on this mistake to disrupt the solidarity meeting, promoting a statement by the ILWU president arguing against Occupy plans to shut down the Longview Port when the EGT ship docked to be unloaded by scab labor. Despite the presence of rank-and-file ILWU members speaking at the meeting in favor of the shutdown tactic, ILWU leaders tried to portray Occupy as a completely outside group imposing their approach on the workers. The pro-leadership group broke up the solidarity meeting by yelling and shoving other activists.
  6. The next day, the Black Orchid Collective issued a statement correctly denouncing this undemocratic and disruptive behavior. However, their statement also attempted to portray the Occupy movement as a budding new leadership for the working class, in effect attempting to substitute Occupy for the unions. While many workers are sympathetic to and inspired by Occupy, with some unionists taking an active part, this energy should be used to help left oppositionists transform – not replace – the unions. The International Socialist Organization published articles correctly criticizing the Black Orchid Collective for attempting to bypass the unions but scandalously failing to criticize the union leaders’ right-wing offensive against Occupy and the rank-and-file militancy of the ILWU!
  7. Despite these political weaknesses and divisions, the mass solidarity and militancy of the ILWU and the Occupy movement still succeeded in scoring a major victory, forcing EGT to concede on the key issue of the ILWU’s right to operate the grain terminal in Longview and on other issues. It appears the Obama administration did not want to take the heat this election year for using the U.S. Coast Guard, a branch of the U.S. military, to bust the ILWU and, instead, arranged behind the scenes for Washington State Democratic Governor Gregoire to force EGT to make a number of important concessions. The Democrats would never have done this, however, if it were not for the militancy and mass mobilizations of the ILWU and Occupy.
  8. Of course, struggles in 2012 will not be limited to the Occupy movement. The continuing budget cuts and attacks on trade union rights could provoke fresh waves of working class resistance, particularly in the public sector, which remains the most densely unionized sector of the U.S. labor movement. The Occupy movement stirred up renewed confidence and a mood to fight within the union ranks and among some union leaders.
  9. At the same time, many labor leaders used support for Occupy to cover up a year of defeats and concessions. The Wisconsin movement, initiated from below, was derailed by union leaders’ sabotaging the general strike campaign and channeling the struggle into their electoral recall strategy. This failed strategy flows from their deep ties to the Democratic Party as well as their generally timid, conservative outlook. Even if unions succeed this year at replacing Governor Walker with a Democrat, workers should not expect a Democratic Wisconsin governor to reverse Walker’s budget cuts or all of his attacks on union rights.
  10. Big business and politicians have continued their attacks on unions since their victory in Wisconsin. We should not forget that even Democrats initiated major anti-union legislation last year, most notably in Illinois and Massachusetts, underscoring how the frontal assault on U.S. labor is part of an overall capitalist offensive, not simply a right-wing Republican agenda. Unions in Ohio were able to reverse anti-labor legislation through a big referendum victory in November. The vote reflected the popular swing against right-wing anti-worker propaganda. It also showed that unions can reach out and unite broad layers of workers when they want to. However, most labor leaders only know how to mobilize for elections, and as long as they remain tied to the Democrats, this means marching unions into their grave.
  11. The Indiana legislature, dominated by Republicans, just delivered another severe blow to organized labor. The January passage of a “right to work” law banning closed-shop union workplaces makes Indiana the 23rd “right to work” state, with most others concentrated in the South and other mainly rural, low union density states. Indiana’s traditionally strong unions organized boisterous but small rallies at the state house to support the Democrats’ stall-tactics on the bill, but had no serious mass movement strategy to defeat it. There should have been a major national mobilization and a bold class appeal to non-union workers to organize Wisconsin-style mass protests and, this time, coordinated strikes and mass direct action.
  12. The defeat of Indiana’s traditionally strong labor movement gives confidence to other state legislatures – most ominously in Michigan – to consider similar “right to work” legislation. Given the history of labor militancy in Michigan and the economic desperation of many workers there, such an attack could provoke a major backlash. As in Wisconsin, the corporate juggernaut pushing austerity and attacks on workers will inevitably spur fresh resistance struggles. To bring these struggles to victory, however, will require building a new class struggle union leadership to replace the existing privileged bureaucracy.
  13. The ascent, in recent years, of more fighting elements into the leadership of several unions is an important development. Opposition groups now control several key teachers’ union locals which, despite setbacks, remain a pole of attraction. The leadership of the National Nurses Union played an excellent role in Wisconsin, and the new president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, a former Labor Party member, has adopted a more fighting stance. The leadership of the ILWU, facing pressure from below and a tradition of left-wing militancy, also remains one of the most militant unions despite their recent attacks on Occupy activists and left-wingers within the union.
  14. Important weaknesses remain, politically and in terms of rank-and-file activity and consciousness. This was most vividly revealed when the new left-wing Chicago Teachers Union leadership initially agreed to horrible anti-union legislation last year. And as of yet, none of these left trends has gained national prominence. However, in the context of a generalized upsurge of struggle, the small pockets of left union militancy can rapidly emerge as a leadership capable of mobilizing broad groups of workers. Especially where they can achieve important victories through mass mobilizations, they can set the national tone and become centers of gravity for the labor movement, exerting pressure on conservative union leaders.
  15. As we repeatedly explained in our material on Wisconsin, the weakness of the organized left gave the Democratic Party and their allies in the union bureaucracy a free hand to derail the movement. But we can draw inspiration and lessons from imagining what would have been necessary for victory. With a stronger organized left within the union movement, the widespread if diffuse support for a “general strike” could have been organized into a cohesive campaign to force the labor leaders to call a one-day public sector work stoppage. Combined with an escalating campaign of mass actions, it’s very possible Walker could have been defeated. In turn, a victory in Wisconsin would have electrified workers everywhere, showing that determined mass action combined with political independence and defiance of anti-union laws can win victories. If new mass struggles break out in areas where healthy socialist and left union leaders have established positions, this “subjective factor” could have a major impact and act as a catalyst for new developments.