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labor Labor Unions Were Occupy Wall Street’s Key, Forgotten, Conflicted Ally

The labor movement played a key role in the success of Occupy Wall Street. But the alliance of unions and Occupy never succeeded in reaching its full potential.

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Transportation Union Local 100 members join Occupy Wall Street activists in a protest at Zuccotti Park on December 15, 2011., Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Ten years since the sudden rise of the Occupy movement, its impact on the contemporary left has been dissected many times over. One aspect of Occupy that is frequently overlooked, however, is its relationship to the labor movement. Unions were essential to the initial survival and growth of Occupy Wall Street, although the two of them never managed to connect with each other as fully as they should have.

I was a participant in Occupy Wall Street, starting from the initial planning meetings and continuing with my involvement in the Labor Outreach Committee, where I tried to help deepen the alliance between OWS and New York City unions, so I had a front-row seat to both the successes and the failures of their collaboration.

An Overlapping Agenda

One of Occupy’s central messages was that the richest 1 percent of Americans had perverted American democracy by using their wealth to gain an outsized influence and control over the US political system. Unions were sympathetic to this message because it dovetailed with unions’ entire reason for being: to fight for higher wages and better treatment for workers against their bosses, the 1 percent. This shared opposition to the overwhelming power of the rich in American politics motivated unions to defend and help legitimize Occupy, although this contribution was never fully appreciated by Occupy’s activists.

Labor’s connection to Occupy Wall Street began even before September 17, the day the occupation was launched. CWA workers went on strike against Verizon in August 2011, while the organizers of Occupy were planning OWS. After planning meetings, Occupy organizers would visit the CWA picket line at Verizon’s office, which was just blocks from Zuccotti Park, to show their support for the Verizon workers. Once the occupation launched, Verizon workers returned the solidarity by coming to Zuccotti Park and supporting the occupation.

The fast food workers also made another, equally important contribution to Occupy specifically. One of the chants they used on their marches said “We are the 99 percent,” which became the signature slogan of the entire Occupy movement. I don’t know if the fast food workers got this slogan from someone else before them, but they seem to be the ones who passed it on to Occupy. That by itself is a huge debt that Occupy owes to the labor movement, and specifically to these low-wage workers, most of whom were people of color working in the service sector.

Unions’ first major support action for Occupy Wall Street came on October 5, 2011. Over ten thousand people turned out for a protest in support of Occupy, many of them from AFSCME DC 37, TWU 100, PSC-CUNY, SEIU 1199, and the UFT. Occupy was less than three weeks old at this point, and it was still unclear if it was going to be a flash in the pan or something more lasting. The Foley Square protest helped change that. It indicated that the labor movement, a weakened but still crucial player in US politics, was prepared to throw its support behind Occupy, and that rank-and-file union members saw a commonality between their views and interests and the goals of Occupy.

From this time on, it became harder for the media and politicians to ignore Occupy’s message. One could argue that Bernie Sanders’s future campaigns for president were born on this day.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is joined by union members, who rally in Foley Square and march to Zuccotti Park on October 5, 2011. (Andrew Holbrooke / Corbis via Getty Images)

The second time that unions came to the rescue of OWS was even more dramatic. On October 14, just nine days after the Foley Square protest, mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York police had announced that they would clear Zuccotti Park, OWS’s home base, in order to clean it. After the cleaning, new rules were to be instituted banning people from sleeping in the park or erecting tarps or other large installations. It looked like OWS was about to be eliminated — until Occupy activists who had prepared to nonviolently resist this eviction received a massive infusion of reinforcements in the form of thousands of union members who had received calls to action from their unions in the middle of the night, showing up in the wee hours of the morning to resist the expulsion.

The Occupy organizers had planned to allow the park to be cleaned one-third at a time, which would allow them to maintain a presence in the park at all times and hopefully ward off a full-scale eviction. But the park was so packed with supporters, including many union members, that it wasn’t even possible to clear one-third of the park. Luckily, the NYPD blinked, likely because they didn’t want to anger the city’s powerful unions, allowing the occupation to continue. Without this emergency mobilization on the part of the unions, Occupy would likely have been smothered in its crib before it could grow to its maximum size.

Around this time, a Labor Outreach Committee was formed by Occupy activists to coordinate future collaborations with the city’s unions. The committee drew large turnouts, typically around forty to seventy people per meeting, a mix of young union members and labor supporters from Occupy Wall Street, veteran activists who had been organizing in their unions for decades, and mid-level union staff sent to represent their unions. The committee tried to connect the idealistic, young activists from Occupy with the leadership of the city’s unions, but we never really succeeded in finding the magic formula to achieve this. Despite their shared criticism of the 1 percent, there was a yawning gulf between the political worldviews and strategies of these two groups.

Labor’s Missed Opportunity

Unions and Occupy agreed that the 1 percent had too much power and wealth at the expense of the 99 percent, but they diverged on their approach to how to redress this imbalance. The Occupiers saw Democrats and the Republicans as equal partners with the 1 percent in ruling the United States for their own benefit. Occupy wanted to disrupt and transform US politics by breaking out of the two-party system. Occupy activists were never entirely clear about how they wanted to go about doing this, but they argued that it would only happen as a result of ordinary people organizing themselves — not through anything that elected officials or the media might do.

This was not a view that was shared by most labor unions, which continued to offer financial, political, and electoral support to the Democrats despite the paltry support they received in return, leading to tensions between unions and Occupy. For the unions, Occupy was an opportunity to promote a union-friendly message of opposition to economic inequality. They didn’t have much interest in or desire to engage with Occupy’s other goals. The disconnect between these two visions is why the alliance between Occupy and the labor movement peaked in early October and largely failed to evolve from there.

One of the core messages of Occupy was that the two-party system had been completely co-opted by the 1 percent, making both the Democrats and the Republicans equal partners with that group that ruled the United States. This was not a view shared by most labor unions, which continued to offer financial, political, and electoral support to the Democrats despite the paltry support they received in return, leading to tensions between unions and Occupy.

When unions mobilized to support Occupy on October 5 and 14, they did so by sending out a call to their members. This was a form of action that those members were well familiar with, as New York City unions periodically call large protests in central public spaces to promote their preferred candidates for political office or some policy position or another.

These protests usually followed a familiar and predictable script: Thousands of union members would gather at the prescribed time and location, where they would find a large, elevated stage surrounded by big speakers and video screens, with the whole area enclosed by temporary metal railings, courtesy of the NYPD. A procession of union officials, Democratic politicians, and leaders of nonprofit advocacy groups would speak from the dais. A handful of rank-and-file union members or more junior union officers might be sprinkled in, but the overwhelming impression was always of a highly choreographed, top-down production. The leadership spoke to the rank and file, not the other way around.

Members of the Transportation Union Local 100 join Occupy Wall Street activists to demand changes to the contract between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and transit workers on December 15, 2011. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The rally in Foley Square was in this mode, although it was now in support of a different cause: the insurgent Occupy movement. There was a corresponding difference in the tone of this rally, with more energy and spontaneity than you would find in a typical union rally. It seemed as though there might be a true meeting of the minds between the union members there and the Occupy activists, especially when the protest marched to Zuccotti Park. The potential seemed even more tangible at the anti-cleaning mobilization, again at Zuccotti, nine days later. But the potential for meaningful collaboration never fully materialized.

For the unions, Occupy was an opportunity to promote a union-friendly message of opposition to economic inequality. It was essentially a gift basket of free media attention to an issue that the unions cared about.

That message was part of what Occupy activists cared about, but it left out other key pieces of Occupy’s message and mass appeal. Occupy was equally passionate about changing the business as usual of US politics, with a fervent desire to break out of the two-party system. Occupy activists were never entirely clear about how they wanted to go about doing this, but one thing they did know was that it would only happen as a result of ordinary people organizing themselves — not through anything that elected officials or the media might do.

The Need to Democratize New York Unions

This goal of transforming the US political system through grassroots mobilization and popular democracy was not a vision that was shared by the leaders of New York City’s unions, and the disconnect between these two visions is why the alliance between Occupy and the labor movement peaked in early October and largely failed to evolve from there.

Like most unions throughout the United States, New York’s labor unions operated under a blend of what Jane McAlevey calls an advocacy model and a mobilizing model. Union officers and staff would negotiate contracts for their members; endorse, support, and lobby Democratic politicians; and offer a range of consumer services to their members. Most unions had relatively anemic spaces for internal democratic debate and decision-making, and relatively little space for rank-and-file members to make their voices heard or exercise control over what their unions did. Attempts by union members to adopt a more grassroots approach or to challenge the city’s liberal establishment were typically met with hostility by union leaders. The New York labor movement was not a monolith, and there were some notable exceptions to this, such as TWU 100, the transit workers union. But as a rule, the New York labor movement preferred to entrench itself in city institutions rather than challenge those institutions.

Occupy’s approach was different. The whole goal of Occupy was to destabilize existing political institutions. The most beautiful and promising aspect of Occupy was the way that it empowered ordinary people to say things outside of the political consensus. The union leadership had no interest in directly engaging with this kind of activity, and may not have even really understood what it was about. They didn’t oppose it; they just stood aside from it.

For the labor movement, this was a missed opportunity, because its political strategy of supporting the Democratic Party and sidelining grassroots organization had resulted in decades of stagnation and defeat. Unions supported Democratic politicians year after year through generous campaign donations and get-out-the-vote efforts, but the Democrats did little to halt the ever more aggressive union-busting of corporate America, which contributed even more generously than unions to Democratic campaign funds. With few other options on offer, unions were stuck in a bind with the Democrats, and few in labor had any appetite for trying to get out.

Unions’ commitment to supporting Democrats was coupled with a repressive response to reform movements that emerged from their own ranks. Union officials regularly quashed demands from members for more democracy within their unions and more control over how their contracts were bargained, largely because these movements threatened their own power. This hostility to rank-and-file movements eroded the long-term sustainability of unions by alienating their most active members and dismissing many of the basic bread-and-butter concerns of their memberships. Occupy could have helped provide an antidote to this long-term decline by infusing the labor movement with the spirit of democracy and grassroots organizing, which had the potential to revive sagging union membership and activity, but this was not a road that union leaders showed any interest in following.

Unfulfilled Promise

The lack of deeper engagement between Occupy and unions was also a missed opportunity for Occupy, because it lost the chance to address the bread-and-butter concerns of workers and to open a new front in the workplace in its battle with the 1 percent.

Occupy attracted widespread support for its critique of the 1 percent from working-class Americans, but it was difficult for many workers to fully participate in Occupy. The typical Occupy activist tended to be young, white, single, and a college graduate, and consequently had relatively large amounts of free time. Participants in Occupy camped out at the occupation or spent many hours per day there, which allowed them to take part in the endless and lengthy meetings that took place constantly. It was difficult for people who worked regular jobs and people with families to participate meaningfully in Occupy because they did not have the free time necessary to do so.

In the activists’ eyes, it was better to ignore these institutions completely and create their own “autonomous” institutions totally outside of the existing power structure. These autonomous Occupy institutions were created with impressive speed, but they had no hope of scaling up to the level that would be necessary to actually meet the full needs of the working class for housing, health care, education, child care, and so on.

Combined with the difficulty most workers faced in fully participating in Occupy, this refusal to speak to their immediate needs drastically limited Occupy’s ability to make inroads with the working class.

It also represented a lost opportunity to take the struggle against the 1 percent into the terrain that was their power center: the workplace. Occupy never seriously tried to organize workers at the point of production. If Occupy had tried to bring its vision of democracy into the workplace, it would have challenged capitalism on its own turf and triggered a reckoning with the top-down approach of most of the US labor movement.

But the moment was not ripe for this. Occupy didn’t understand the role that workplace organizing could play, and it didn’t have links to a network of rank-and-file activists within unions who could have helped make this vision a reality.

To this day, an infusion of democracy into both the workplace and the labor movement is still very much needed. We have seen hints of what this might look like, for instance in the 2018–19 wave of teacher strikes, but it still has not been fully realized. Until it is, the project of the Occupy movement will remain incomplete and unfulfilled.

[Doug Singsen is a member of AFT Local 3535 and Democratic Socialists of America. He teaches about the history of art, design, and visual culture at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.]