Same struggle, same fight

October 11, 2011

Lee Sustar looks at the dynamics of the unions' support for the Occupy movement.

A SPIRITED labor protest against a mortgage bankers' meeting in Chicago on October 10 got a boost in numbers and energy from the local Occupy movement--highlighting the growing potential to build a fighting working-class movement for economic justice across the U.S.

Since its beginnings close to a month ago, the Occupy Wall Street action in Manhattan's financial district has become a rallying point for growing numbers of New Yorkers fed up with the greed and power of the bankers and bosses--and it has inspired similar protests in cities around the country.

The October 10 march on the American Mortgage Bankers Association--sponsored by Stand Up Chicago, a coalition of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and a range of community groups--was planned weeks before Chicago activists started an Occupy encampment.

As it happened, the Occupy activists established their round-the-clock protest outside the Federal Reserve Bank, just around the corner from the CTU's gathering spot outside the Chicago Board Options Exchange. By 3 p.m. on October 10--an hour before the march was to set off--around 300 people were jamming the sidewalks outside the Fed and the Bank of America building across the street.

Nurses bring their solidarity to Occupy Wall Street
Nurses bring their solidarity to Occupy Wall Street (Bob Jagendorf)

THE UNITY wasn't a coincidence. "The unions reached out to us first," said Andy Manos, a DePaul University graduate student, who is among a group of Occupy Chicago activists working to build alliances with the local labor movement. In his view, the convergence of the Occupy activists and Chicago labor is only one local example of what he sees as a "slow process of radicalization" taking shape across the U.S. that's taken "leaps and bounds" in a matter of days.

Micah Philbrook, another Occupy Chicago activist, said it was only logical that the movement make common cause with labor--even though he works as a nonunion drama and comedy teacher. "The majority of the population wants to see us pay our teachers adequately, and not to cut these social programs, and yet they're still being cut. "

For Jen Johnson, a CTU executive board member, the Occupy Wall Street movement is especially welcome, given that her union and its allies have been targeting banks and other local corporations for more than a year for their role in squeezing funds out of public education.

The Chicago offices of the big national banks, for example, have been profiting from high interest loans to the Chicago Public Schools, while borrowing at rock-bottom prices themselves. Meanwhile, Chicago businesses have been undertaking development efforts using funds diverted from the school system through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) zones.

"I think it shows that the American people are realizing how interconnected money and politics are," Johnson said. "They're not going to be satisfied to sit on the sidelines while politicians give corporations exactly what they want, while their kids don't have textbooks and their kids are in overcrowded classrooms, and they're out of work."

That sentiment was widespread in the big contingent of protesters from Action Now, a community group that has been campaigning to demand the banks clean up the abandoned properties rife on Chicago's heavily African American South and West Sides. "We bailed them out," said Willie Macon, a data entry worker who lives on the West Side. "Now people are losing their houses, and there are no jobs. We are suffering, and we need to be heard."

There's no doubt that the mortgage bankers heard the protest, which numbered at least 5,000 at its peak. After swarming through police lines to march up Michigan Avenue, the demonstrators surged towards the entrance to the city's Art Institute to temporarily block the bankers' entrance to a gala reception. More than 30 union members and activists sat down on the sidewalk and refused to leave as CTU President Karen Lewis gave a brief statement carried live on the local news.

"This is just thievery in its purest form," Lewis said of the bankers. "This is not the way to run this country. I am so honored and humbled to be among people who really care about what's going on in this city. We're not going to tolerate this robber baron behavior."

After police moved in to make arrests--to the jeers of several thousand onlookers--most of the union and community activist contingents boarded buses, while a line of cops, backed by mounted police, pushed demonstrators off the street. Occupy Chicago activists then organized the hundreds of people still on the scene to march off to a general assembly, as the nightly meetings are called. But even as the protesters went their separate ways, there was a palpable sense of unity.

THE LINKS between labor and the Occupy movement seen in Chicago are becoming commonplace across the U.S.

In Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston, unions have either endorsed or turned out member to support Occupy protests, and the activists in turn have embraced labor struggles as their own. These ties have already gone well beyond the labor-left alliances seen in the global justice movement of the late 1990s as young working class people, whether or not they are in unions or employed, recognize organized labor as a potential force to fight for all working people.

That convergence in struggle between organized labor and the wider working class, which surfaced in the big battle in Wisconsin last winter against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's public-sector union-busting, has now gone national as the result of Occupy Wall Street.

That became clear in the big October 5 march in New York City, when unions brought thousands of workers into the streets. Or rather, it was the thousands of workers directly involved in the Occupy movement already who pulled their unions into the streets. Michael Mulgrew, president of New York's United Federation of Teachers, admitted as much in a radio interview before the march.

But there's labor support for the Occupy movement--and then there's labor support.

In Chicago, the reform leadership in the CTU has been seeking to link the struggle to defend public education with demands to make the wealthy and the bankers pay more in taxes to fund the schools. Now that message resonates across the U.S. labor movement as the Occupy efforts have their effect.

But not all the unions that have endorsed the movement are serious about confronting Wall Street. For example, United Auto Workers (UAW) President Bob King announced his union's support for the Occupy movement even as the UAW was pushing contracts that lock in lower-tier pay for new hires and other concessions made in recent years. Similarly, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, whose union has likewise pushed concessions in exchange for labor-management "partnership," also backs the protests.

Do maneuvers like these justify those who contend that organized labor should be kept out of the Occupy movement?

Not at all. First, it's important to recognize that union officials, like the UFT's Mulgrew, are responding to pressure from rank-and-file members who identify with the Occupy struggle.

Second, even a cynical endorsement of the movement by a conservative union leader will nevertheless open the door to wider political discussion, initiatives and actions on the part of union members. The greater the official labor participation in the Occupy movement, the easier it will be for union militants to make connections with Occupy activists and build solidarity networks within and between unions.

For their part, top union leaders seem to be welcoming the Occupy movement as a potential source of renewal. However, most have shown little stomach for turning the anger in the streets into workplace organizing.

On the contrary, most union officials continue to bow to concessions in both the public and private sector. Even in Wisconsin, where a general strike was a topic of serious discussion among militants as last winter's battle against Walker played out, union officials shied away from industrial action and focused instead on an effort--ultimately unsuccessful--to recall Republicans in the state legislature.

More than a few union officials are willing to mobilize protests in the streets as a substitute for confrontations with employers through job actions or strikes.

The challenge for union militants, therefore, is to use the new fighting mood around the Occupy movement to take a stand against employers--and take the initiative if union officials are unable or unwilling to do so.

A first step is organizing against the incessant employer demands for concessions in pay and health care--and in the public sector, fighting to defend social services. From the fight in Wisconsin earlier this year to the organizing underway in the Occupy movement today, it's clear that the labor movement can be revived and rebuilt on a fighting basis.

At the same time, the labor movement must also make space for the vast majority of working people who are not in unions, as well as students and the unemployed. From solidarity committees for ongoing struggles to launching union organizing drives, those who find themselves outside the ranks of the unions--for now--will have a vital role in strengthening organized labor as part of a wider working-class movement.

The elements of such a movement have come into view. The task now is to build it.

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