Connecting Occupy to union struggles

December 1, 2011

Brian Tierney reports on the ties between the Occupy movement and labor.

ON NOVEMBER 19, the Maryland and D.C. AFL-CIO Biennial Convention voted on a resolution in support of Occupy encampments in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, pledging to donate $3,000 to each occupation and declaring that the local labor movement considers Occupy Wall Street a picket line not to be crossed by affiliate unions.

Two days later, Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), did just that. Walking past a noisy picket formed by dozens of Occupy D.C. protesters and postal workers, Rolando entered the National Press Club building, where Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe delivered an austerity rationalization speech on cuts to the U.S. Postal Service.

Donahoe is committed to "restructuring" the U.S. Postal Service--that is, he is leading the way in privatization efforts using the pretext of a manufactured budget crisis that has left the Postal Service on the verge of bankruptcy.

A 2006 congressional mandate requires the Postal Service to pre-fund its retiree health benefits 75 year in advance over the next decade. As postal unions point out, no other business or public agency shoulders such an onerous burden. The Postal Service dishes out $5.5 billion a year to meet this requirement, essentially paying into retiree benefits of people who haven't even been born yet.

The financial problems precipitated by the Bush-era mandate point to a closely followed "shock doctrine" script for austerity and privatization of the 236-year-old public mail service. As such, disaster capitalists like Donahoe are pushing to lay off more than 120,000 workers, shut down up to 4,000 post offices and cut Saturday delivery.

This constitutes the single-largest attack in the war on public-sector workers. The Postal Service supports 9 million jobs nationwide and is the largest employer of African American men and veterans. At a time of record unemployment, which is disproportionately impacting Black communities, Donahoe is on a crusade to eliminate over 200,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

The Postmaster General is looking to renegotiate union contracts in an effort to implement crippling austerity measures that would break the unions and move to privatize the public Postal Service. In the meantime, the Postal Service is a self-funded agency financed by the sale of its products and services. It collects no revenue from taxes and, over the last four years, the agency took in $600 million in profit.

IN RESPONSE to these attacks, protesters from Occupy D.C., postal workers and other supporters paid Donahoe a visit at his speech on November 21. While activists chanted outside against cuts and called for Donahoe's resignation, several protesters managed to get inside the ticketed event. Shortly after the Postmaster General began speaking, Occupy activists started a mic check--the signature of the new movement--and disrupted Donahoe.

Declaring, "We are the 99 percent," protesters called for saving the U.S. Postal Service and stopping the cuts and attacks on workers. As they were escorted out, they chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, Donahoe has got to go."

Meanwhile, NALC President Rolando sat at a banquet table in the company of other bigwigs, and remained silent. He later proposed ways the union could help save the Postal Service money, including an undisclosed plan to find "a new approach to health benefits." At the same time, the union is in the middle of contract negotiations with the Postal Service, which were extended through December 7 just before the previous contract was set to expire on Sunday.

Days before the National Press Club event, Kenneth Lerch, president of NALC Branch 3825, teamed up with Occupy D.C. activists to plan an action in response to Donahoe's austerity attacks. However, when word of the action reached union officials at the national level, including Rolando, union leaders made every effort to squash the protest, calling around to locals to discourage them from working with Occupy D.C., and urging Lerch to withhold his local's support for the action.

"I think it's quite regrettable the he [Rolando] would cross the picket line with all these American citizens chanting to save the Postal Service, and he couldn't even stop and say a few words of encouragement to those walking the picket," said Lerch.

The union's reason for responding in this way is unclear. One would think the union would gladly support a protest in which Occupy activists were rallying in defense of its members. But union leaders like Rolando are unfortunately not unique within the labor movement. All too often, union officials are more comfortable with collaborating with management rather than mobilizing for militant actions that bring out rank-and-file members, whose involvement is seen as a threat to the top-down control of union leaders.

Rolando is the type of union leader who is leery of the Occupy movement and its involvement in labor struggles. The prospect of the 99 percent movement inspiring and empowering rank-and-file members to take bold action encroaches on the power of union president's like Rolando to micromanage contract fights and other campaigns.

The position of NALC at the national level toward Occupy D.C. protesters who want to defend the jobs of postal workers stands in sharp contrast to other unions, like those at the Maryland and D.C. AFL-CIO convention last weekend, which are eager to work with and support the Occupy movement.

A DELEGATION of Occupy D.C. and Occupy Baltimore activists attended the convention to speak to union delegates about the movement. They thanked labor for all of its material support, including donations of food, tents, tarps and other resources. Occupy D.C. activists stressed the importance of solidarity between labor and the Occupy movement, asking delegates how they could support various labor struggles in the area. At the same time, they spoke of the need to get more union members involved in the movement.

"We love the food, the tents--but more than anything else, we need numbers," said Caty McClure, an Occupy D.C. organizer who was joined on stage with others who recently formed a labor committee at Occupy D.C.

The resolution passed by labor delegates advising all union members to treat the Occupy movement as a picket line marks a crucial step in deepening the relationship between unions and the 99 percent movement. With the escalation of police violence against Occupy protests in cities across the country, the support of rank-and-file union members will be instrumental for activists speaking out against economic inequality and the boundless greed of the one percent.

"Protest movements, like strike lines and organizing campaigns, do not have curfews and are not 9 to 5 activities," the resolution reads. "And in doing so, we recognize and will work to protect the right for occupiers to protest 24 hours a day, on-site, with proper protection, including food, medical supplies, water and tents."

The resolution further states that labor will support any "unionized or non-unionized worker who refuses to break up, raid or confiscate the belongings of protesters" and urges "unions representing public workers and public safety workers to not participate in such activity as to deny the rights of occupiers."

As police violence against Occupy Wall Street encampments has forced activists in many cities to turn to a new phase of struggle, some protesters are pushing the focus of the movement toward Washington, D.C., where the movement's camp at McPherson Square has faced comparatively mild police hostility.

Encampments from Manhattan to Portland have been forcibly--and violently--evicted in the past two weeks. The stepped-up repression shows how threatened the 1 percent is by this movement. The super-rich who are hoarding the wealth and destroying social services are ideologically bankrupt and thus have nothing left to rely on except sheer force.

Mobilizing rank-and-file workers to join the Occupy movement is crucial for bringing the social power of the working class into the fight against Wall Street and Corporate America, and defending occupations against police violence. With a focus on the rank and file, the Occupy movement can lessen the danger of being co-opted by unions like SEIU that might aim to insert their Democratic electoral agenda into a movement whose strength is largely derived from its independence from both political parties.

While SEIU President Mary Kay Henry can throw an early endorsement behind Obama one day, and get protested in an act of civil disobedience on the Brooklyn Bridge with Occupy Wall Street protesters the next, the Occupy movement cannot afford to be steered in that direction. Any expectation that protesters will roll up their sleeping bags and start knocking on doors for Obama must be vigorously argued against within the movement.

Recently, approximately 100 Occupy protesters arrived in D.C. after marching from Wall Street and picking up other demonstrators along the way. "Occupy the Highway" may signal shift in momentum from Wall Street, the movement's birthplace, to K Street, the playground for corporate lobbyists in the heart of the nation's capital.

The union movement can play a decisive role in bringing more of the 99 percent out onto the streets in order to defend and advance the Occupy movement. Above all, that will require the involvement of rank-and-file workers because, as demonstrated this week with the action against the Postmaster General, more than a few union leaders are either unprepared or unwilling to fight.

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