Connecting labor and Occupy

National Nurses United member Dennis Kosuth reports on a Chicago conference that brought together members of dozen different unions with Occupy activists.

Chicago transit workers march with Occupy Chicago against budget cuts and concession demands (Carole Ramsden | SW)Chicago transit workers march with Occupy Chicago against budget cuts and concession demands (Carole Ramsden | SW)

MORE THAN 250 people participated in the daylong "Workers' Power: A Labor Solidary Conference," held January 28 and sponsored by the Labor Working Group of Occupy Chicago.

The meeting was organized to bring together activists fighting back around many issues facing those living in Chicago. Endorsed by nine unions and several community organizations, it was held in a space provided by the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union.

The Labor Working Group (LWG) was born in the first weeks of Occupy Chicago's existence last September. Started as a means to facilitate organizing and coordination between the Occupy movement and the Chicago labor movement, it has taken on a life of its own. Its weekly meetings draw 40 to 50 people, including rank-and-file union members, staffers, elected officers and Occupy activists.

The LWG has organized alongside and supported unions who are facing attacks by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is now known as "Mayor 1%." Under the guise of saving taxpayers money and reforming education, he has been relentless in his cuts to public services, and insulting to the workers who provide them.

For example, Occupy Chicago along with hundreds of city bus drivers took over a mandated public hearing on impending cuts to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). In order to save $30 million, since September 2011, Chicago no longer provides free rides to the 300,000 senior citizens who live here. People who work their whole lives, raising families and building communities, aren't even allowed the "luxury" of a free bus ride to visit families, go to the doctor and enjoy life.

The CEOs of GE and Boeing--just the two of them--made about $30 million last year. Making nuclear bombs and the warplanes to drop them is obviously more a priority than grandma and grandpa getting help to go to the doctor on a fixed income.

This and other issues were raised by the people who packed into the labor conference. Bus drivers called out CTA President Forrest Claypool for characterizing the 15 minutes that operators use to safety-check their vehicles as "pre-work coffee time." This was another attempt by a politician to drive a wedge between service providers and service users--but Occupy Chicago took up the banner of the union and helped expose this scam for what it was.

The next month, the LWG joined with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), as it worked to defend schools from phase-out and "turnaround," under which the entire staff is fired and the school is run by an entity whose approach to teaching in poor communities is mind over matter. After participating in the takeover of a meeting of the school board--whose members fled in a huff--Occupy activists marched over to City Hall to perform a "turnaround" there.

In one of his more egregious attacks, Rahm wants to save $6 million by laying off hundreds of public library workers, which has resulted all but three of the city's 79 libraries now being closed on Mondays. With so many people out of work and with no other Internet access to search for jobs, this has added insult to injury.

Emanuel has been pushed back on this issue somewhat already, and the LWG is currently discussing a strategy around a defense of the libraries, working closely with the union representing library workers and reaching out to communities.

The politicians' excuse for service reductions is budget shortfalls, but this is baseless. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation in December granting tax cuts worth $100 million to Sears, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group and the Chicago Board Options Exchange.

Before the ink on the bill was dry, Sears announced that it would be closing at least 100 stores across the country. As these soon-to-be-laid-off employees and their families seek services to get their feet back under them, they will be told with a straight face that the government simply has no resources to help them.

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THESE ISSUES were just a few of the many highlighted at the conference.

The opening plenary was addressed by an AFSCME library worker, a CTU teacher, an official from the Amalgamated Transit Union (which represents bus operators), a National Nurses United member who works at Cook County Hospital, and the local president of a National Association of Letter Carriers branch. They, along with two leading activists from Occupy Chicago, gave an on-the-ground view of the struggles across the city, as well as a vision for the way forward.

Workshops covered many topics, including "Race and Class in Rahm's Chicago" and "Why Occupy and Labor Should Oppose NATO/G8," the two organizations that will hold a joint summit in Chicago in May.

In one workshop, the relationship between unions and the Democratic Party was debated out. In another, the dynamic between the Occupy movement and the labor movement was talked through.

In the session on "Health care for the 99 percent," a patient who has suffered from depression after losing her son to violence spoke powerfully against the mayor's plan to shutter six of the 12 mental health clinics in Chicago. She is part of a fight by patients and providers united in a fight to keep these clinics open so that people can get the therapy they depend on. These closings are in addition to Gov. Quinn's current plan to close Tinley Park Mental Health Center this summer.

As a nurse who works in an emergency department that serves the uninsured, I can say that access is already severely limited for those without coverage. Suicidal and psychotic patients already often wait for days in the ED before a bed at an inpatient psych facility becomes available.

As the bosses' recovery continues to evade those who are unemployed, depression and stress from being unable to provide for your family will continue to rise, which makes this the most dangerous time to cut services. For politicians, however, it is clear that they couldn't care less about those who feel they have no recourse and tragically succeed in ending their own lives.

All of these conversations at the conference served to deepen the relationships that have been built between labor and Occupy activists over the past several months. Nowhere else in Chicago does such a network exist, and the conference was a success at providing an important and needed space for this discussion.