Labor and Occupy: A Match Made in…

Labor and Occupy: A Match Made in…

Despite occasional friction, unions and Occupy have found a way to live happily together.


Members of the Occupy Boston movement, students from area colleges, and union workers march through downtown Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

As the name suggests, there’s a lot to like about Pleasanton. Located thirty miles southeast of Oakland, the upscale enclave is a perennial contender in “best” or “wealthiest” city competitions, and on a Saturday morning in February it’s easy to see why. The sun is shining, a nearby farmers’ market is bustling and tan people on bicycles worth more than many used cars are zooming past. Which makes the scene at one end of the quaint downtown—where a line of a dozen cops keep close watch on a boisterous crowd of union activists and Occupy Oakland members—all the more incongruous.

The out-of-towners are gathered to mark an anniversary. Two years earlier, management at the nearby Castlewood Country Club had locked out its workers after trying to slash healthcare benefits. “They told us they had a philosophical problem with paying family healthcare,” says Sarah Norr, an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 2850, which represents the workers. According to the union, the move would have resulted in a wage cut of 40 percent for many of the employees, particularly egregious at a club whose members reportedly pay up to $25,000 to join, along with a monthly fee of more than $600. (I was promised exact figures from a Castlewood spokesperson but never received them.)

Despite twice-daily pickets, an NLRB complaint against the club for unfair labor practices and the disruption of a large tournament last summer, Castlewood’s management has been unwilling to budge. So in January workers took their campaign to Occupy Oakland. After detailing a fight that seemed tailor-made for the movement—the wealthy versus the workers, amid a backdrop of palm trees and golf tees—Occupy voted unanimously to support the campaign. In Pleasanton, that support has added a noticeable jolt of energy and visibility to the fight, where at least 100 Occupy Oakland members have turned out, complete with a nine-person band and a satirical “Save the 1%” rally, with people dressed in suits carrying signs like Golfing Is a Human Right.

“Instead of looking above for solutions, we look to the people next to us,” Barucha Peller, an Occupy activist, tells the workers. “Therefore, the fight of Castlewood workers is also our fight, and gives us strength. All right, let’s shut it down!” When the large march reaches the country club, the deed has already been done: fearing disruption, the club has closed its doors for the day. It was enough to make a person believe one of the signs I noticed on the march: Labor + Occupy = Working Class Victory.

* * *

Nothing, of course, is so simple—especially not in Oakland, where two port shutdowns have led to increasingly strained relations between Occupy Oakland and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Both shutdowns—on November 2 and December 12—were called by Occupy in solidarity with the ILWU’s fight against grain terminal operator EGT in Longview, Washington. The conflict began last year, when EGT brought in another union to work its $200 million terminal. This threatened the jurisdiction in the grain industry of the ILWU, whose master agreement covers 4,000 workers in the Pacific Northwest. If one company could defy the ILWU and chip away at the hard-won standards guaranteed by the agreement, others would almost certainly follow suit.

The ILWU leadership was mostly silent on Occupy’s first shutdown, but when Occupy upped the stakes with the December call to shut down all West Coast ports, International president Robert McEllrath made clear that he was less than pleased. “Support is one thing,” he wrote. “Organization from outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda is quite another.”

That the first major conflict between Occupy and organized labor would break out between the ILWU and Occupy Oakland is ironic in light of the union’s proven willingness to engage in bold, sometimes extralegal direct actions, which would seem to fit right into Occupy’s philosophy. In Longview, for example, ILWU members blocked trains with their bodies, dumped millions of dollars’ worth of grain and even tore down fencing and occupied the terminal.

“The ILWU has a long and proud history of militant action to defend the working class,” Craig Merrilees, the ILWU’s communication director, tells me. “But those actions happen within the context of the unions’ democratic decision-making process.” By calling for shutdowns without consulting the ILWU, the president of Local 19 in Seattle told Labor Notes, it was as if “I planned a party at your house and didn’t ask about it.”

In response, Occupy Oakland cited support among ILWU members within its ranks. (How union membership would have voted, had the question been raised within locals, remains an open question.) Others argued that the Occupy movement has the right to chart its own course. “You can’t co-opt labor issues if you are in the working class,” Boots Riley, an Occupy member and musician with The Coup, told the New York Times. “No one has a copyright on working-class struggles.”

That logic wasn’t convincing to a number of labor groups, like the Alameda County Building Trades Council, which endorsed the November action but came out against the December shutdown. “Port workers were not involved in the decision-making process,” says Andreas Cluver, the council’s secretary-treasurer. “Any action that has significant impact on workers has to include them. Occupy rattled the cage and got people nervous, which a lot of us are excited about. But a tremendous opportunity for a real partnership was missed.”

* * *

If the track record between labor and Occupy Oakland has been mixed, the two movements have enjoyed a far more harmonious co-existence in New York City. “On balance, the relationship has been very positive,” says Andy Pollack, a member of OWS’s labor outreach committee. “There is a lot of skepticism about unions [within OWS], and some people want to try and go around them instead of reforming them. But people in the labor committee have fought for decades for union democracy.”

Many Occupiers were impressed with the large turnout of union members when they were threatened with eviction from Zuccotti Park in October. Unions also helped legitimize Occupy to a skeptical media, according to Jackie DiSalvo, who formed the committee within OWS. “Unions changed the depiction of Occupy Wall Street,” she says. “We were originally depicted as a bunch of freaky slackers. Once we had the unions involved, they could no longer say that was all we represented.”

In New York, longtime union activists like Pollack and DiSalvo serve as a key bridge: they are critical of unions for their hierarchy and lack of radicalism but also believe organized labor is a key institutional partner in any fight for the 99 percent. Young people struggling with poor job prospects or precarious employment haven’t found the union movement relevant for a long time and aren’t likely to be won over by someone like Richard Trumka. Seasoned unionists who don’t always toe the union line—and who were with OWS from the beginning—make much better messengers.

The OWS labor outreach committee, which meets in the union office of DC 37, fields more than half a dozen requests each week from unions looking for support. According to DiSalvo, the group has actually grown more active since the eviction, despite media claims to the contrary. (“The mainstream media don’t seem to know we exist unless the cops beat us up,” she quips.) Especially exciting for DiSalvo has been the ability of OWS to bring various unions together. During the ongoing Teamster campaign against Sotheby’s auction house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, OWS mobilized some 200 people from ten different locals for a raucous picket. “Different unions have supported us more than they’ve supported each other,” she marvels.

Labor’s debt to Occupy—beyond its helping with turnout and engaging in creative civil disobedience—can best be measured by the dramatic change in the national conversation. Labor had its charts about CEO-to-worker pay and the correlation between the drop in organized workers—today standing at a measly 11.9 percent—and the rise of inequality. But they tended to put people to sleep. While powerful unions like SEIU (my previous employer) were dropping millions of dollars trying to come up with an answer to the poisonous atmosphere created by the Tea Party, a small group of scruffy radicals moved in and showed the way.

“All of a sudden, in the last month or two, unions are winning contracts,” says DiSalvo. In Philadelphia several contract negotiations ended on good terms after Occupy Philly set up tents. In New York the 22,000 office cleaners of SEIU-32BJ also inked a new contract on favorable terms. Although it’s impossible to ascertain the extent of Occupy’s influence on such specific outcomes, unions readily admit that the new environment has shifted the terms of the debate in their favor. The powerful are now forced to adopt Occupy’s vocabulary, doing their best to react to a changed landscape in which they are suddenly on the defensive. A spokesperson for Pleasanton’s Castlewood Country Club told me that the majority of the club’s members are not part of the 1 percent. There’s good reason to doubt the claim—but it’s worth noting that he chose that phrase. I had asked him about something else.

* * *

Back on the West Coast, there have been more developments recently in the ILWU’s situation that have added a new dimension to its relationship with Occupy. After learning that a grain ship was likely heading to EGT’s Longview facility, ILWU president McEllrath issued a call for members to prepare to mobilize. Not long after, despite less than encouraging words from much of the ILWU’s leadership, Occupy groups in Oakland, Portland and Longview pledged to physically prevent the ship’s loading, and prepared to send caravans to Longview. (OWS sent $25,000 to help pay for the buses and other expenses.) In response to the threats, the Coast Guard announced it would establish a “safety zone” and usher the ship in under armed watch.

The image—unfair or not—of hundreds of black-clad anarchists from Oakland descending on Longview and causing chaos was certainly something that weighed heavily on Washington’s governor, Chris Gregoire, who pulled the two sides together and brokered an agreement in late January. Even people who accuse Occupy of meddling in ILWU affairs acknowledge that the threat of the caravans was an important factor in winning the settlement; the ILWU’s own paper cites the support of independent “community groups” without mentioning Occupy by name. (It’s also worth noting that not everyone within the ILWU is satisfied with the settlement, as it doesn’t bring EGT into the master agreement.)

In Oakland, ILWU workers active with Occupy—while acknowledging that not all members supported the shutdowns—still believe that union officers need to recognize the debt they owe the group. “The union leadership didn’t do anything but ride the wave after the rank and file and Occupy did all the dirty work,” says Anthony Leviege, a member of Local 10 who helped organize the shutdowns. “After the negotiations, we should be donating money to Occupy.”

* * *

There is a tendency on the left to lecture Occupy. Sometimes such lectures are justified: breaking into City Hall and burning an American flag, as occurred in Oakland, may be honoring a “diversity of tactics,” but if the tactic shrinks instead of builds a movement, it’s best discarded.

Mostly, though, the professorial stance that some bring to Occupy seems based on the desire to clean up the messiness inherent in a bunch of people with different views getting together and talking so much about so many things. But that’s not likely to change; and if it did, it would probably mean that Occupy had gotten too small to do anything of real impact. Campaigns can be targeted and relentlessly on message; social movements of the Occupy variety are far messier. But behind that messiness is energy, something that most unions need a lot more of in their campaigns.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges facing collaborations between the two groups. Every Occupy is different; as is each union; as are locals within a union. Learning to navigate the new territory and relationships is proving to be a long learning process. In Oakland, UNITE HERE 2850 has many good things to say about its work with the labor solidarity committee of Occupy Oakland, but it is not likely to get excited about Occupy’s weekly “Fuck the Police” marches, which advise people that “fires are fun.”

As the Washington Post has noted, the relationship between labor and Occupy “does not necessarily make for an easy marriage.”

Still, there are plenty of promising signs for the future. The next big challenge and opportunity is May Day. In New York, heeding calls for a general strike that originated with Occupy LA, OWS has been in lengthy meetings with organized labor and a coalition of immigrant groups. It appears that after some initial hiccups—labor didn’t think a general strike was feasible—compromise wording will allow for a day that combines militant Occupy actions with a mass march in the late afternoon, beginning at Union Square and heading to Wall Street.

And the ILWU fight, despite all the controversy it stirred, may have also highlighted a new strategy that could, if replicated, have wide repercussions: militant community action. Too often, community support for labor comes in a predictable package. Religious leaders hold a prayer vigil, students deliver a petition, postcards are signed. These can work, of course, but nothing of the sort would have brought a company like EGT to the table. And those actions, at least in my experience, are usually directed in a top-down fashion by unions, as escalation plans that fit into a pre-designed campaign package.

That being said, the prospect of truly independent action that disrupts business as usual can be a double-edged sword. Unions would potentially be shielded from liability, but they wouldn’t be able to control the animal, and this could lead to further divisions of the sort that were created in Oakland. If there’s an easy answer, no one I talked with has come up with it. Perhaps the most that can be said is that labor needs Occupy, and Occupy needs labor. And maybe an “uneasy marriage” is precisely what both need.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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