NEW YORK – Teachers unions were active behind the scenes of the Occupy Wall Street protests. New York City’s United Federation of Teachers provided storage space. The Chicago Teachers Union was “front and center” with Occupy Chicago.
Now socialists hope the potential east coast dock workers strike will strengthen the bond between radical Occupy activists and Big Labor.
The strike threat comes as unions across the country are being urged to swallow concessions. Meanwhile, wages for both organized and unorganized labor have stagnated or fallen since Wall Street financiers crashed the economy in 2008, intensifying a decades-long decline in the working-class standard of living.
“Labor has been very isolated, very under attack,” said Jackie DiSalvo, a member of the teachers union at the City University of New York. She has worked as a bridge between unions and the Occupy movement and says that in all her years as an activist, “OWS is virtually the first mass movement to aggressively say that unions are a good thing.”
One of the first struggles Occupy put its energy behind was the battle for a contract for Teamsters Local 814, whose members were locked out of Sotheby’s, the auction house. Over a 10-month period, Occupy staged actions that both disrupted business at Sotheby’s and called attention to the workers’ plight. Hundreds rallied in the Teamsters’ defense.
The spectacle of men in tuxedos and women in fur coats confronted by militant trade unionists in Teamster jackets holding Occupy banners at the doors of Sotheby’s highlighted the deep class divide that Occupy highlighted. After those 10 months of protest, members of Teamsters Local 814 were back on the job–with a raise.
With its emphasis on direct democracy, spontaneity and flexibility of tactics–and unbounded by legal impediments such as the Taft-Hartley Act–Occupy has infused the labor movement with a fresh dose of radicalism. As DiSalvo said:
If the workers at Sotheby’s had gone into the auctions, their picket line would have been declared illegal. Labor has tolerated and not been able to overturn tremendous legal restrictions on what they can do. We’re not covered by those labor laws. People can get arrested. A union leader gets arrested, the union gets fined. We can be the front lines.
But Occupy has also leaned on labor at times. On October 14, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Brookfield Properties–the deed holders to the “privately-owned public space” where Occupy Wall Street pitched its tents–attempted to clean the Financial District of protest.
The night before, however, AFL-CIO affiliates in New York City sent a mass mailing to their members, urging them to turn out and defend the Zucotti Park encampment. Thousands mobilized in the early morning hours to help Occupy stave off eviction. The next day, media coverage of the movement started to take a different tone. “You can’t say these are a bunch of wacko, slacker hippies if you’ve got the labor movement there,” said DiSalvo.
Judge Big Labor by the company it keeps.