Labor and Occupy Wall Street: Common Causes and Uneasy Alliances

Benjamin Heim Shepard

Forty-two years after the Hard Riot of May 1970, organized labor seems to have embraced the goals of a new social movement, Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Both movements have benefited from mutual association, with labor finding new vitality in its connection with a mobilized social movement. And OWS has been able to dismiss the charge that this is a counterculture movement, by connecting itself with labor. Labor helped mobilize a successful action in Wall Street on May 12, 2011, which anticipated OWS.

Still, challenges remain if labor is to maintain its uneasy alliance with this anarchist-inspired movement. Labor must learn to show solidity and respect not only to the message of OWS but to the movement's nonhierarchical organizing process if the alliance to endure. One of the first union leaders to join Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) of the City University of New York (CUNY), who came to speak at Zuccotti Square on September 22, 2011. For members of the PSC, OWS was an extension of the actions of May 12, 2011 when labor joined a coalition of health care activists to rally on Wall Street. That spring day included teach-ins, unpermitted marches, and mass civil disobedience throughout the financial district of New York City. Immigrant groups joined by housing and public health nonprofits, labor unions of teachers and service employees, students, and peace activists. Education moved south from City Hall, while human services marched west from South Shore Seaport, with youth, transportation, immigration, and housing marched east to converge with the peace and jobs blocks at Wall Street. Each collaborated “in a spirit of cooperation, respect, solidarity,” and nonviolence. Cyclists organized a roving bike-block/communications team to report on the conditions of the labyrinthine streets of Lower Manhattan. While the teachers who marched downtown from City Hall had a permit, the same was not true of the other groups who intended to converge on Wall Street to push the bankers to pay their fair share. Marching on Wall Street had been part of labor's playing card all year. Occupying Wall Street was a way for unions to advance a counter narrative to the trends of the last four decades which has seen worker wages contract, while corporate profits inflate. As Barbara Bowen argued, there is another narrative to “we're broke.” But to move that alternative story forward, activists would have to push back. From Madison to Albany, unions had been doing so with marches, rallies, lobby days, and gestures of direct action, for months before September. For labor, the direct action model of May 12 was round one of OWS. On the one side, a do-it-yourself movement aimed at liberating public space and by extension a public sector for the people; on the other a police force as large as a small army ready to protect and preserve business as usual in the financial sector. Chants of “Make Wall Street Pay!” echoed through the financial district as the simultaneous rallies began. “Their chants and pleas were echoing into every nook and cranny a bond trader could hide,” a member of Times Up! bike-block later reflected. “An amazing gathering of unions, nonprofits, and advocacy groups. With one goal in mind: Make Wall Street pay their fair share, so that the weakest and neediest aren't taking the brunt of the economic collapse Wall Street caused in the first place.”“Education is a Right, Fight, Fight, Fight!” screamed hoards of students, watching tuitions rise along with class size, their futures jeopardized by the austerity program. “Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out!” group after group roared throughout the cavernous pre-automotive corridors of Lower Manhattan, in a crescendo as the police scrambled to pen off intersecting streets and as the branches of protesters joined each other. And for a while there, Wall Street was the people's street. As they poured down and out of the tight corridor, activists were greeted by stilt walkers and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra blaring “We're Not Going to Take It” amid a sea of people. Eventually, people careened west to Battery Park where 10,000 turned the southernmost tip of Manhattan into our Tahrir Square, our public commons for a post-rally celebration. For well over a generation, unions which support the 99 percent had seen their gains eroded by the 1 percent. Many recognized the struggle over public space, including in the financial district, as part of a larger battle. “Make no mistake: the current attack on the public sector, teachers, students, and services, is paramount to a war on the poor,” noted Mike Fabricant of the PSC. With the public sphere threatened on all sides, the streets of New York represent a space for countless narratives of contestation and resistance. “The struggle over who controls informal public space is one of the most important front lines in waging a counter offensive to the present blitzkrieg on public services and unions,” noted Fabricant. It is a struggle taking place everyday in countless ways throughout the corridors of New York's contested public spaces. Finishing the May 12 rally, PSC member Ron Hayduk stood in Bowling Green Park, with thousands of other union members, and declared that we should come down more often. Bowling Green should be our Tahrir Square, he argued. By fall, his ideas started to take fruition, only a few blocks uptown with OWS. For many in labor, OWS represented an extension of the global justice and anti-austerity movements which converged on Wall Street on May 12, dovetailing between struggles of public sector workers in Madison and democracy activists in Tahrir Square. Each movement had made a claim on public space. “Democracy not Plutocracy” declared a sign carried by one of the OWS activist Saturday September 24th. Almost immediately, labor recognized the message of the signs in Zuccotti Park as a challenge the growing social and economic inequalities ranging from disparities in wealth to access to democratic institutions. Faced with a democracy deficit, labor was taking it back to the streets. In the weeks before May 12, members of the PSC were arrested at Governor Cuomo's office chanting, “Tax the Rich, Not the Poor: Stop the War on CUNY.” At a time when education for training and other human services are more in demand than ever, funding for these programs remained under attack. The prime attack on these programs was from the Koch Brothers, number four on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. The Koch Brothers funded the Tea Party and the campaign of Governor Cuomo in New York. If ever there was a stark contrast between the needs of the 1 and the 99 percent, it was the Koch brothers funding of the attack on public sector workers, billionaires vs. workers. “We made the decision to risk arrest because we cannot allow the injustice of this budget to stand,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the PSC, who was among the protesters. “We have lobbied and rallied and written in support of a fair budget, but our voices have not been heard. Albany is on the verge of passing a budget that is so damaging to our students and so fundamentally unjust that we had to take a stand. We are educators—we spend our lives teaching students how to challenge false premises, and the false premise of this budget must be challenged.” Gradually, the PSC was moving in a more radical direction, away from boring rallies toward direct action. “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory,” Frederich Engels declared. Throughout 2011, labor re-embraced this. The CUNY faculty and staff were joined in their act of civil disobedience by CUNY students. Members of New York Communities for Change, the Real Rent Reform Campaign, and Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY) also took part in the protest. Through these actions, these groups collectively argued that the state budget should not put the interests of corporations, the wealthy, and the super-rich above the needs of ordinary New Yorkers. Research from the Fiscal Policy Institute showed that the richest 1 percent of earners receives 35 percent of all income collected in New York State. In New York City, income inequality is even more dramatic: 44 percent of all income is collected by the top 1 percent there. The financial services industry was once again making record profits and real estate interests had spent millions on public relations (PR) and lobby campaigns to weaken rent control, undermine teachers' contract rights, and cut services for working New Yorkers. The wealthy, labor argued, could afford to pay their fair share. Yet labor needed to connect this passion with the strength of a growing movement, which included more young people. In OWS, they found common cause. Union members had been at OWS since the beginning of the encampment (see Writers 2012). By Thursday, Barbara Bowen and members of the PSC arrived at Zuccotti to speak out in support. “We're honored to be here with you today,” noted Bowen during the OWS general assembly on September 22. And there is good reason for this solidarity among movements fighting the influence of Wall Street and the ever-expanding inequality taking hold. CUNY campus after campus, union after union recognized the pulse taking place with OWS. As the occupation gained steam, unions showed increasing solidarity with the burgeoning movement and the 99 percent not benefiting from business as usual. October 4th, Barbara Bowen sent out the following message to the PSC: Dear Members, Don't miss what may be a historic march tomorrow, Wednesday, October 5. The city's labor unions—including the PSC—have come together in record time with student and community groups to demonstrate our solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Together we will show the force behind our common demand for an alternative to economic austerity for 99% of the population and unprecedented wealth for 1%. . . . Look for the red signs that say “PSC Supports You.” I look forward to being with you there. This is a demonstration not to miss. Barbara Bowen The rally and labor march the next day, October 5, included a mix of unions and community groups, including AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the Professional Staff Congress, VOCAL, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), and members of other various harm reduction and health groups. Many carried signs with distinct messages including: “Lost a Job, Found an Occupation” was one of my favorites. A nun carried a sign noting: “My Soup Kitchen Needs a Bail Out!” Another spoofed the New York Times and corporate media, “All the News We're Paid to Print.” Throughout the rally, some sang songs. Michael Franti jammed, firing up the crowd. A group of women with a stand-up base and acoustic guitars sang, “We Shall Not Be Moved” joined by many in the crowd. “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” a five-year-old child chanted on his father's shoulders as some twenty thousand of us moved like a slow amoeba from Foley Square down to Zuccotti Park. There, Reverend Billy was preaching. As the labor rally arrived at Zuccotti, a smaller group continued the rally, moving to break through the barricades protecting the banks at Wall Street. And the police retaliated, exposing a panicked frenzy of batons and fists reminiscent of the Tompkins Square Park riots. The next morning, the front pages of the Daily News, New York Times, and even Fox News offered sympathetic accounts. Jump to… “New York is a Union Town” Over the next few weeks, union members would become more and more visible at Zuccotti and other OWS events and vice versa. Union members arrived in force to support the eviction defense on October 14. Later in the day, members of OWS joined the picket line in front of Verizon headquarters. They carried signs declaring “We are the 99%” linking worker struggles with a movement against corporate greed. Throughout the following weeks, OWS members spoke out in support movements for health care, higher education, and efforts to oppose hydro-fracking, an energy industry plan to produce gas through drilling the earth. Of this multi-issue agenda, common cause between labor and struggles against expanding inequality would become a foundation. On November 9th, OWS members marched to join in support of the picket line at Sotheby's, where workers had been locked out, several carrying signs declaring “Jobs, Not Snobs.” As patrons entered the Upper East Side auction house, activists implored them now to cross the picket line noting, “These artists would have hated you!” and “Greed is not good!” Others screamed, “All day, all week, occupy Sotheby's!”“Art for the masses, not the upper classes!” and “What's disgusting, union busting!” For many in OWS, the opulent Sotheby's refusal to even negotiate with their workers felt like a perfect metaphor for the 1 percent's treatment of the other 99 (Seltzer 2011). October 27th, a student leader from New York City College of Technology involved with OWS attended a chapter meeting of the PSC, the union representing City University employers. Pushing the union to back its rhetoric with action, he asked the Union to back a resolution calling for the Union to formally support OWS and put its resources behind this effort. I forwarded the motion, which was seconded and passed by the floor. For many of us, OWS seemed to mirror the union's agenda, including a push for the governor to maintain a millionaire's tax. Later that day, the whole delegate assembly of the PSC passed the following resolution: RESOLUTION: PROFESSIONAL STAFF CONGRESS/CUNY SUPPORTS OCCUPY WALL STREET Whereas: The Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, the union representing 25,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York, strongly opposes the imposition of further economic austerity on our university and the working-class and middle-class populations it serves, and continues to campaign for equitable distribution of wealth and progressive taxation. Occupy Wall Street has brilliantly focused national and world attention on these issues by naming Wall Street as the source of the economic injustice and by challenging limits on the use of public space through an occupation. Occupy Wall Street-organized at a moment at which income inequality in the U.S. is greater than at any time since the eve of the Depression, in the state with the greatest income inequality in the country and the city with the greatest income inequality in the state-has dared to question the primacy of the finance industry in American political and economic life. In doing so, OWS has shown how the political imagination can be expanded and social vision renewed. And in little more than a month, OWS has changed public discourse and may be beginning to change public policy. Largely because of OWS, political officials, the corporate median and the class whose interests they represent have been forced to address the radical inequality in this country, creating an opening for unions, community groups and others to press with new urgency for long-standing economic justice demands. By claiming public space for a public purpose, OWS has increased the freedom for all of us to take political action. Remaining confrontational but non-violent, OWS has exposed the criminalization of peaceful protest in this city and created a space for all of us to exercise our right to speak up and act up. And by reimagining the public square, OWS has also highlighted the importance of education. Education is everywhere at Zuccotti Park, with protesters educating each other, creating a free lending-library, developing working-groups to examine political questions, and initiating a free “nomadic university” to bring college to the people of New York, in the boroughs and streets where they live. While it is too soon to know what political movements will grow from OWS, it is already clear that OWS has changed the political landscape, not least because of its ability to find common cause between progressive activists and organized labor and to recognize contributions of students as essential to political change. CUNY students were among the original OWS group and have continued to take important roles in its development, always pressing for more public funding for CUNY. And whereas: The PSC was among the first labor unions to show support for OWS, with our members volunteering their time, and the union offering support through organizing members at demonstrations, providing space for meetings and other assistance. Be it resolved: That the PSC commends Occupy Wall Street for its nerve and imagination, for its refusal to accept the unacceptable and its willingness to explore new forms of political organization and protest. The PSC will continue to work with OWS-organizing members, as appropriate, in support; helping wherever appropriate to develop its “nomadic university”; and offering material and financial support as determined by the PSC executive council. PSC would move support the November 17th, 2011. November 17, 2011 Unions were to be meeting at 3:00 p.m. in anticipation of the 5:00 p.m. scheduled rally at Foley Square. Students had already started marching downtown from Union Square. “Take The Square—5:00 p.m.” declared literature for the November 17 OWS action (OWS 2011). That morning thousands had clogged up the financial district with gestures of direct action, slowing the start of the market in between over two hundred arrests. The call for the afternoon action started in waves with a 3-p.m. student march to join the 5-p.m. Union Rally. “At 5 pm, tens of thousands of people will gather at Foley Square (just across from City Hall) in solidarity with laborers demanding jobs to rebuild this country's infrastructure and economy,” the call continued (OWS 2011). “A gospel choir and a marching band will also be performing. Afterwards we will march to our bridges. Let's make it as musical a march as possible—bring your songs, your voice, your spirit! Our ‘Musical’ on the bridge will culminate in a festival of light as we mark the two-month anniversary of the #occupy movement, and our commitment to shining light into our broken economic and political system. Resist austerity. Rebuild the economy. Reclaim our democracy.” Foley Square was filled with countless labor groups, including Unite, the CUNY PSC, and members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), among others. As OWS activists arrived, SEIU played a security role, filtering people who could walk near their midpark staging area, where people could park their bikes, or generally take part in a rally in public space. “We brought labor into this coalition,” noted one man from anarchist queer organizing circles who had been part of the movement from day one. “I don't know what they were doing, but they were awful,” noted an elder woman from the Grannies Peace Brigade. The conflict was not widespread, but it was reflective of a clash between the formalized structure of the labor movement and egalitarian consensus-based model of OWS, open to everyone who wants to join the space (Graeber 2011). That evening, 32,000 people rallied across the Brooklyn Bridge. As they marched, many were surprised to see a bat signal across the Verizon Building with the “99%.” Look around, you are a part/ of a global uprising/ we are a cry/from the heart/-of the world/we are unstoppable/another world is possible/Occupy Earth/we are winning/it is the beginning of the beginning/do not be afraid/love. The bat signal was an image seen around the world. Just as important, it was the second well-attended rally in a little over a month. Two weeks, later thousands of OWS and labor activists joined a similar march from Harold Square to Union Square (Glorioso 2011). Jump to… Labor, OWS, and Social Movements Bolstered by its ties with OWS, labor felt like a social movement throughout the fall Occupation. “The movement's ability to position itself as the voice of the majority has been bolstered by its alliance with the trade union movement,” notes PSC member Jackie DiSalvo (2011). “This bond between labor and militant activists who take to the streets, occupy public spaces and are willing to risk arrest for their cause is unprecedented in my lifetime.” This bond marks a stark contrast with the era of the Hard Hat Riot of May 1970 when trade union members clashed with antiwar activists who converged on Wall Street (Freeman 2000; Smithsimon 2011). From the 1960s until the 1980s, many unions felt conservative, often losing support from movement activists. And while the much was made of the “Teamsters and Turtles” alliance of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests of 1999 when labor supported the work of trade and environmental activists, with the International Longshoreman Worker Union shutting down the West Coast Ports in solidarity with the World Trade Organization Protests . In the next global justice convergence action against the International Monetary Fund/World Bank in Washington (2000), trade union leaders actually called for labor not to participate in the day's blockade, and organized labor failed to play much of a role in global justice protests after this. Organized labor benefited from the momentum created by Seattle but was unable to show sustained support for the Alterglobalization movement which had given it new life. Much of this hostility was born of a reticence for organized labor to support anarchist-based direct action movements. And certainly some of these tensions could be felt in Foley Square on November 17, 2011 when members of SEIU playing a “security role” directing and filtering people in and out of the center of Foley Square. As of now, this appears to be an isolated example. Yet, if labor could recognize and respect the anarchist roots and organizational practices of OWS, this could certainly benefit both movements (Graeber 2011). After all, labor has a long history of strikes and direct action of its own (Brecher 2012). The current labor movement could do well to embrace this tradition. After all, Occupy Wall Street offers a far different picture of a movement which has benefited from the solidarity of trade unions, which seem to understand that their support for this movement only strengthens their push for a fairer economic policy for all. “Students and workers, shut this city down,” screamed the hoards of students and labor activists at the Baruch College (City University of New York) tuition protests on November 28. Thousands of OWS activists were joined by union members romping up and down Lexington Avenue during the tuition increase protests at Baruch, zigging and zagging east and west, anywhere, but the police pens. “We don't see no riot here, why you wearing riot gear!” they screamed at the riot cops protecting and preserving the shit out of them. Few at the rally could recall seeing so many at a CUNY budget action. After the NYPD displaced the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park on November 15, many in labor suggested that participating in an evacuation of activists was tantamount to crossing a picket line. “The AFL CIO will do everything in our power to make sure the free speech rights of these peaceful protesters are protected,” said American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) President Richard Trumka (quoted in Hall 2011). To the extent that OWS draws labor into this kind of solidarity work in which a social movement supports striking workers, students fighting tuition increases, and a larger movement fighting for public space this only supports a multi-issue politics which benefits both movements. Yet, there is no doubt this is an uneasy alliance. While rank and file union organizers suggested OWS occupations should be treated like picket lines, not to be crossed or dismantled, it was the members of the New York Police Department (NYPD), union members of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association, who dismantled the encampments in Zuccotti Park and across the country. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, an iconic and highly affluent businessman, later mused, the NYPD were his “army” (Seifman 2011). Over time the police have become increasingly hostile to the movement and their right to access public space. Many in OWS have asked for solidarity with the NYPD as members of the 99 percent, public workers watching their pensions erode, just like other workers. Yet, the NYPD often finds itself in an oppositional position with other union members when it comes to social movements such as OWS or the Verizon Strike, supported by other unions and OWS. Reacting to the assignment of Police to the Verizon Strike, Police Benevolent Association (PBA) president Pat Lynch noted: What makes the job of being a police officer unique is that even though we support and believe in the value of unionism and the fight for fairness by the working person our professionalism allows us to stand between opposing sides to protect both. It's one of the things that makes being a police officer a tough job. Yet, there are encouraging signs of solidarity or support for the movement. Police in Albany, NY were encouraged to arrest protesters pushing the Governor to extend the Millionaire's tax for the 1 percent. Under pressure from the Governor, the Mayor of Albany pushed for arrests. Yet, the police refused to move in on what they saw as peaceful protesters, defying the order. “The bottom line is the police know policing, not the Mayor” noted a police official (quoted in Lyons 2011). The steps of engaging working people into the occupation movement are many as are the obstacles. Yet, OWS is certainly making strides. “OWS is facilitating the development out of separate unions of a real labor movement,” argues Jackie DiSalvo. “The OWS Labor Working Group brings together people from 30 unions, and one of its main goals has become promotion of mutual support among the unions themselves. If this takes hold, it might begin to reverse labor's long decline.” On October 4, November 17, and December 1, labor turned out tens of thousands, up to 32,000 on November 17. These are numbers labor has not turned out on a regular basis in decades (Freeman 2000). Consequently, the movement has benefited from the clear working policy agenda formulated by the unions, such as SEIU. “They are smart in being very inclusive,” noted PSC member and movement historian Frances Fox Piven (2011), who noted OWS has reached out to many groups including unions, “When has a youthful protest done that in living memory?” It has been a long time, Piven answered her rhetorical question. “But they knew from the beginning—probably they were helped to learn that from Wisconsin. And they're so happily counter-cultural, you can't even get angry at them if you're a stiff old person!” Piven went on to note the movement has benefited from its intelligent target—Wall Street—as well as the lessons of Arab Spring that taking space is an intelligent movement strategy. Many would come to suggest this really was the US Fall. Jump to… Conclusion Yet, questions remain: Can unions work in a collaborative, mutually respecting fashion with social movements over the long term? And can OWS engage working people? Labor historian Stanley Arronowitz wonders if OWS will articulate, not a menu of specific programs or demands, but a path that effectively indicates what a better life for the 99%, whom they wish to reach. And if the movement aspires to a genuine, “participatory democracy,” can it make this accessible for those who cannot attend long meetings? “What does this mean for people who support the movement but are tied down by long hours on the job or caring for family members at home?”“If the Occupy movement wants jobs, what kind does it envision?” asks Arronowitz (2011). “And since sections of labor have joined and endorsed the protests, what should the relationship be with unions and other progressive organizations?” And can labor support wild cat strikes and other acts of direct action, such as the December 12 West Coast Port Shut blockade, supported by both the movement and rank and file trade unionists? (LaborUnionReport 2011) Is this a movement or a moment? At this time, no answer is forthcoming. Yet, Frances Fox-Piven suggests the movement would be well advised to continue to work in common cause with unions, engaging direct action, and reclaiming public space. “They have to continue their work with students and with the unions, and also look for the opportunity for new kinds of occupations—sit-ins, basically,” notes Piven. “The sit-in is, as you know, a brilliant tactic. It's never been surpassed. Where else can we make our mark on the physical plant that they have constructed on the earth? Actually, we did the construction.” For now, many recognize the mutual benefits of the link between labor and an engaged mobilized social movement. Both movements have benefited from mutual association, with labor finding new vitality in its connection with a mobilized social movement. And OWS has been able to dismiss the charge that this is a counterculture movement, by connecting itself with labor. Labor helped mobilize a successful action in Wall Street on May 12, 2011, which anticipated OWS. Still, challenges remain if labor is to maintain its uneasy alliance with this anarchist inspired movement. Labor must learn to show solidity and respect not only to the message of OWS but to the movement's nonhierarchical organizing process if the alliance to endure. Jump to… References Arronowitz, S.2011. Occupy Wall Street and politics. The Clarion (November), (accessed December 8, 2011). Brecher, J.2012. Save the Humans: Common Preservation. Paradigm Publishers: London. DiSalvo, J.2011. Labor's leap. The Clarion (November), (accessed December 8, 2011). Freeman, J.2000. Working class New York: Life and labor since war. New York: New Press. Glorioso, C.2011. Hundreds March in Labor Unity Rally. (2 December), (accessed December 8). Graeber, D.2011. Occupy Wall Street's anarchist roots. (accessed December 8, 2011). Hall, M.2011. Raids on Occupy protesters “inexcusable,” says Trumka. (15 November), (accessed December 8, 2011). LaborUnionReport. 2011. Will #OWS & Unions To Shut Down West Coast Ports Monday? December 11. (accessed January 18, 2012). Lyons, B.2011. Under pressure to make arrests, police and troopers push back. Times Union (24 October), (accessed October 8, 2011). OWS. 2011. Thursday November 17th, International Day of Direct Action. (accessed December 8). Piven, F.2011. From protest to disruption: Frances Fox Piven on Occupy Wall Street. (accessed December 8, 2011). Seifman, D.2011. Bloomberg calls the NYPD his “Own Army”. 30 November, 2011 NY Post. (accessed December 8). Seltzer, S.2011. Opulent Sotheby's appalling treatment of its workers is a perfect symbol of the out of touch 1%. AlterNet (10 November),'_appalling_treatm... (accessed December 10). Smithsimon, G.2011. Forty years after the Hard Hat Riot, a different response from organized labor to Wall Street protests. Dissent (4 October), (accessed December 8, 2011). Writers for the 99%. 2012. Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America. New York: OR Books.

Working USA
Publication/Event Date: 
March, 2012