As he marched through Lower Manhattan last October leading telephone workers side by side with Occupy Wall Street activists, Tim Dubnau, a union organizer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), could tell that the OWS movement's message was reaching beyond its natural leftwing constituency.
“When we passed the World Trade Center, “I chanted, ‘Every job a union job,’ and the hard-hat people [working on the site] were giving us the thumbs up,” says Dubnau, one of a number of unionists across the country building ties with the movement.
A salute from New York City “hard-hats” carries special significance for left-wing activists. Ever since a contingent of construction workers beat up anti-Vietnam War protesters (only blocks from the eventual World Trade Center site) in 1970, the building trades have been considered a bastion of working-class patriotism and contempt for the left and the counterculture.
But the hardhat reception witnessed by Dubnau during the march to the headquarters of communications giant Verizon — which is locked in a contract fight with the CWA — was only one sign of a budding Occupy-union alliance.
CWA donated thousands of dollars' worth of walkie-talkies and air mattresses to occupiers and also provided meeting rooms. Other unions have supplied ponchos and storage space. Unions elsewhere have been generous as well.
Top union leaders have been showering the movement with praise since shortly after the first OWS encampment, at Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, went up. “Across America, working people are turning out with their friends and neighbors in parks, congregations and union halls to express their frustration — and anger — about our country's staggering wealth gap,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, declared in October, vowing continued union support for the Occupy movement.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) declared her solidarity in The Wall Street Journal. “While unions cannot claim credit for Occupy Wall Street,” she wrote, “SEIU members are joining the protesters in the streets because we are united in the belief that our country needs a change.”
Amy Muldoon, a phone worker who also works part time with the Occupy movement for the CWA, says activism focused on social and economic inequality creates a political climate favorable to organized labor.
“The unions recognize,” she says, “that it's beneficial to negotiate contracts at a time when people are saying the rich and banks and corporations get away with whatever they want, and politicians are bought and sold by them.”
Nevertheless, union-Occupy ties could fray when the presidential race intensifies. Already, some Occupy activists have made plain their distance from unions' long and close ties to the Democratic Party.
“There will be debates in the movement about whether people should put their energy into supporting Democrats,” says Jackie Smith, a University of Pittsburgh sociology professor and Occupy activist. In that atmosphere, she says, “It will be difficult to maintain coalitions with labor.”
Long Beach police arrest an Occupy protester on Dec. 12, 2011, for blocking the road leading to SSA Marine, a shipping company partially owned by investment bank Goldman Sachs. (Getty Images/Kevork Djansezian)
Relations were tested on the West Coast by Occupy-initiated attempts to shut down two ports on Dec. 12. “U.S. ports have become economic engines for the elite; the 1 percent these trade hubs serve are free to rip the shirts off the backs of the 99 percent who turn their profits,” the organizers of the West Coast Port Blockade announced online.
In addition to the port of Oakland, Calif., the shutdowns targeted SSA Marine, a West Coast port operator, and EGT, which runs a grain shipping terminal in Longview, Wash., that is in a contract dispute with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). SSA is also partly owned by Goldman Sachs, a major Wall Street firm, making it an even more tempting target for Occupy activists.
But union leadership opposed the Longview shutdown. “Support is one thing, organization from outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda is quite another,” ILWU President Robert McEllrath said in a letter to local unions a week before the shutdown attempts, “and one that is destructive to our democratic process and jeopardizes our over-two-year struggle.”
In the end, port shutdowns in Longview, Oakland and Portland, Ore., cost union longshoremen all or most of their day's pay. Non-unionized truck drivers weren't paid at all. “This is a joke,” driver Christian Vega told The Associated Press. “What are they protesting? It only hurts me and the other drivers.”
Some union longshoremen were happy with the protests. The website of the Southern California ILWU local carried a video in which Anthony, a shutdown-supporting longshoreman in Oakland, says that members were split 50-50 on the matter. “Some are upset because they lost a day's pay,” he said.
Anthony supported the shutdown as a “warning that the working class is serious.” But, he added, the Occupy movement “probably has to get away from that 99 percent slogan, because then a lot of people say, ‘You're hurt by the 99 percent not letting you go to work.’”
Even some leftwing union activists found the shutdown troubling in ways that suggest that maintaining union-Occupy relations may take some work. “The IlWU is not a corrupt, stodgy union,” says Dubnau of CWA. “If they're saying this is not a good tactic, you don't from the outside say this is a good tactic; you can't disrespect them,” he says. “Yeah, it feels good to shut down ports; it's relatively easy to do — that doesn't mean it's a good strategy. You can't do it just because it's militant.”
— Peter Katel