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Nikolas Kozloff
Nikolas Kozloff
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).
Occupy Wall Street: The labour connection
Major US labour unions plan to back the Occupy Wall Street protesters in pushing for a financial transaction tax.
Last Modified: 05 Oct 2011 14:11
The 125,000 members of SEIU 32BJ, a labour union, have the power to shut down New York City  [GALLO/GETTY]

Editors Note:Recently, Nikolas Kozloff, author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left, sat down with Mike Locker, the president of Locker Associates, a business and consulting firm working on behalf of many unions, to discuss the connections between organised labour and the permanent encampment known as Occupy Wall Street.

The issue has come to the fore, as many New York City labour unions are preparing to back the inchoate political movement in lower Manhattan. Recently, the unions have been pushing for financial reform and a financial transaction tax, and labour's endorsement and support could mark a significant shift in the anti-corporate movement by sending thousands more people into the streets, particularly on Wednesday when labour is planning to participate in a protest march.

A number of high profile unions such as Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, Service Employees International Union or SEIU 32BJ, the United Federation of Teachers and the Communication Workers of America are expected to participate in the demonstration. The endorsement by TWU Local 100 is particularly noteworthy. The union represents subway and bus workers and claims 38,000 members. Last week, TWU announced it would even go to court to try to stop the city from forcing bus drivers to transport Wall Street protesters arrested by the police.

Locker has represented the United Steelworkers and his organisation also publishes a widely read newsletter called Steel Industry Update. Though Locker has been primarily concerned with the state of US labour, he is also very familiar with the Latin American political scene and helped to found the North American Congress on Latin America or NACLA, which publishes a political magazine called NACLA Report on the Americas. A veteran political activist, he helped to organise the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, in the 1960s.

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Nikolas Kozloff: A couple of weeks ago, shortly after the protesters arrived in the area, I stopped by the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Liberty Plaza. Though intrigued by the scene, I didn't imagine much would come of it. Since then, however, the police have pepper sprayed protesters and arrested 700 demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge. As a result, the movement has grown larger and there's now much more media coverage on the ground. In your view, what is the significance of these labour endorsements from both a psychological and tactical perspective?

Mike Locker: Historically, US labour has only led mass activities when it felt it was in control of the situation. But I think the labour movement is recognising that it has to join a movement that it didn't start and doesn't control. It's a very interesting development and one which, frankly, I didn't think I'd see. Maybe labour's decision reflects a growing recognition that it needs new types of leadership and actions in order to reinvigorate the American worker.

NK: Do you think that labour hasn't been too successful at attracting youth and that is one reason it is taking a more backseat role in the Occupy Wall Street movement?

ML: Yes, I think there is a generational issue here which is very significant. The labour movement is concentrated in the 40 and over generation - not in all unions but most. There's a growing recognition that if labour doesn't build a larger membership then it won't have the power to change the society. Having said that, I'm rather stunned that mainline labour has supported this undefined and free-wheeling movement. If it had just been small caucuses within unions, that would have been par for the course, but mainline unions like the steelworkers, the teachers, and SEIU? That is very encouraging.

NK: In terms of pure numbers, how many workers can these labour unions reliably be expected to field for ongoing protests?

ML: The labour unions in New York will obviously send workers tomorrow to the big demonstration. The unions out of town like the steelworkers, frankly, should have sent busloads of their members and retirees to New York - that would have been a much clearer sign of solidarity. You could have easily gotten 15 to 20 busloads of people from Pennsylvania, upstate New York, even Massachusetts or Ohio. The other issue tomorrow is whether the march will be contained? Or, will the demonstration be symbolic, which the young people involved in the movement believe is rather boring or ineffective? Will the unions opt to participate in an action which demonstrates power in a creative way but which could also lead to some discomfort or inconvenience? For instance, will Occupy Wall St. plan a march on the sidewalk on Broadway or will it march down the middle of the street and close down traffic? I know there are young people that would like to move this mass of people into areas of Lower Manhattan where they can shut things down and not just cooperate with the police.

NK: When you speak to your contacts in labour, do they express disquiet about such a possibility?

ML: They have some trepidation, without a doubt. I think they have come to the conclusion however that the political and economic crisis in this country is so drastic and so escalating that they can't remain on the sidelines and must shake things up a little. But nobody knows where this thing is going to go. Frankly, I don't even think the young people down in Liberty Plaza know, either. I think that may be part of the Occupy Wall St. message: that process is more important than content. This goes back to SDS and my political roots by the way: the most famous phrase embodied in our famous Port Huron statement was "participatory democracy." I think Occupy Wall St. has opened up the process, which is more important than having a specific agenda.

NK: While many Americans would certainly agree with Occupy Wall Street that we've seen a rise in crony capitalism and financial corruption, there's bound to be disagreement about what to actually do about the situation. For the time being, labour sees eye to eye with the protesters, but I wonder whether that alliance would be put under strain in the event that Occupy Wall Street starts to advance a more radical agenda. What types of specific ideas might serve to alienate labour, and what are the limits of the unions' political participation?

ML: There isn't a clear delineation yet and it's not defined, but there could be a line in the not too distant future. A lot of the marchers or protesters, or maybe I should say "movement people" because I wouldn't say they're protesters in the conventional sense, are into resolution and active rebuilding, which is very ambitious and has strong roots from Europe and Latin America by the way, and I'm sure the people have learned a lot from those parts of the world. There's a very strong anti-capitalist strain in the Occupy Wall St. movement, in other words that capitalism is unjust and should be dismantled. I don't think labour, certainly not in the mainline unions, has come to that conclusion. To be very blunt, labour has been very tame when it comes to dealing with corporate excesses. The other big cleavage has to do with the Democratic Party. Labour is still wedded at the hip to the Democrats, and the Occupy Wall St. people don't see their future movement as being tied to conventional political parties.

NK: There was a time in this country when the organised left had labour on its side, but since the 1960s those ties have diminished significantly. Here in New York, too, it's rare to see political activists fighting alongside organised labour and in this sense what we are seeing is fairly novel. From a simple historical perspective, why do you suppose these tensions emerged and what specific mistakes should be averted in future?

ML: The big mistake of the labour unions was their inability to relate to SDS and black liberation movements. We at SDS approached labour many times, but they were scared of us because they couldn't control the students. There were exceptions of course, a couple of locals were more receptive but in general they were fearful and rather fat and happy. During that period, they felt they didn't need to challenge the system but we were more combative - on issues ranging from Vietnam to economic inequality.

NK: One rare instance of worker-activist participation came during the 1999 "battle of Seattle" and protests against the World Trade Organisation. Indeed, commentators even spoke of a so-called "Teamster and Turtle alliance," referring to collaboration between unions and environmentalists during the confrontational demonstrations. Why do you figure such an alliance worked in this particular instance but later fell apart? In light of these shortcomings, what can be learned from the experience and applied to the Wall St. protests?

ML: Well, labour is highly organised and it doesn't know how to deal with lesser organised or disorganised coalitions. In Seattle, labour couldn't relate to the protesters' disorganisation. Also, the people who organised Seattle didn't understand that you'd need a certain level of structure to take things to the next level. Today, Occupy Wall St abhors organisation, agendas, hierarchies, whatever you want to call it. On the other hand, you can argue that unless this movement develops some form of organisation it may not wind up reaching the next stage or coalesce. Personally, I'd like to preserve the "intentioned disorganisation" as much as possible. I just don't know if you can carry an embryonic movement, which is a spark, to another level which is a mass movement, without a greater structure, organisation and agenda. Unions are really into that: if you don't have the organisation and structure then you're considered illegitimate.

NK: I think TWU might feel a little constrained by its own recent past in New York. During a 2005 subway strike, TWU's fiery leader Roger Toussaint was even sent to jail for his role in the labour agitation. However, TWU paid a stiff price as the union was forced to pay a $2.5m fine for violating a state law barring public sector unions from striking. During the strike, Mayor Bloomberg referred to union leaders as "thuggish" and some commuters were put out by the disruption. After the strike, Toussaint pledged that the union had no intention of striking either "now or in the future," though he himself was later ousted from his leadership post in a political shakeup. In light of all this troubled history, how likely do you think it would be that TWU would play a significant role in the Wall St. protests, even if the demonstrations were to radicalise?

ML: I think there's a possibility of that. You have a very large element within TWU which is black and Latino, and many women workers. Even though they are well paid, they have deep roots in the community and I think there's a general concern about how bargaining power is getting restricted. A lot of the TWU leadership comes from the Caribbean, and the people have a strong background in mass political movements. In this sense, the TWU is a bit different from SEIU and the teachers.

NK: SEIU 32BJ represents doormen, security guards and maintenance workers, and as such they play a significant role in the Wall St area. Their headquarters are also conveniently located right near to the protests. What is the internal politics likely to be here in the event that things begin to radicalise?

ML: We are the only area of the country which has organised residential and commercial building workers. There was a tremendous campaign to unionise these workers here, as you're up against very powerful real estate interests. However, 32BJ is not very known for political activity and for that reason I'm a little surprised by the union's support of the Wall St. protests. Practically all buildings in the vicinity of the demonstrations are 32BJ buildings. Notice however how we haven't seen a very strong reaction from the building trades, which is the most powerful labour sector in the city with about 125,000 members - everyone from plumbers to electricians to carpenters and the like. The building trades deal with real estate, which, along with Wall St., runs this town and Bloomberg is very respectful of these interests. So far, the building trades have not showed up for the protests as they have much less of a tradition of unifying with student and radical movements. They do have a tradition of exercising their power and they can shut this city down on a dime. But, the building trades tend to be very nationalistic and, though I have tremendous respect for them, they haven't reached out enough to students and the community.

NK: Speaking of the local area, your own office is conveniently located right near Liberty Plaza and you know the vicinity well. It's a narrow and commercially dense strip of Manhattan with all kinds of important landmarks, including federal court houses, City Hall, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Nevertheless, Wall Street is protected by a virtual garrison of cops and the financial community which works in the area has been naturally hostile to the encampment. From a simple tactical point of view, what advantages or disadvantages does this area offer the protesters and what options would be most advisable?

ML: What's interesting about the crackdown on these protests is that they're being led by the police white shirts or lieutenants. One rumour that has been circulating, which was briefly mentioned on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, is that a number of blue shirted patrolmen were actually insubordinate and refused to arrest the protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge. Usually, the white shirts are in the back and issuing orders, but now, curiously, they're in the front arresting people. I think the Occupy Wall St. crowd is missing an opportunity to reach out to the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which is made up of working class people. In recent demonstrations, I've noticed that the police have been extremely friendly. Even here in Liberty Plaza, I don't find a lot of tension. The white shirts, yes, but the average patrolmen and women have been relaxed and non-confrontational. As far as Wall St. finance people, I disagree with your question - I think they are perplexed and uncomfortable, but not hostile and sometimes their curiosity gets the best of them. Sometimes they look at what is happening and actually engage in discussion.

NK: The possibility of a labour-activist alliance could be very threatening to local politicians, Wall Street, and the police. The establishment New York Times has also been very cool to the protesters in its media coverage. What kind of a reaction would you anticipate from entrenched interests and are there any historical lessons from previous labour and social struggles that might apply here?

ML: The cold will not drive the protesters out. The historical lesson is that when the authorities can't move these people by outlasting them, they may move in with force. In 1968, when I was involved in SDS protests at Columbia University and building occupations, they sent in thousands of cops, beat people over the head and it became quite bloody. This Wall St. protest could wind up that way, too. Powerful interests would have to consider whether the public reaction against a clamp down would be ultimately more damaging to them politically than simply letting the encampment continue.

NK: Finally, as an astute observer of Latin American labour, I wonder whether you think we could be headed toward a tipping point like what we saw in, say, Argentina. There, workers actually took over factories in 2001 when faced with financial disaster. We're still a long way from that point here in the US, yet this labour-activist alliance that we're seeing on Wall St seems to hark back to South American countries where such collaboration has been more prominent in recent years.

ML: It could develop that way. American workers have the skill sets and community ties to conduct factory seizures. Also, people are becoming more interested in cooperative union structures. Brazil has much to offer by way of example: there, people decide upon local budgets, which cuts through the power structure and siphons tax revenue in ways that people feel is important. In this way, the people circumvent conventional legislative bodies as well as lobbyists. We're only beginning to think like that here but perhaps, in the long run, Latin America will exert a political impact in ways yet unseen.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Visit his web site here. Mike Locker is the president of Locker Associates.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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