Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Occupy Movement and Organized Labor- Speech to Communication Workers of America

It is a great honor for me to be asked to address this gathering.
The organization you represent was not only one of the first labor
unions in the nation to recognize that Occupy Wall Street was
spreading a message about economic inequality that organized labor had
been trying to get across for more than two decades; it is also a
union that made a major breakthrough in new organizing two months ago
by becoming the official bargaining agent for Cablevision employees in
an NLRB Election

Given this, I am not going to lecture you on the relationship
between Occupy Wall Street and labor movement in New York City,
something you know far more about than I do. Rather, I am going to
talk in broad terms about the relationship between the Occupy movement
and organized labor nationally, and try to put that relationship in
historical perspective.

It is my conviction, based on my historical studies, and my own
involvement with the Occupy movement- which include founding an Occupy
support group called the 99 Pct clubs as well as work with Occupy
groups in the Bronx, Queens, Connecticut and Eastern Long Island- that
Occupy Wall Street and its spin offs represent a critically important
ally for the labor movement. At a time when the labor movement is
under fierce attack, with state governments trying to undermine long
established collective bargaining rights, privatize public services,
and de-fund pension plans, the Occupy movement, virtually alone, has
created a discourse, backed up by a powerful grass roots movement,
which insists the burden of sacrifice in the current crisis should fall
upon the very wealthy, not unionized workers. This gives the labor
movement, for the first time in recent memory, a basis for taking its
message in defense of worker living standards to young, college
educated audiences which were previously hostile or indifferent to such
a world view. Essentially, Occupy Wall Street has given a moral and
intellectual rationale to what I would call “Trickle Up Economics”- the
idea that real prosperity and economic stability can only be secured
when wages levels for American workers rise enough so their buying
power is no longer dependent on second mortgages on homes and credit
card debt.

I have seen the impact of this first hand at my own University.
The organization we have created at Fordham in support of Occupy Wall
Street- the 99 Percent Clubs- has made as its first project, an
educational campaign around issues of economic inequality. In the last
week, our campus has been plastered with posters and flyers which show
how the top one percent of earners have monopolized a growing share of
national wealth and income. The poster which most moved me was the one
which pointed out that since 2009, 88 percent of corporate income has
gone to profits, and only 1 percent to wages! Here are a group of
students at an elite university pointing out that Wage Compression and
an attack on worker living standards are an attack that threaten the
well being of everyone except the very wealthy. It would have been
impossible to imagine a group of students bringing such an argument to
their peers even a year ago. This is all due to the influence of
Occupy Wall Street

The dissemination of this ”Trickle Up” discourse is still at an
early stage, and has not been strong enough or vital enough to prevent
successful attacks on worker bargaining rights in Indiana, Michigan and
New Jersey. But as the Occupy movement revives in the spring and
summer, it will not only provide additional support for labor campaigns
to protect bargaining rights and fight “right to work laws,” it may
also provide critical support for efforts to organize the unorganized
and expand labor union coverage to new sectors of the economy,
especially big box retailers, fast food providers, and the financial
services sector.. While the idea that Occupy Wall Street will give a
shot in the arm to recruiting new workers into the labor movement may
seen wildly optimistic to many of you, let me remind you that Occupy
Wall Street is less than 6 months old, and suggest that its full impact
on American society, and American labor, may be five or six years in
the future.

To put this moment n historical perspective, I want to go back 80
years in time. It is January 1933. Franklin Roosevelt has just been
elected president and the nation is in the throes of a terrible
Depression. Nearly a third of the work force is unemployed, another
third is working part time, and much of the great industrial capacity
of the nation lies idle. The steel industry is operating at 33 percent
of capacity, the auto industry at 20 percent of capacity, and the
construction industry has ground to a halt. Payrolls in Chicago in
private industry are 26 percent of what they were in 1929. The labor
movement is reeling under the stress of the crisis. Union membership is
down to 3 million, 60 percent of its high point of 5 million in 1919.
The nation’s workers and its labor leaders are in despair, wondering
what the future would bring.

Could anyone have imagined that the labor movement was on the verge
of its greatest growth spurt in American history, growing from 3
million members in 1933 to 8 million in 1941 and to 15 million in 1945,
and that the great open shop bastions of American society, the auto
industry, the steel industry, and the electronics industry, would all
become almost completely unionized by 1945?

What happened? Why this extraordinary growth in union representation
and union power and what lessons does this hold for us today.

One big change was the election of pro-labor public officials, not
only in the White House and Congress, but in State Capitals and City
Halls throughout the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Far West. By 1936,
there were pro-labor governors in key states like Michigan, Ohio,
Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and pro labor mayors in a huge number of
industrial cities. This meant when strikes did take place, officials
were reluctant to use the police, the national guard or federal troops
to break them, a factor which provide critical in the two most
successful strikes of the era, the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934
and the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37, each of which involved
seizures of private property and public space which in a different time
would have prompted deployment of the national guard or federal troops
on behalf of the companies.

But equally important, and perhaps more relevant for purposes of
comparison, is that the labor movement organized and grew in the midst
of a broad popular upheaval, led by radicals, that included hunger
marches and sit ins at relief agencies and protests against evictions
and foreclosures that sometimes involved thousands of people, and
spawned the growth of a culture of solidarity that blamed bankers and
the wealthy for causing the Depression and saw America’s common people
as the nation’s hope and its strength. In some ways, the cultural
symbols of that uprising bear a startling resemblance to those put
forward by Occupy Wall Street. Consider this passage from “The Ballad
of Pretty Boy Floyd” by the great balladeer Woodie Guthrie

as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

What did this mean for unions, on the ground? It meant when they
finally mobilized to try to organize new workers, at first in response
to the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 and the
passage of the Wagner Labor Relations Act in 1935, they could count on
tremendous support from the radicals of that era, Socialists and
Communists, and of a powerful grass roots movement of the unemployed.
The ethos of solidarity meant than when workers who were employed
on strike, organizations of the unemployed would mobilize in their
support because they had come to believe that when some workers gained
security, respect and a higher income, all workers would benefit. In
both Minneapolis and Flint, members of unemployed organizations stood
toe to toe with unionists in battles with the police and pro employer
citizens groups and in the case of Flint, actually helped workers
occupy the plants. Members of other unions in towns hundreds of miles
away mobilized to support these campaigns, along with radical activists
from all over the nation, because they viewed them as milestones in
workers attempt to win bargaining rights in critical industries and
would, if successful, change the way the entire American economy was
organized And they were right in that conviction, since the
Minneapolis strike led to the emergence of the Teamsters as a major
national union with over 400,000 members and the Flint Strike led to
winning collective bargaining rights in the nation’s two largest
corporations, General Motors and US. Steel. It was the spread of an
ethos of solidarity, first put forward by radical activists, and then
embraced by millions of working people, that made these victories
possible. Both of these strikes were communal uprisings, and without
the support of tens of thousands of people who did not work in the
industries in question, they would nave have succeeded
, Now segue to the present. The labor movement is far weaker, in
terms of membership,, than it was 20 years ago, and is under attack in
state after state by Republican governors and legislators who want to
strip away hard won bargaining rights. But while these anti-labor
attacks are going on, a huge movement for economic democracy has broken
out in the nation that has made the question of economic inequality and
the power of corporations center stage in public discourse. The
movement has not only put ideas about inequality on the agenda in new
ways, it has spawned hundreds of organizations which have tried to put
those ideas into practice. I have seen this first hand in New York city
where Occupy activists have been fighting foreclosures and evictions,
resisting school closings, fighting racial profiling and police
brutality and working with unions to demand that the state and city
governments tax the rich before they ask for give backs from workers.
Though media pundits like to say that Occupy Wall Street has
disappeared, it has started to evolve from a highly visible mass
movement that inspired an Economic Democracy Discourse, to a
decentralized, neighborhood based movement for economic justice.
And that is where the opportunity for labor lies. All over this
nation, Occupy groups exist, in cities, small towns, even some rural
areas, that will create alliances with labor unions to protect the
living standards of unionized workers, to elect pro labor candidates to
office, and to help unions organize the unorganized. As someone who
works in four such organizations, Occupy the Bronx, Occupy the
Hamptons, and the 99 Percent Clubs of Fordham University and Hollis
Presbyterian Church , I can tell you without equivocation, that the
labor movement has not, since the 1960’s, had more allies in
universities and working class communities, who share its vision of
what is wrong in American society and what needs to be done to correct
it. The Occupy movement has not only provided a moral and intellectual
framework for a campaign to raise the living standards of American
workers through union organizing and political action, it has created
something we haven’t had in this country for a long time-a cadre of
shock troops who will fight toe to toe with labor in battles in the
streets and in the nation’s workplaces.
If I dare to dream, I can see where this might lead- to the
unionization of Wal-Mart, to the unionization of McDonalds, to the
unionization of financial services workers in the nation’s largest
Impossible you say? Perhaps. But are these goals any more
impossible than the unionization of General Motors, US Steel and
General Electric seemed in 1933?
We are only in the very earliest stages of an economic justice
movement that could transform the way tens of millions of people live
and work. And when this happens, people like yourselves will be at the
absolute center of this struggle, both in the political arena, and in
the shops, and offices and warehouses where the movement for economic
democracy will reach its highest form. And when you do that, people in
the Occupy Movement will be standing shoulder to shoulder with you just
as their 1930’s radical forebears were in that era.
In closing, I will leave you with a slogan from the 60’s that
for me at, least has never lost its power


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