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Unions and Occupy continue to build their wary alliance

By Left Foot Forward
May 14th 2012


When the Adbusters-inspired Occupy Wall Street campaign kicked off seven months ago in New York City, no one could have expected it to trigger the creation of 700 similar protest camps around the world.

The very fact it became a ‘movement’ has left sociologists scratching their heads; some have called it a populist movement of the left while others have firmly embedded it within new social movement theory.

However, with the movement now in its second phase, its real identity is becoming more apparent. The Occupy movement’s willingness to engage with, support, and be supported byestablishment forces such as trade unions has shed some light on its dynamic persona.

This (at times) uncomfortable relationship between the Occupy and labour movements may very well be the element that aids Occupy’s survival and, to a certain extent, organised labour’s rejuvenation.

In its nascent phase, Occupy sites around the world could be seen hosting a smattering of union flags and banners. Ultimately, it was only natural for union members to be drawn into a movement fighting the ills of modern finance.

In fact, groups such as UK Uncut have been enjoying tremendous support from rank and file union members for quite some time now.

These sentiments were echoed perfectly over in the US by Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO national trade union centre.

He said in an interview that his members “have been trying to have the debate about Wall Street and the economy for a long time” and that the Occupy movement provided them a “vehicle” to do so. Other union leaders have pledged support saying they feel “vindicated” by the Occupy protests.

However, it is this very sense of ownership and “we said it first” mentality that have posed the most problems for Occupy activists.

Individual Occupy sites operate a consensus decision-making model of democracy and certainly do not have leaders or hierarchies. Therefore, the top-down organisation of unions together with its complicated branch structures and voting mechanisms is somewhat of an anathema to the Occupy movement.

Moreover, organised labour’s links to political parties that have propped up high finance has proved to be a sore point for many activists.

The unions’ inability to endorse the more radical and militant tactics of the Occupy movement has also been a point of discussion. This is a fundamental issue Occupy activists need to understand. Trade unions are regulated membership-based voluntary associations with their functions limited by law.

Of course, where possible, unions have been at the forefront of organising and supporting acts of civil disobedienceWorkplace occupations immediately come to mind.

Unions must also represent their members and promote job creation, which may not always be a priority for folks in the Occupy movement. For example, unions in the UK are in favour of Heathrow expansion while their counterparts in Italy support the construction of the controversial Turin-Lyon high-speed railway. Both projects were denounced by the respective British and Italian Occupy groups.

It goes without saying that unions have also had their reservations about engaging with the Occupy movement. They had to make sure it was a peaceful movement with no violent fringe elements. They also needed to know that they could share a platform on at least a majority of issues without compromising their members’ interests.

If Occupy activists fear their movement is being usurped by organised labour, unions themselves will be anxious about their traditional role being outsourced. For instance, the successful Occupy Oakland “general strike” called on workers to call in sick, take leave, or simply not go into work. Similar language was used in last week’s May Day protests in the US with the invocation of another general strike.

With their unrestricted ability to call for radical action, the Occupy movement’s tactics could be seen as a re-introduction of “political strikes” in those countries that do not permit unions to do so.

Despite doubts shared by both camps, the relationship between the labour and Occupy movements needs to and should be a fruitful one. Unions can offer resources, skills and activists while getting an injection of energy and fighting spirit from the Occupy movement.

With Occupy Labour Outreach Committees being formed and successful joint protests under its belt, this symbiotic alliance has already produced great results.

Originally published by Left Foot Forward

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