Last Thursday, Foley Square was packed with people: Speakers addressed the crowd, and mediocre rappers MC’d to a crowd that was older and more diverse than a typical Occupy Wall Street gathering. With many wearing union T-shirts, it looked more like an old-fashioned labor rally than an OWS event. Few of the core occupiers were seen; this was a union show.
In late September, the Transit Workers’ Union Local 100 officially declared its support for Occupy Wall Street. Other unions followed suit, including the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America 100, the United Federation of Teachers, and the Service Employees International Union. TWU 100 spokesman Jim Gannon told the Voice that the protesters were “pretty courageous” and that OWS had “brought a new public focus in a different way to what we’ve been saying all along.” The unions held a huge rally with the protesters at Foley Square on October 5 followed by a triumphant march to Zuccotti Park. The relationship seemed to be gelling.
But it has never been clear what these two groups want from each other. After that initial show of unity, the relationship has seemed to be an uneasy one. When the unions show up for OWS rallies, they tend to take control.
If the marriage is rocky, Occupy Wall Street has benefited in two ways: some legitimacy on the one hand, and a place to store their valuables on the other. (The UFT has provided storage space at its headquarters in the Financial District.)
The unions, meanwhile, are feeding off the young movement’s energy in a bid for relevancy. And from a more practical standpoint, mobilizing the troops doesn’t hurt as we head into the 2012 election cycle.
OWS benefits when an older, and less white, crowd of union members shows up to break up the stereotype of crunchy hippies. It also provides a kind of protection: “It reminds people: There are actually families wholeheartedly supporting this,” says James Molenda, 32, an occupier and archives working group member. “And you can’t beat mothers with their children while we’re going over the bridge.”
The unions, meanwhile, get a jolt from signing on with angry, media-savvy young protesters. “They’re definitely showing us a way that I think most unions are a little behind the times on,” Gannon says.
But that’s not to say both sides aren’t wary. “There’s a lot of concern about co-option on both the public’s end and participants of Occupy,” says Justin Strekal, 22, a member of the Finance and the Shipping, Inventory, and Storage working groups. SIS uses a space in the UFT headquarters at 52 Broadway to store occupiers’ belongings and has been for about a month and a half, though protesters say that security became much tighter there after the raid.
Although most protesters are careful not to openly voice any dissatisfaction with the unions, the Voice obtained a series of e-mails on an OWS student activist listserv that tells a different story. The conversation the day after the big Brooklyn Bridge march begins: “Yesterday was amazing, but next time lets not let Labor kill our momentum. I think we could have actually shut down the Brooklyn Bridge ourselves if we had gone straight there instead of to Foley.”
The next e-mail goes further: “Organized labor needs to be called out for using what are at best stale, uncreative tactics, and at worst, unintended or covert attempts to drain the life out of a newly emerging social movement that has the potential to be far more powerful than they are.”
There could be more trouble coming soon. As originally reported by Washington Post writer Greg Sargent, major unions like SEIU and the Communications Workers of America are working on a plan to bus thousands of OWS protesters from all over the country to Washington in December to “Occupy Congress.” Mary Kay Henry, the president of SEIU, which recently endorsed President Obama for re-election, told Sargent that one of the main goals is to pressure Republicans into signing on to Obama’s jobs creation proposal—the type of focused political action that’s supposed to be anathema to the OWS ethos. And the lingo is getting co-opted as well. Henry explained SEIU’s decision to endorse Obama by saying that “We need a leader willing to fight for the needs of the 99 percent.”
For a movement that prides itself on being anti-establishment, there’s little glory in seeing its words used to invoke specific, mainstream political goals.
The SIS space at UFT headquarters is a shadow of what it was before the raid; there’s nothing to ship and hardly any inventory. The remaining members of SIS mostly concern themselves with storage, but even that might not last long. According to Justin Strekal, UFT will give them 15 days’ notice before they need to leave.
Plus, he says, “We already have contingency plans in case of the relationship going sour.”