A Labor Movement

Auto workers demonstrate near Foley Square, New York, October 5, 2011. From http://unionsmatter.wordpress.com.

This piece first appeared in the second issue of our Occupy-inspired Gazette, now available as a PDF download and in print.

Among the endless, nearly bureaucratic proliferation of working groups at Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere—people of color, sanitation, media, alternative banking, sustainability, anti-racism allies, disability—one stands out for its simultaneous universality and total narrowness. The labor working group, in any occupation, has a very clear and dully unobjectionable task: to help get material support from trade unions for the protests. Usually it consists of people who are union members, who have real but limited ways of getting in touch with their union leadership to encourage them to endorse the various occupations. In this modest task, the labor working groups have been successful: most trade unions, as well as the largest national labor federation, have serviced the occupations in ways that have helped them sustain themselves over the long haul.

But “labor” means—or should mean—much more than the parlous remainder of American trade unionism. It means “work,” and it means “jobs.” From Locke, we retain the notion that labor is the source of property, what you put your hands into; from Smith, Ricardo, and Marx, that it is the source of the value of commodities. Labor is the thing one does to sustain life, and the thing that one hates for that very reason; it creates wealth, and it takes wealth away from the wealthiest. Everything we make for our wants and want to make is labor.

In the more material sense, campaigns for higher wages, employment, sounder trade policies, and a fairer economy have always come from the traditional labor movement. Yet it fell not to labor but the short-lived and controversial demands working group to argue that Occupy Wall Street should number full employment among its chief demands. The renegade methods of the group garnered more discussion than the fact that a (parsimonious) full employment bill already passed as legislation in the 1970s—the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act—whose impetus and traces of radicalism (mostly expunged by the Chamber of Commerce, which helped to water down the bill) come from the American labor movement, which pushed the hardest for its victory.

I mean to say that the occupations are in danger of treating labor the same way the Democratic Party treats it: as a source of bodies and money, a mere service that tends to be thanked and repudiated in the same breath. Labor, in this way, is like the homeless: it lends legitimacy to but also threatens the burgeoning movement. In a recent New York Times article, one protester is quoted as saying, “We’re glad to have unions endorse us, but we can’t formally endorse them. We’re an autonomous group and it’s important to keep our autonomy.” The protester, like all occupiers, speaks for himself, but for anyone who has heard the discourse on labor coming out of the protests, the comment is emblematic. At a panel hosted by the magazine Jacobin in early October, one of the participants, speaking in the cavalier language of Italian autonomism, derided the efficacy of “union marches.” The message is rather clear: Labor unions are welcome to assist the occupations, but they shouldn’t expect any help in return. Of course, despite the usual reservations that people have about labor unions and the relegation of issues that should be central to a single, largely unheralded working group, a substantial handful of occupiers have turned out for actions in support of “union marches”—at Sotheby’s, Verizon, and elsewhere—much as students in the supposedly hostile New Left did. The same New York Times article notes that labor unions have been inspired by the occupations to turn to civil disobedience—a tactic that the labor movement pioneered in the face of much worse violence than flash bombs and tear gas, and which they have in fact practiced to this very day. Even the form of the occupation derives in large part, despite or perhaps because of the left’s dim memory bank, from the sit-down strike.

In keeping labor unions at a safe distance, the occupations are also in danger of evacuating the concept they have done the most to revive: “solidarity.” At a recent n+1 panel on Occupy Wall Street, the term came up in a discussion of unions that supported the XL Keystone Pipeline (construction unions, predictably). One panelist argued that we could have “solidarity” with certain institutions without supporting everything they do. But that form of solidarity is just genial condescension. Solidarity—a term that came out of the nascent French labor movement of the 1840s—isn’t the same as coalition building: it entails an entire way of life and being in the world, of cementing ties between equals, not a grudging respect between interest groups. In the case of the pipeline, there are several unions (Transit Workers United, Amalgamated Transit Union, Canada’s Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union) that have come out against it. As for the unions that support it, the task of solidarity is not mourning their failure to be as smart as us, but organizing them to be true to shared ideals. Occupiers and those of us who are fellow-travelers cannot act as if we have no obligation to change labor unions to help their goals—as if the one existing institution that has more or less consistently fought for every economic goal they espouse isn’t worth transforming, enlarging, and moving.

It’s worth asking ourselves, on the occupying left, how we plan to reduce inequality without increasing wages; foster employment without cementing the protections against unemployment; ensure that the old retire with dignity without protecting pensions. If there is a single force that has successfully fought for these things besides the labor movement, I’d like to see it. As for their much-despised “bureaucratic” nature, it’s hard to see how the occupations—with their teams of lawyers and their masses of committees—have a higher soapbox to stand on.

Recent polls suggest that a majority of Americans would, if given the chance, join a labor union; the same polls suggest that a majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of labor unions. Americans want to have more control over the way they work, but they don’t like the form that control tends to take. They like labor, but they hate Labor. This is precisely the paradox that the occupiers face within their own ranks; it indicates a real hostility to an actual problem but it also suggests that the only way forward is to change that perception. People can endlessly rehearse to themselves the failures of traditional trade unionism, or they can try to change the one available form of organization that promises to deliver the things they want. It has already become customary to speak of the “Occupy Movement.” But most movements of the past have been clearly for or against something. The antiwar movement. The civil rights movement. The women’s liberation movement. The “Occupy Movement,” which, when it lets its guard down, admits that it wants equality, might do worse than submitting to a name that represents the struggle for it in the past, and call itself a “labor movement.”


When I volunteered for the local of the hotel workers’ union in San Francisco, something I’ve done on and off for the last two years, there was a contract fight going on, and my job was to get big hotel customers—academic conferences, corporate meetings—not to cross a picket line. Doing so meant first appealing to their sense of solidarity, and then, when that inevitably failed, suggesting that their conference could potentially be ruined by bullhorns and screaming picketers. I had frustrating phone calls with junior academics, who were usually paralyzed by inaction, who wanted to do the right thing that they’d read about in books, but at the crucial moment found themselves constitutionally unable to do the right thing in real life; it was hard for them to see the relationship between their adjunct, benefitless status and the healthcare issues facing a hotel worker. On the line outside a hotel, handing out leaflets, I struggled to impress upon a German visitor the fact that a worker’s struggle here had relevance to his situation as a worker in Germany. Genosse, I started, taking his hand, but he walked promptly into the hotel.

The young radicals of Silicon Valley were the most disturbing: startup hackers skateboarding through picket lines, covered in piercings and tattoos, praying that tonight would be the night that they would get bought out by Microsoft, before investors would realize their company had no actual revenue and lay them off. They took our leaflets, crumpled them, and threw them back at us. A tourist from Indiana stopped me for a long conversation about how his furniture company was able to compete with China because it didn’t have unions. It paid minimum wage and no benefits. As soon as I began to respond with what I knew about China—how badly workers were treated there, how violently the number of labor protests had skyrocketed this year—he shook my hand and walked into the hotel. I pondered the meaning of that handshake as I looked over to see a young man, who looked barely out of college, stopping at the line. He raised his fist and joined the chants; then he asked for some leaflets and started to hand them out. When we asked him why he had joined us, he said, ruefully, that he had just lost his job.

Related Articles

Issue 18 Good News

Hundreds of NSA staff left work one night as salaried employees and returned the next day as contractors.

July 11, 2011

Veterans are not the only ones suffering flashbacks. In a way, it is a national condition.

Issue 13 Machine Politics
Raise the Crime Rate
Issue 6 Mainstream

A lowered voting age might just be the catalyst to help release our stalled democratic, revolutionary energies.

More by this Author

August 9, 2010
On Tony Judt
October 5, 2006

The debate over the Atlantic Yards reproduces all the city’s contradictory fantasies of itself.

March 3, 2010

Solnit viewed Muybridge’s output in terms of an almost classical base-superstructure relationship.

February 14, 2007

Vegetarianism retains one of the few mostly benign utopian impulses, a necessary fiction still around.