Occupy is not an island (I)

How does sleeping out in an urban park do anything about income inequality?  I get this question at least a few times a week, often from one of my kids.

One answer is that social movements work when dramatic action inspires others to be

Occupy Boston and labor march together

bolder in their rhetoric and actions–even if they don’t protest, commit civil disobedience, or even camp out.  To be effective, Occupy has to extend well beyond actual occupations.

So, today’s New York Times features a piece about just what organized labor is learning from Occupy. Steven Greenhouse observes that large unions, initially wary about Occupy Wall Street, have supported the movement, publicizing its actions and sending mattresses and food, and, more importantly, have imitated Occupy’s rhetoric and tactics:

“The Occupy movement has changed unions,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “You’re seeing a lot more unions wanting to be aggressive in their messaging and their activity. You’ll see more unions on the street, wanting to tap into the energy of Occupy Wall Street.”

From Occupy, the AFL-CIO has taken the idea of working for the 99 percent, and articulating its message in exactly that way.  From Occupy, unions are learning (relearning, of course; labor has been bold in the past) the virtues of dramatic action.  And from Occupy, unions are reminded about the potential power of social media.

Of course, the unions already have better defined demands as well as serious organizational infrastructures and resources that can put into practice these lessons.  Although organized labor doesn’t present the decentralized consensus-based model of democracy that some of the Occupiers embrace, any campaign that really means to speak for the 99 percent has to deal with unions.

And in yesterday’s elections, the possibility of a labor-led pushback seemed more promising than it has in a very long time.  Ohio voters resoundingly rejected a law that would strip public sector unions, including those representing teachers, firefighters, and police, of collective bargaining rights,  61%-39%, handing Governor John Kasich and the Republican controlled legislature a sobering defeat, surely one that legislators and organizers in Wisconsin and Indiana will study.

Organized labor was fully invested in the effort, raising more than $24 million, and outspending business and other conservative interests substantially.

This was not an Occupy campaign, but talk of the 99 percent and economic inequality was everywhere.  Harder to trace, but certainly present, was a sense of urgency and possibility that Occupy has cultivated.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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