Based on my studies as a professional historian and my direct involvement with the Occupy movement—including founding an Occupy support group called the 99% Clubs and working with Occupy groups in the Bronx, Queens, Connecticut and Eastern Long Island—I’m convinced that Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs represent a critically important ally for the labor movement.
With the labor movement currently under fierce attack, as state governments try 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 grassroots movement that insists the burden of sacrifice in the nation’s current financial crisis should fall upon the very wealthy, not unionized workers.
For the first time in recent memory, this support gives the labor movement 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 worldview. Essentially, the Occupy Movement 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 wage levels for American workers rise enough so their buying power no longer depends on second mortgages and credit card debt.
I have seen the impact of this first hand at my own university. As its first project, the organization we have created at Fordham in support of Occupy—the 99% Clubs—has launched an educational campaign around issues of economic inequality. In the last week, our campus has been plastered with posters and flyers showing how the top 1% of earners have monopolized a growing share of national wealth and income.
One most moving poster points out that since 2009, 88% of corporate income has gone to profits, and only 1% to wages! Here are a group of students at an elite university pointing out that wage compression and an attack on worker living standards threatens 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 Occupiers around the country.
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 will give a shot in the arm to recruiting new workers into the labor movement may seen wildly optimistic, let me remind you that the Occupy Movement 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.
Lessons from the Great Depression
To put this moment in historical perspective, let’s go back 80 years. It is January 1933. Franklin Roosevelt has just been elected president and the nation is in the throes of the Great Depression. Nearly a third of the work force is unemployed, another third is working part time, and much of the great nation’s industrial capacity lies idle. The steel industry is operating at 33% of capacity, the auto industry at 20%, and the construction industry has ground to a halt. Private industry payrolls in Chicago are 26% of what they were in 1929.
The labor movement is reeling. Union membership is down to 3 million, 60% 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 of Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, and pro labor mayors in a huge number of industrial cities.
So 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 involving seizures of private property and public space, which in a different time would have surely prompted deployment of the national guard or federal troops on behalf of the companies.
Perhaps even more relevant for today’s protests, 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 Great 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 Occupiers today.
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.
For unions on the ground, these devolpments meant when they finally mobilized 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 grassroots movement of the unemployed.
The ethos of solidarity meant than when workers who were employed went on strike, organizations of the unemployed would mobilize in their support because they now understood that when some workers gained security, respect, and a higher income, all workers would benefit.
In both Minneapolis and Flint, Michigan, members of unemployed organizations stood toe to toe with unionists in battles with the police and pro-employer citizens groups. In Flint, they 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 all viewed the efforts as milestones in winning bargaining rights in critical industries and would, if successful, change the way the entire American economy was organized.
And they were right. 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 never have succeeded.
How Those Lessons Apply Today
Now segue to the present. The labor movement is far weaker, its membership far less 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 that 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 the Occupy Wall Street has disappeared, Occupy nationwide 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% Clubs of Fordham University and Hollis Presbyterian Church—I can tell you without equivocation that the labor movement has not, since the 1960s, 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 banks.
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 1930s radical forebears were in that era. I leave you with a slogan from the 60s that for me, at least, has never lost its power:
DARE TO STRUGGLE!! DARE TO WIN!!!
With a Brooklyn Accent