Occupy & organised labour — A powerful force for change

Photo: Peter Boyle

The strengthening links between unions and the US Occupy movement will be expressed in mobilisations across the US on November 17.

N17 has been called as a national day of action for Occupy and the labour movement, and a range of protest actions and stay-aways will take place across the country. It will also mark the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.

Union links to the Occupy movement in Australia are still in their early days. However, the US example shows that there is much common cause to be found.

It is also apparent that the breadth and diversity of the Occupy movement, as well as its radical, anti-corporate politics and tactical creativity, is having its impact on US unions.

Steven Greenhouse, writing in the New York Times about the US Occupy movement on November 8, said: “Organised labor’s early flirtation with Occupy Wall Street is starting to get serious.

“Union leaders, who were initially cautious in embracing the Occupy movement, have in recent weeks showered the protesters with help — tents, air mattresses, propane heaters and tons of food.

“The protesters, for their part, have joined in union marches and picket lines across the nation. About 100 protesters from Occupy Wall Street are expected to join a Teamsters picket line at the Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan on Wednesday night to back the union in a bitter contract fight.”

Greenhouse said the union movement is learning from Occupy and is inspired to break from traditional tactics.

“The Occupy movement has changed unions,” Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told Greenhouse. “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.”

In Australia, the Occupy movement has sought to make connections with unions in the past month, but the results are uneven across the country.

Occupy Sydney won early support from the construction, maritime and higher education unions, thanks to motions raised by unionists who identified with the Occupy movement.

Rank and file teachers' associations across Sydney have moved motions of support and donated funds. Unions NSW agreed to publicise an Occupy Sydney community protest rally held in October.

Occupy Sydney protesters mobilised to support Qantas unions outside the Qantas annual general meeting on October 27. An Occupy Sydney general assembly adopted a solidarity motion with the Qantas and Jetstar workforce a few days earlier.

Occupy Sydney has also sent a letter of solidarity to maritime workers locked in battle with Chris Corrigan’s DP World. It has also worked with unions to have activists speak at work sites across Sydney.

In Melbourne, the National Union of Workers (NUW) Victoria branch officially endorsed the movement on October 13. The secretary of the Communications Workers Union Victoria, Len Cooper, endorsed Occupy Melbourne’s “real call for democracy”.

Victorian Trades Hall Council became an unofficial safe haven for Occupy Melbourne after the violent crackdown by Victorian police on October 21.

Following the police attack, the Victorian branch meeting of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union passed a motion condemning the actions of Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and Victoria Police. The motion also offered logistical support to Occupy Melbourne.

US unions that have formally endorsed the Occupy movement include the Teamsters, teachers, municipal employees, service sector employees, nurses, transport and communication workers, as well as peak union bodies such as the Greater Boston Labour Council and the AFL-CIO.

The US Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing nurses, janitors and school bus drivers, released a statement on October 5, which said: “The brave students, workers, and unemployed Americans occupying Wall Street have shaken the conscience of our nation.

“The crowds and demonstrations will only get larger and louder as more Americans find the courage inside themselves to stand up and demand Wall Street CEOs and millionaires pay their fair share to create good jobs now.”

The AFL-CIO formally endorsed Occupy Wall Street on October 5. President Richard Trumka said: “Occupy Wall Street has captured the imagination and passion of millions of Americans who have lost hope that our nation’s policymakers are speaking for them.

“We support the protesters in their determination to hold Wall Street accountable and
create good jobs.”

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees released a statement on October 4. It said: “We stand in solidarity with those protesting Wall Street’s greed.

“The economy that has wrecked so many lives, obliterated jobs, and left millions of Americans homeless and hopeless is the fault of banks that gamble with our future. Their reckless pursuit of profits, at the expense of working families’ pursuit of the American dream, must come to an end.”

In New York, Occupy protesters joined the Teamsters in their campaign against Sotheby’s art auction house, which locked out 43 unionised art handlers on July 29.

Laura Clauson, writing for the US blog Daily Kos on November 9, said: “What’s so spectacular about this collaboration is that there doesn't seem to be an attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all model onto the relationship.

The interactions vary from place to place, guided both by the differences in local outposts of the Occupy movement and by the union presence and campaigns ongoing in different locations, preserving not only the independence of Occupy Wall Street, but the potential for creativity and flexibility on all sides.

“It’s just so exciting to watch where this is going.”

With so many battles being fought on so many fronts by unions across Australia —– against greedy corporate employers and the state and federal governments who rule on their behalf — there is every reason for unions and the Occupy movement to work together in solidarity.

However, this alliance will be built strongest when it is founded on mutual respect and an emphasis on practical struggle and solidarity. In this way it can become a powerful force for change.


In our quest to hold Wall Street accountable, uniting with unions is a great strategy; however, we must hold unions accountable. As well, unions should resist serving as the vanguard of the movement and using Occupy for their own ends. The fact that undemocratic, business model, big unionism has failed to both represent the average worker and stem the tide of the neoliberal gutting of worker rights and protections is evidence that unions have failed us just as much as our supposed "representatives" in populist oriented parties (like the Democrats in the US). The decline in union density and the growth of worker centers is proof that business unionism as failed. Unions need to be occupied as much as Wall Street. The question is how we wrest the power of the unions away from their big-wig bureaucrats who are in bed with the caste-like political class of the Democratic party and bring them under popular, democratic control in order to start fighting in our best interest. Looking at past histories of struggle like the Industrial Workers of the World and the CIO (before the cooptation by the AFL) could help us orient our fight and direct our goals. Occupy Wall Street, yes; Occupy the unions, of course!

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.