Unions and the Occupy movement
Peter Wallsten had an interesting article in the Washington Post on Thursday about the links between unions and Occupy Wall Street.
As I’ve said here before, unions won’t want to co-opt the protests – and the protesters wouldn’t want them to. But there is a clear alliance to be formed with a new social movement, and a job for unions to do in responding to their concerns (as well as offering the practical and reciprocated support that in a past era characterised the US union relationship with the civil rights movement).
Unions have traditionally played that role, and in some ways it explains the relationship between members and the institutions too, although the ability to elect the leadership adds a key dimension of directness, of course. In the organising model of trade unionism, union members in a workplace will basically ‘do it themselves’ with the union structure providing assistance and support when needed, as well as generalising concerns by making demands on governments.
Alternative models where full-time officers do everything for the members are horrendously expensive and – except perhaps for pump-priming as a union is built up in a workplace – sort of miss the point of autonomous collective organisation on which trade unionism is based.
Unions therefore combine support for autonomous worker activism with speaking on behalf of workers in general to institutions like governments – as Wallsten captures perfectly in describing AFLCIO President Rich Trumka’s recent diary:
“Two weeks ago, he was charming Occupy activists with a personal visit and a delivery of hundreds of fresh bagels. But this week, he sat down for a private meeting with the ultimate insider — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.”
That’s what unions do.