From the TUC

Occupy! What’s next for unions and the new social movements?

24 Oct 2011, By

Poster at Occupy LSX. Photo: victoriaintheworld

It’s not unusual when the TUC’s Leading Change group visits the US each year for the trip to coincide with a significant event that provides a context for the discussions we have.

In 2005 the US Labour movement had split just a few months before we arrived and in 2008 the trip came in the initial aftermath of the financial meltdown and just days before the election of Barack Obama. The context to our visit to Harvard University last week was provided by the Occupy Wall Street and other similar protests in what now amounts to around 900 cities across the globe.

All week, alongside the presentations and discussions on strategies for trade union revival, a debate took place on what, if anything, was the significance of the ‘Occupy’ protests for the anti cuts movement and trade unions and what it would be appropriate for unions to do to provide support.

Fortunately, in addition to the groups own individual and collective knowledge and experience some great minds from the US labor movement were on hand to inform the discussion.

In addition to our host, Elaine Bernard from the Harvard University Labor and Work Life Programme, we had David Weil of Boston University speaking about capacity and leverage; Kris Rondeau, pioneer of what’s been called “relational organising” and the lead organiser of the the campaign that successfully organised workers at Harvard University; Damon Silvers a senior advisor to the President of the AFL-CIO and Marshall Ganz who has devoted his life to organising, worked with Ceasar Chavez organising farm workers in the 60s, developed the Camp Obama activist training and who now teaches organising at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The discussions took place all week both within and outside the formal sessions and what follows are the conclusions that I drew from them that I considered to be the most significant in relation to the work of unions in the UK as we fight the cuts and campaign for an alternative economy.

  1. That the ‘Occupy’ protests are significant if only because they represent a nascent social movement for social justice.
  2. That they have created an opportunity for all progressive movements to which trade unions can and must respond.
  3. That whilst they have been successful in raising awareness they haven’t yet created a crisis of power. They (up to now at least) lack coherent demands and as such have no obvious target.
  4. That unions must be respectful of this movement’s structures (or lack of) and that whilst our reaction so far has been better than to similar movements in the past, we must be careful not kill it with kindness.
  5. That we can give practical and policy support and advice in three ways. Firstly, we have resources such as cash, buildings and people (such as our own activists) that the movement could use. Secondly we can assist in the process of bringing coherence to their demands whether these be in relation to taxation, regulation of banks and/or key issues such as unemployment and housing. And finally we can help in getting them to think about end games. Put simply, how does the campaign develop so that it can begin to apply real and effective pressure on those who can give them what they want?

Whilst I believe that unions have much to learn from the ‘Occupy’ movement and others such as UK Uncut, neither am I one of those trade unionists who believes that their development gives cause for us to enter into a period of self loathing where we question everything about ourselves.

I like the way that they are totally issue focused and the easy entry points for participation in their actions. But we have much to offer them not least, given that we’ve been around for a couple of hundred years, a few tips about sustainability.

I’ve said previously on these pages that the current period of crisis is the major organising moment for our generation of trade unionists. Our job, now increasingly working with the ‘Occupy’ protests and others is to turn the anger into hope and then effective and decisive action.

One Response to Occupy! What’s next for unions and the new social movements?

  1. Gregor Gall
    Oct 25th 2011, 3:21 pm


    This mirrors my own thoughts here in terms of the need to define more of what they are ‘for’ than ‘against’, do they see these in terms of neo-liberalism and alternatives to it, and what the limits of spontaneity are. More specifically, the ‘movement’ (if it can yet be called that in Britain) now faces the challenge of developing institutions and relations with others to a) give itself longevity and b) a focus for leveraging power. Protesting (propaganda, agitation) soon begs the question of taking more purposeful ‘action’ otherwise the danger is of fizzling out. I’m reminded of the various European and World Social Forums that did not seem capable (notwithstanding the impact of ‘9/11’ and after) of moving beyond protesting, political tourism and discussion. As you say, respectfully the union movement has much to offer here.