November 2011, Week 3


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Tue, 15 Nov 2011 21:41:56 -0500
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Good-Bye To the "Middle-Class"?

A Lesson for Labor From Occupy Wall Street

November 15, 2011


Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has given our timorous,
unimaginative, and  politically ambivalent unions a much-
needed ideological dope slap. Some might describe this, more
diplomatically, as a second injection of "outside-the-box"
thinking and new organizational blood.

Top AFL-CIO officials first sought an infusion of those
scarce commodities in labor when they jetted into Wisconsin
last winter.  Without their planning or direction, the
spontaneous community-labor uprising in Wisconsin was in the
process of recasting the debate about public sector
bargaining throughout the U.S. So they were eager to join the
protest even though it was launched from the bottom up,
rather than in response to union headquarters directives from
Washington, D.C.

This fall, OWS has become the new Lourdes for the old, lame,
and blind of American labor. Union leaders have been making
regular visits to Zuccotti Park and other high-profile
encampments around the country. According to NYC retail store
union leader Stuart Applebaum, "the Occupy movement has
changed unions"--both in the area of membership mobilization
and "messaging."

It would be a miraculous transformation indeed if organized
labor suddenly embraced greater direct action, democratic
decision-making, and rank-and-file militancy.  Since that's
unlikely to occur in the absence of internal upheavals,
unions might want to focus instead on casting aside the
crutch of their own flawed messaging. That means adopting the
Occupation movement's brilliant popular "framing" of the
class divide and ditching labor's own muddled conception of
class in America.

Them and Us Updated

In his 1974 memoir and union history, United Electrical
Workers co-founder Jim Matles reminded readers that labor
struggles are about "them and us"--or, as OWS puts it, "the 1
percent" vs. the "99 percent." Unfortunately, most other
unions have long relied on high-priced Democratic Party
consultants, their focus groups and opinion polling, to shape
labor's public "messaging" in much less effective fashion.
The results of this collaboration have been unhelpful, to say
the least. Organizations that are supposed to the voice of
the working class majority have instead positioned
themselves-narrowly and confusedly-as defenders of America's
"middle class," an always fuzzy construct now being rendered
even less meaningful by the recession-driven downward
mobility of millions of people.

As SUNY professor Michael Zweig argued in his book, The
Working Class Majority: America's Best-Kept Secret (Cornell
ILR Press, 2000), labor's never ending mantra about the
"middle class" leaves class relations--and the actual class
position of most of the population-shrouded in rhetorical

Zweig points out  that the working class in America today
looks quite different than the blue-collar proletariat of the
last century, which leads many to believe that differences in
"status, income, or life-styles" define where they stand on
the economic and social ladder. But  "the real basis of
social class lies in the varying amounts of power people have
at work and in the larger society....The sooner we realize
that classes exist and understand the power relations that
are driving the economic and political changes swirling
around us, the sooner we will be able to build an openly
working class politics."

As Zweig would agree I'm sure, labor's "framing" not only
lacks the clear resonance of that employed by the new anti-
capitalist campaigners of OWS; "one of the great weaknesses"
of the standard union view of class "is that it confuses the
target of political conflict." When the working class
disappears into an amorphous "middle class," not only do the
"working poor" (a mere 46 million strong) drop out of the
picture, but "the capitalist class disappears into 'the
rich.' And when the capitalist class disappears from view, it
cannot be a target."

Well, thanks to OWS --but not most unions--that target is
back in view. As a result of Occupation activity, there is
now a far more favorable climate of public opinion for waging
key contract fights at Verizon and other Fortune 500

A Corporate Pig Roast in Albany

During the two-week strike by 45,000 Verizon workers in
August, union PR people issued leaflets urging support for
the CWA-IBEW "fight to defend middle-class jobs." This
characterization of strike goals enabled Verizon to run
newspaper ads claiming that the  $75,000 a year or more
earned by telephone technicians made them part of the "upper
middle class"--and thus, apparently not worthy of sympathy
from customers or members of the public whose jobs provide
family incomes closer to the national or regional average.

By late October, Verizon technicians, who are part of a
reform movement in CWA Local 1101, had marched through lower
Manhattan in solidarity with OWS and along with NYC teachers,
teamsters, and transit workers. Similar links between
occupiers and Verizon contract campaigners developed in

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, members of CWA Local 1118
held a "corporate pig roast"--right around the corner from
"Cuomoville," the OWS encampment in downtown Albany that has
so annoyed the state's Democratic governor. At this OWS-
inspired event, Verizon workers invited occupiers (more used
to vegan and vegetarian fare) to join them. They were also
brandishing new signs, with a far better, more universalist
message: "We are the 99 percent!"

Interaction like this, between OWS and union rank-and-filers,
has been mutually beneficial in many other places. On the
labor side, Occupation activity has been a much-needed source
of new energy and ideas. Lets hope that union members can
keep pushing labor's communications strategy in a more
resonant OWS-influenced direction. If they succeed with that
objective, more substantive and harder to achieve
organizational change could be next on the agenda.

[STEVE EARLY is a former national staff member of the
Communications Workers of America (CWA) who has been active
in labor causes since 1972. He is the author of  The Civil
Wars in U.S. Labor  (Haymarket Books, 2010) and a contributor
to the forthcoming, Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back,
from Monthly Review Press. An earlier version of this article
appeared in Logos. See www.logosjournal.com]


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