There has been a fair amount of ambivalence and ambiguity about organized labor’s relationship to the Occupy movements across the country. From within the movement, activists have questioned whether labor unions—with their institutionalized structures of power, pecuniary marriage to the Democratic Party, and tendency to promote the interests of their members to the disregard and neglect of otherwise aggrieved or oppressed people—have a place in their non-hierarchical movement. Occupiers expressed fear that cooperation with labor unions would lead to cooption. From the outside, right-wing pundits and politicians have decried the movement as a Big Labor farce, poorly manufactured by union veterans (and Obama) to push their radical agenda. In Providence, as in many other cities, labor is joining the movement. What magnitude and impact that support will have remains to be seen.
At 5:30pm on October 27, Occupy Providence cut short its daily General Assembly meeting to welcome a group of about 300 union members, leaders, and activists into Burnside Park.While individual union members and some union locals had already participated in and voiced their support for Occupy Providence, Thursday’s rally and march marked a sort of ‘coming-out’ moment for labor to endorse the movement en masse.
Scott Duhamel, a business agent for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), was first to address the crowd. He expressed support for the occupiers and commended their perseverance. “I couldn’t sleep out in this!” he shouted, gesturing to the sky, as rain turned to sleet and snow. Celsa Del Pozo, a janitor and member of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615, spoke of Occupy Providence and the labor movement as one fight. “We will continue to stand together and to fight to create jobs in America that have good wages, benefits, and treat workers with dignity and respect."
After the speaking program, the low-key rally became a march, as workers and activists poured into the streets, temporarily obstructing traffic along Exchange Terrace.
The march stopped briefly at the headquarters of Verizon Wireless on Washington St., where Bill McGowan, a business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2323, described the egregious benefit cuts that led 45,000 Verizon employees to go on strike this past August. “They have executives making $50,000 a day,” he yelled, standing on the steps of the corporate office, “and they’re asking us to make sacrifices!” This Verizon strike, which lasted two weeks, was the largest in the United States since 2007. It was a shot-in-the-arm for the labor movement, a reminder that large-scale work stoppage could still be used to fight corporate greed. Though workers in Verizon’s landline division have gone back to work, they have yet to reach a contract agreement with the company.
Back at the park, Justin Kelley, an active rank-and-file member of IUPAT, closed out the march with a few short words. Later, Kelley, a tall, tattooed painter from Providence who goes by the nickname “Juice,” explained whathe thought labor had to offer the Occupy movement. “There are lessons to be learned from the labor movement of the past and present,” he told me. “Things like ‘solidarity forever’ and ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ are not just slogans to us. We’ve lived them, through actions and deeds.”
After violent clashes with police at Occupy Oakland last week, the city’s Occupy general assembly voted for a citywide general strike beginning on Wednesday November 2. This is an unprecedented step for the Occupy movement, one that portends an even stronger strategic relationship between unions and occupiers into the future. Unions in Oakland, including the formidable SEIU Local 1021, are supporting the strike and despite contractual and legal restrictions (American labor law forbids solidarity strikes or those occurring during the term of a collective bargaining agreement) have encouraged workers to use their sick days and vacation time to participate.
If Oakland’s strike is successful, and other cities follow suit, combining the strategic tactics of America’s oldest economic justice movement with those of its newest, we may soon see whether #occupy can wield enough power to make fundamental change.
As Juice put it,“Solidarity is the strength of steel.”And we might just see it tested.
SAM ADLER-BELL B ’12.5 is putting his body upon the gears and upon the wheels.