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Why unions support OWS movement

Published Oct 20, 2011 10:08 PM

Almost every major national labor union — except in the construction trades — and the AFL-CIO have endorsed Occupy Wall Street. But more important is that in major cities they have offered significant organizational, financial and political support to this movement.

New York City, where OWS was started more than a month ago, is not only the financial capital of the world’s dominant economic power, but is also the U.S. city with the largest percentage of unionized workers. From the response of union members, it is clear that this call has broad support.

The biggest outpouring of union support was on Oct. 5, when more than 30,000 people — transit and communication workers, teachers and professors and their students, health care workers and community organizations — marched from Foley Square, just north of City Hall, to Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square.

New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) even brought two buses from Albany, a more than three-hour drive. Delegations from the Communication Workers union, which is engaged in a bitter contract struggle with hugely profitable Verizon, marched with OWS in New York City and San Francisco. Verizon has amassed more than $20 billion in profits over the past five years.

The CWA suspended its two-week strike against Verizon’s landline and fios operations in the middle of August, when the company agreed to go back to the bargaining table. Since then, a bit of progress has been made, but the company is still insisting on major cuts in benefits, and retirement and medical care so it can make even greater profits.

The night of Oct. 13-14 showed the depth of the union movement’s support for OWS. The city was threatening to use the excuse that it needed to protect public health and safety by “cleaning” Zuccotti Park. This “cleaning” would have meant the eviction of the protesters.

As soon as the news broke, the AFL-CIO issued a call, along with many other unions and progressive organizations, to show up and stand in solidarity with the protesters.

This was an act of unprecedented swiftness on the part of the AFL-CIO, jumping into a situation that it couldn’t control and one that contained an element of confrontation against the power of the state. The AFL-CIO’s call gave space to local New York unions that asked their members, if possible, to show up and stand with the protesters in Liberty Plaza — immediately.

The mobilization was successful and the city postponed the eviction.

Looking through the union endorsements excerpted in The Occupied Wall Street Journal (Oct. 8), and some posted online like those of the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees union, the broad political agreement between the unions and OWS becomes clearer. Both are opposed to the greed and political manipulations that the kleptocracy of Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers use to create economic booms — and the resulting busts.

These busts create huge losses for the workers that the unions represent — jobs, homes, medical care, education and public transportation are shredded. Wall Street’s profits and power, however, were and are sustained and maintained with billions of dollars in government bailouts. “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!” is a frequent chant on OWS marches.

Some currents in the OWS movement are moving in an anti-capitalist direction that many unions are not likely to share yet, but there still is general political agreement.

The UAW sent many members to the Oct. 5 march and had a contingent of 50 to 100 members in the Oct. 15 protest against banks called by the Labor Focus of the New York OWS. Their endorsement was not just a formality.

While the sharp struggle of the CWA with Verizon clearly has influenced the union’s support of OWS, the significance of the conflict between the state of New York and its public service unions has been muffled.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has claimed that in order to keep the wealthy in New York state, he has to let expire a tax surcharge that otherwise would bring in $5 billion next year. Given New York’s constitutional mandate to balance the state budget, he decided to fill this gap with service cuts and take-back contracts imposed on state workers.

The largest state union is the Civil Service Employees Association, Local 1000 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It is one of the endorsers of OWS. CSEA, under the threat of massive layoffs, agreed to a five-year contract that dictates three years of zero pay increases, and then two years of only 2 percent raises, plus 13 uncompensated furlough days and higher medical care costs paid by the workers. CSEA-represented workers now living under the new contract are seeing smaller paychecks in return for a very weak no-layoff deal.

The second-largest state union, the Public Employees Federation, which is part of NYSUT, rejected a similar contract at the end of September. A day later, email layoff notices went out and the state started to tweak its contract in conjunction with PEF’s leadership. A tentative agreement on a slightly modified four-year contract was reached on Oct. 16 and must go out soon for a membership vote.

On an open blog at the Albany Times-Union, there appears to be a strong sentiment in PEF for another “no” vote, with many posts referring to OWS. The rejection in September was the first “no” vote in 34 years.

Hundreds of thousands of state workers have contracts that have already expired or soon will. What is fueling their anger and unease is that the state and city will use these draconian, concessionary contracts with CSEA and PEF as patterns.

The struggle continues, now with new allies as workers fight the bosses.