Occupy the Labor Movement

from Occupy Wall Street Facebook Page

Mayday in New York City was a force to be reckoned with. On that overcast and dreary morning, thousands of protesters who consisted of #Occupiers, labor unions, musicians, artists, immigrants, students and concerned citizens alike, embarked on a journey dedicated to worker’s rights around the world in celebration of International Labor Day. Bryant Park was alive with music and free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, while mic checks ran wild to inform the rather large group of the planned events for that afternoon. The police were out in droves (some in riot gear) and onlookers peered out of highrise windows. Some New York City residents showed support by holding up fists as they walked by, others cursed at us as they tried their best to weed through the crowd to get to their favorite spot on their lunch break.

The march from Bryant Park to Union Square could only be described as epic. Trucks and taxis blocked city streets in solidarity, protesters chanted and held their signs and flags high as they made their way through the bustle of the city that never sleeps.

When asked by my family and friends about a protest on a rainy Tuesday, I explained to them the significance of that day in history. May first is celebrated in over 80 countries around the globe as International Labor Day. The purpose of this observance is to recognize the importance of organized labor and the achievements unions have made for the improvement of working conditions for the blue-collar worker and immigrants. I myself being a union employee (Unite Here! Local 54), can indeed be thankful for the protection and benefits a union provides, considering I have worked mainly in non-union workplaces for the majority of my employed life.

Since the global economic crisis began in 2008, harsh criticism and finger-pointing have been directed at organized labor to suggest that unions were a catalyst to the downfall of the economy alongside with corporate/CEO greed. Right and left-wing media have spun truths into such a confusing web on the how and why the economy has suffered, with a main focus being on the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Detroit, and AFL-CIO in Wisconsin. The term “collective bargaining”, once used as a badge of honor in support of worker’s rights, has been drug through the mud as a communist and un-American practice.

In collective bargaining, the workers have the power to  negotiate their contracts with the employer; and in the media view, this has somehow weakened the entire economy when only about 12% of the total workforce in the United Stares is unionized down from 35% in the mid 1950s. What the media fails to suggest, is that outsourcing, Reaganite “trickle down” deregulation and trade agreements such as NAFTA, have been a huge driving force to many economic woes such as unemployment, loss of health insurance, record levels of public assistance and “illegal” immigration.

To get to the bottom of the blame-game, focus has to be placed on the pros and cons of organized labor. According to the left-leaning, non-profit think-tank The Economic Policy Institute, labor unions help all workers in the United States. Their research concludes that:

  1. Unions raise wages of unionized workers by roughly 20% and raise compensation, including both wages and benefits, by about 28%.
  2. Unions reduce wage inequality because they raise wages more for low and middle-wage workers than for higher-wage workers, more for blue-collar than for white-collar workers, and more for workers who do not have a college degree.
  3. Strong unions set a pay standard that non-union employers follow. For example, a high school graduate whose workplace is not unionized but whose industry is 25% unionized is paid 5% more than similar workers in less unionized industries.
  4. The impact of unions on total non-union wages is almost as large as the impact on total union wages.
  5. The most sweeping advantage for unionized workers is in fringe benefits. Unionized workers are more likely than their non-unionized counterparts to receive paid leave, are approximately 18% to 28% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and are 23% to 54% more likely to be in employer-provided pension plans.
  6. Unionized workers receive more generous health benefits than non-unionized workers. They also pay 18% lower health care deductibles and a smaller share of the costs for family coverage. In retirement, unionized workers are 24% more likely to be covered by health insurance paid for by their employer.
  7. Unionized workers receive better pension plans. Not only are they more likely to have a guaranteed benefit in retirement, their employers contribute 28% more toward pensions.
  8. Unionized workers receive 26% more vacation time and 14% more total paid leave (vacations and holidays).

The National Legal and Policy Center, a right-leaning conservative political policy group that monitors public officials and unions, have been keeping a close eye on union higher-ups for corruption since the early nineties. Some more of their famous cases consists of allegations of election law violations against Rev. Al Sharpton during his 2004 presidential campaign, along with bringing down union violators such as John Gianonne, former vice president International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 706 for embezzling $11,900 in funds from the Chicago union and Wanda Jackson, former treasurer of National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 4065, was found guilty by a jury in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on embezzling funds from the Plano-based union of $41,246.95, just to name a few.

It’s worth noting that the National Legal and Policy Center has been identified by Soucewatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, as an “industry funded conservative political and policy lobbying organization.” In fact, the organization has funding ties close to home. The NLPC gets most of its funding from the Scaife Foundations. According to Sourcewatch, the “man behind the curtain” of the Scaife Foundations is “Richard Mellon Scaife [the] heir to the Mellon banking, oil and aluminum fortune. He is the premier financier for right wing political and policy organizations in the United States.” He is also the owner of Pittsburgh’s second largest newspaper, The Tribune-Review.

So, while we should be cautious of politically motivated attacks on unions from the likes of the NLPC, we should recognize that unions, like other large and powerful institutions (including political parties), can be subjected to corruption and reckless behavior when those at the top decide to compromise their ethics to fill their pockets. In the meantime, union workers get the shaft from the media; being that they are a portion of the group and not necessarily take part of the foolhardy behavior of their superiors.

So whats the solution? Can union hierarchy be replaced with something more tangible, more feasible for the common worker?  What would halt the greed, the incompetence, the overall non-humanity of power in the labor movement and elsewhere in the private sector?

Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, also known as the “father of anarchist theory”, suggested that labor unions practice “collective anarchism”. That term is defined by Bakunin that “the workers would directly manage the means of production through their own productive associations. There would be “equal means of subsistence, support, education, and opportunity for every child, boy or girl, until maturity, and equal resources and facilities in adulthood to create his own well-being by his own labor.”  Revolutionary Catechism, Mikhail Bakunin, 1866   In plain terms, this means to let the workers run the factories and become the reapers of their own labors, thus eliminating the need for corrupt and power-hungry leaders.

American scholar and professor of Linguistics at MIT,  Noam Chomsky, suggests “anarcho-syndicalism” as a viable replacement for the current labor system, and the system as a whole. In an anarcho-syndicalist workplace, the traditional wage scheme would be abolished; as it is seen as a form of “wage slavery”, and would be replaced with the workers forming a democracy within and co-operatives with other workplaces for supplies and other living expenses. This view is closely related to collective anarchism, the only difference being that in collective anarchism, one is rewarded with “pay” that is in direct accordance to one’s own production, meaning you get in return of what you put in. In anarcho-syndicalism, everyone works together and will be “paid” the same for their efforts.

The main goal of both schools of thought are to evoke social change, replacing capitalism and the state with a new society, democratically self-managed by workers. Marxist in theory, but anarchistic by the removal of entities such as the “bourgeois”, which Marx sought to exist solely for the benefit of the workers. Bakunin was highly critical of this thought; the state (bourgeois) was in reality the cause of the class division in the first place, and was the reason for all the necessary social change.

The true reality is, that working conditions can and will not change in and of itself. By this reference, all aspects of society are related and interchangeable. If Bakunin and Chomsky’s vision was to come to fruition, there would be no need for government;  the people would be able to provide for their own needs through direct democracy and self-management through their workplace. The core belief is that if no one rules, then no one is bound to be ruled over, thus removing social pressures such as class division, debt and wage slavery.

“I tend to agree that anarchism is formless and utopian, though hardly more so than the inane doctrines of  neoliberalism, Marxism-Leninism, and other ideologies that have appealed to the powerful and their intellectual servants over the years, for reasons that are all too easy to explain. The reason for the general formlessness and
intellectual vacuity (often disguised in big words, but that is again in the self-interest of intellectuals) is that we do not understand very much about complex systems, such as human societies; and have only intuitions of limited validity as to the ways they should be reshaped and constructed. Anarchism, in my view, is an expression of the idea that the burden of proof is always on those who argue that authority and domination are necessary. They have to demonstrate, with powerful argument, that that conclusion is correct. If they cannot, then the institutions they defend should be considered illegitimate.

How one should react to illegitimate authority depends on circumstances and conditions: there are no formulas. In the present period, the issues arise across the board, as they commonly do: from personal relations in the family and elsewhere, to the international political/economic order. And anarchist ideas — challenging authority and insisting that it justify itself — are appropriate at all levels.”

-“On Anarchism” Noam Chomsky interview by Tom Lane

Andrea Egizi is an anti-war activist involved in the organization of Occupy Atlantic City


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3 Comments on Occupy the Labor Movement

  1. Very well written, and some great suggestions for a way forward. Worker self-management and expropriation of workplaces and localized direct democracy are the future.

  2. This is an outstanding article offering much to contemplate…not just about the power of unions but more importantly more equitable approaches to how society should operate. Kudos Andrea!

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