Labor workshop at Occupy Wall Street


This is the text of a workshop talk on labor that the author presented at the second anniversary celebration of Occupy Wall Street, in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, Sept. 17.

Today, New York City is in crisis. There are 50,000 homeless on the streets. One-third of New Yorkers are “severely rent burdened,” with more than half of their income going to rent. The richest 1% of New Yorkers claim almost 39% of all wealth in the city—up from 12% in 1980. The rise in inequality in New York City outpaces the nation.

Nationally, unemployment numbers may have gone down slightly, but according to one university study, 97% of all new jobs in the last six-months are part-time jobs. No major presidential or mayoral candidate emerged in the last election cycle with a clear plan to put millions back to work.

For oppressed communities, especially youth, unemployment and poverty has had a devastating impact. As candidates know, providing millions of workers with jobs would require significant taxes on the 1%, something the movers and shakers in the major parties—the capitalist class, to put it bluntly—would stop cold.

In New York, labor absurdly lined-up behind the 2010 Democratic Party candidate for governor, Andrew Cuomo, who, like the Republicans and billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, opposed public worker raises without massive union concessions. As governor, Cuomo and former governor David Paterson spearheaded attacks on public worker pensions incorporated in Tier 5 and 6.

My union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, is without a contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is run by Albany. Dozens of city unions are also without contracts. No mayoral candidate promised timely raises, including retro raises, on expired contracts without big concessions.

During the 2011-2012 national election cycle, labor contributed $141 million to campaigns, 91% going to Democrats, more than in 2008 when Obama first ran. What have workers gotten for it? Not much.

Obama has relentlessly attacked labor, especially immigrant workers. Obama implemented the racist deportation of 2 million immigrants, exceeding Bush. To the delight of Republicans, he’s supported the militarization of the border, the discredited guest worker program, E-verify, and a punitive path to legalization.

And there’s more. Obama reneged on promises to renegotiate Bill Clinton’s NAFTA trade agreement, which, since its inception, has resulted in massive job losses here and in Mexico. Gone too are promises to reform what is known as the “card check” procedure in what are often bitter union-organizing drives.

Obama’s 2009 attack on the United Auto Workers devastated labor’s powerhouse. After supposedly nationalizing Chrysler and GM, Obama shoved down the union’s throat a two-tier salary contract, which included half pay for new hires and destroyed employer responsibility for worker pensions.

Moreover, “Obamacare” contains new attacks on many union health-care plans throughout the labor movement, mislabeled “Cadillac plans” by the anti-labor Congress. Attacks include the mass closure and privatization of post offices, a renewed attack on six-day delivery, and the threat of mass federal layoffs. Lastly, the Obama administration has continued the unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and now possibly Syria—to be paid and fought for mostly by workers.

What’s Obama’s perspective? Obama demonstrated his preference for neo-conservative deregulation in his choice of Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve. What’s it mean? The unrestrained rule of the 1%. Thankfully, Summers withdrew. But more of his ilk will follow.

This month in Los Angeles the national convention of the AFL-CIO met. The unions now include just 11.3% of the workforce as members, the lowest percentage of organized workers in nearly 100 years. Lost are 400,000 union jobs in the last year alone, due in part to losses in Wisconsin and Indiana, the result of the labor leadership’s no-win electoral strategy to defeat the union-busters of the right-wing Tea Party.

No serious change, of course, was decided at the AFL-CIO convention; criticism of Obama’s anti-worker policies were muted. Reaching out to community groups as a new strategy was presented only as a caricature, giving non-worker groups like the Sierra Club and the NAACP voting power as members. That, thankfully, was rejected. However, the thought that someone else besides workers could reverse labor’s precipitous decline remains.

Sad too, was labor’s de facto acceptance of the XL Keystone Pipeline, which if implemented would be an environmental disaster.

In order to win, labor needs to begin to take on repressive anti-democratic, anti-union laws such as New York State’s vicious anti-strike Taylor Law, which targets public workers.

The beginning of a hopeful trend was opened when New York City’s transit workers shut down tight the richest city in the world in 2005. We were mostly African American, Hispanic, and immigrant workers. We said to hell with the Taylor law—we want our rights! Although the strike did not achieve all that a longer and better-prepared strike could have, it showed that the capitalist state and its cops, courts, and politicians have got to get their asses kicked sometimes for labor to win.

That was not the only hopeful sign. Last year, the Chicago teachers went on strike and won most of what they wanted. The Chicago strike was against a Bloomberg-style mayor, Rohm Emanuel, a Democrat and former Obama cabinet member. He demanded massive concessions from teachers, like Bloomberg, and wouldn’t back down. The teachers built a broad community movement for education justice, and with community help, beat Emanuel and his neo-conservative agenda.

More recently, an unprecedented strike wave hit the fast-food industry in 58 cities, far more than the first strike wave that affected eight cities last winter. In the past, food workers were thought by many labor bureaucrats to be unorganizable. Well, they thought wrong.

In 2006, some 2 million immigrants and supporters struck and protested for immigrant rights. It was the most massive protest in U.S. history. The strike showed that any winning labor strategy must include immigrant workers.

In Madison, Wis., in 2011, tens of thousands of public workers occupied the state rotunda building to protest Tea Party-supported union-busting legislation. Workers—U.S. workers!—took inspiration from the Tahrir Square protests against the U.S.-backed Mubarak dictatorship. Signs appeared in Madison saying, “Walk like an Egyptian.” Unfortunately, voices for a general strike were ignored by labor misleaders, who led workers out of the streets and into campaign mode for anti-worker Democrats. The movement was crushed, but not its spirit.

And we can look for inspiration right now across the border, where thousands of Mexican teachers have struck against school privatization and demonstrated in Mexico City. Yesterday, they were met with brutal repression as cops dispersed their occupation of a park in Mexico City, but their struggle is not yet over.

We are experiencing a crisis so deep and profound worldwide that hundreds of millions are asking basic questions about the viability of capitalism. The capitalist system doesn’t work for the world’s impoverished majority, and that includes us in the U.S. It requires radical, revolutionary solutions. Unending war and poverty is the only alternative.

Workers should be demanding that their union halls be opened up for mass meetings on how to deal with the crisis. Here in New York that means not wasting time and resources with politicians, but uniting to defeat Wall Street. Only mass mobilizations and strikes can defeat the offensive of the 1%. Labor must finally use its power. Hundreds of thousands of us need to be in the streets. That’s the undiscovered power of labor. One day, we can shut this city down!

What I want to stress is the importance of union and non-union workers, immigrants and non-immigrants, maintaining our independence and freedom of action. The original Occupy vision was correct; there is a 1% ruling class in this country, and for working people they are indeed the enemy. Labor needs complete independence from the twin parties of the 1%, the Republicans and Democrats. Without that vision labor will get nowhere, as history continues to show.

At the same time, labor’s ultimate victory depends on the development of democratic rank-and-file movements with a class-struggle strategy; a strategy that embraces not only shop-floor issues but issues affecting the entire class—capitalist inequality, war, racism and sexism, the environment, and LGBT rights.

Marty Goodman is a retired transit worker and former member of the executive board, Transport Workers Union Local 100, in New York City. Photo: Rally marking the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, Sept. 17; by Marty Goodman / Socialist Action.


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