Labor’s Choice after Ohio: To Lead or Follow OWS

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After labor unions won big in Ohio this week with a vote to reject limits on collective bargaining, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called it “the road map for Democrats” to win in 2012.  

But after a bruising couple of years, and the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, some union leaders in New York are reexamining that message — and reconsidering that starkly partisan approach.

Labor leaders agree that Occupy Wall Street presents a strategic opportunity, a long awaited opening for labor. But there’s disagreement about the best way to harness this energy. Is this a moment to lead, or to follow? Do they look to fold in these new allies to support their agenda, or focus on amplifying the Occupy movement message -- and hope it will help them in the end.

Unions have long done both simultaneously, but it’s a question of emphasis as labor looks to 2012.

Ongoing battles about pension and benefit concessions, teacher tenure, and layoffs show no signs of letting up over the next several months. And unions have already brought Occupy protesters into some of these campaigns in New York. Occupy protesters have supported Teamsters members locked in a contract fight with Sotheby’s, even interrupting some auctions. Protesters also joined AFCSME District 37 protests against city layoffs. And this week, the Occupy Wall Street website embraced the Ohio collective bargaining results as "a victory for the 99 percent."

But they’ve also provided backup and amplification to Occupy Wall Street’s broader complaints since its earliest days. In New York City, union members were out again this week. This time at in 11-mile solidarity march that started in upper Manhattan. As one organizer put it, the goal was to “inject some color” into the Occupy movement by bringing together unions and African American and Latino groups.  

There was energy. And there were numbers — hundreds of people on a Monday morning. Annette Dennis, an organizer with SEIU 1199, said it felt like an important moment.

“It’s a window for a movement in general — for all the people. Not just the labor movement,” she said.

As an organizer, she understands leverage, tactics, and clear goals. But in this march, she said she’s still not clear where is this movement going.

"It's more of a curiosity right now,” she said. “I'm kind of pumped up to see where it's going to go."

And the question comes at a pivotal time for labor unions. Their share of the workforce continues to decline – it stood at just under 12 percent in 2010 – and their public image has taken a beating since the economic collapse in 2008. Gallup has surveyed approval of labor unions for decades, and it's hovered around 60 percent. In 2009, it dropped more than 10 points, down to 48 percent.

It crept back up to 52 percent this summer, but before Occupy Wall Street, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said the cynicism was evident.

When his unions offered critiques about tax policy or broader economic policy, he said, “it was always being pushed aside that this is a special interesting, it was always being pushed aside that this was self-serving.”

Lillian Roberts, the head's of District 37 of AFSCME New York's largest public employee union, agreed this is a key moment for unions to remake their image. 

“The media, we’re going to have to pay attention to the media, has tried to make the unions the enemy of the people,” she said.

She’s a 52-year veteran of the labor movement, and while she sees an opening with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but she said it’s primary educating the public about the issue facing New York City’s public workforce. Ask her about its larger meaning of the Occupy Wall Street, and she adopted the rhetoric of the protests, but she pivoted quickly to the specific concern of her union right now: the use of outside contractors in the city.

“We want to know how is it that the taxpayer’s money can be used against them, take away their jobs and you’re giving it to the one percent that we talk about.”

Andy Stern disagrees with that approach. Up until last year, he was the International president of SEIU, and he's currently a fellow at Columbia University. He sees this as an opportunity for labor to think outside the concerns of their own members, and to support a much larger and broader agenda.

“It has to be extremely thoughful that they be popular issues. That they aren't just about union members and collective bargaining.

But he acknowledged, that’s not always been an easy task for unions. “The labor movement's always had a hard time speaking for everyone, even though it certainly desires to do so,” he said.

And with this broad approach, he said, should come some political realignment. He offered a different take on the blows to labor's image in the last few years. He said it's not the fault of the media or Republican operatives – he blamed labor's political strategy in the Obama era.

“After 2008, which had seen big changes politically, the labor movement became overly associated with one party, the Democrats.” And as the stimulus and health care soured public opinion on Democrats, labor absorbed some of those hits.

It’s here then, Stern argues, that unions should take their lead from the Occupy protesters -- and the Tea Party – and not automatically line up to support incumbents.

“Americans will respond when they see us as a watchdog for their interests and not a lap dog for a party,” Stern said.

And with unions proving again this week, in Ohio and here locally, that they've still among got the best turnout operations in the business, that could be one way to turn the still-vague objectives of the Occupy movement into very concrete results.