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What can labor learn from Occupy Wall Street?

January 26, 2012 - Mike Maneval
Writer Mike Elk, in an analysis for In These Times, contemplates whether labor unions can learn valuable lessons from the Occupy Wall Street movement. "The Occupy movement," Elk writes, "may benefit the labor movement most not by building solidarity in the street, but by forcing labor leaders to rethink their strategy for rebuilding the labor movement."

Some who spoke to Elk noted critical differences. "The gains of the labor movement in the 1930s were the product of 20 to 30 years of organizing by socialists and ethnic organizations, and strike skirmishes," said Peter Olney of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. "Occupy Wall Street is a great moment. It's not a panacea for change; we've got to be about the long haul."

Another key difference noted by Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner is that union leadership is still homogeneously white and male, even as women and workers of color become more and more the focus of unionization efforts. When coupled with disproportionately higher salaries among union leadership, the question arises: Is the leadership of organized labor too disconnected to be relevant?

While only time will tell if Occupy Wall Street can sustain activism for the years and decades it took labor unions to secure economic stability for America's middle class, Dorian Warren of Columbia University believes the labor movement can draw a blueprint for the future from Occupy movement's small-d democratic organizing, as opposed to unions' more hierarchical past. Or in Warren's words, "“The big lesson is how a democratic process leads people to … their commitment to the organization and the effort.”


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