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labor and unions expert Monica Bielski Boris
After coming under attack earlier this year, should the labor movement ally with the Occupy Wall Street protests as a way to re-establish its influence? In an interview with News Bureau Business and Law Editor Phil Ciciora, Monica Bielski Boris, a labor professor who studies unions and the labor movement, discusses whether the two camps should join forces.
After collective bargaining rights came under attack earlier this year, can organized labor regain its relevance by aligning itself with the Occupy Wall Street movement? If so, how closely should labor unions associate themselves with the movement, and what are the risks involved?
Even before the recent attacks on public sector workers and collective bargaining, labor had been building an activist network of its own among union members and supporters. One of the most significant aspects of this involved outreach to non-union workers and the unemployed through the AFL-CIO’s affiliate program “Working America,” which allows anyone to join with the labor movement.
Most of the work for this network has centered on electoral politics. But disappointments with elected officials and the severity of the state battles for unions especially in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio redirected the attention of union activists to more grassroots tactics. The protests in Madison, Wis.; Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio; and other state capitals developed organically without the centralized direction that unions employ during traditional labor actions. This was a deliberate move to allow for labor to connect with the community and students and to have the workers themselves be out front as the face of the movement.
The Occupy movement also developed organically, separate from the formal labor movement. It did likely draw inspiration from the protests in places like Madison. The AFL-CIO and many unions have endorsed the Occupy movement and offered support. Labor wants and needs to be involved with Occupy because it broadens labor’s appeal by strengthening the relationships among unions, the unorganized and progressive groups. It allows the labor movement to expand to include not just formal unions but all working people.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has been able to attract a lot of media attention, whereas labor rallies seem to generate little media coverage these days. Why is that?
Labor’s relationship with mainstream media has been problematic in that for the past 30 years it has received less and less attention. And when it does, it is usually to discuss a labor dispute or strike. Many newspapers and news networks have eliminated their labor reporters, and most in the media have very little understanding of how unions function and their role in society. The Occupy movement was ignored at first and now does have media attention but it has been mixed, with much attention being given to the “spectacle” aspect of the protest and the few incidents of confrontation between demonstrators and police.
Is the decentralized, leaderless model a sustainable one for the Occupy Wall Street movement, or is this where organized labor can help the movement?
A decentralized movement has the benefit of drawing more people in and allowing for new and creative ideas and approaches. Still, the movement needs resources and assistance and can benefit from the experience of organized labor.
Is aligning itself with the Occupy Wall Street movement a good strategy for labor to represent itself as a counterweight to the tea party?
I don’t think that labor wants to frame it in this way. The tea party movement has been viewed by progressives in a very negative light not only for its political stances on substantive issues but also for accusations of racism and homophobia. Instead of presenting themselves as the opposing force to the tea party movement, the Occupy movement is hoping to provide a more all-encompassing movement, hence the assertion that the movement represents the 99 percent.
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