Can Occupy Wall Street replace the labor movement?

The protesters have helped to highlight the problem of inequality. But can they articulate their grievances with the same legitimacy that once belonged to a broader effort?

By MSNMoney partner May 1, 2012 1:54PM

By Alasdair Roberts

 

When protesters settled in New York's Zuccotti Park in September, few anticipated how big a phenomenon the Occupy Wall Street movement would become. Soon, dozens of encampments were established around the world.

 

A month later, the majority of Americans knew about the movement and supported its goals. It seemed that a new form of political action -- youthful, tech-savvy and decentralized -- had scored a major victory. Inequality was back on the agenda.

 

But here's what didn't happen last September: a large-scale protest by organized labor. To understand why, roll the clock back almost exactly 30 years.

 

In summer 1981, economic conditions were grim. The unemployment rate had floated around 7 percent for the preceding two years. Compounding the misery was inflation, which exceeded a rate of 10 percent. The country felt "a terrible sense of helplessness," according to Alfred Kahn, one of President Jimmy Carter's economic advisers.

 

Union leaders, like their members, were unhappy and worried about the policies proposed by the new administration of Ronald Reagan. On Aug. 3, the country's air-traffic controllers went on strike. On Aug. 5, the Reagan administration fired controllers who refused to return to work.

 

Union leaders met in Chicago the next day. Many were frustrated by the controllers' recklessness in provoking a conflict with the new administration. But most also recognized that this was the opening skirmish in a much larger assault on labor. The unions mobilized quickly.

 

On Sept. 7, 100,000 people marched in New York City's first Labor Day parade in 13 years. And on Sept. 19, labor mounted an even more impressive show of force in Washington. The AFL-CIO called it Solidarity Day. A quarter of a million people traveled to the capital to join the protest, the largest since the civil rights and antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s.

 

It was a blue-collar crowd. "The soundtrack was Country and Western, not folk rock," the New York Times reported, "The marchers tended to smoke Marlboros, not marijuana."

 

Labor organizers hoped that Solidarity Day would mark the beginning of a campaign that would halt the Reagan administration in its tracks. This was not to be. Instead, it might have been the labor movement's last shining moment -- the final point at which it was capable, within weeks, of organizing a vast bloc of working-class Americans in protest against government policy.

 

In 1981, the labor movement was already in decline, and the trend accelerated afterward. In 1960, one-third of the private-sector workforce had been represented by trade unions. Today, only 8 percent is. The missing army of private-sector union members -- that is, the number of additional workers that the movement would include today if unionization rates had stayed at levels of the 1960s and 1970s -- is about 20 million people.

 

We've recently seen the political consequences of this collapse. By many measures, economic conditions today are worse than in the summer of 1981. Real gross domestic product was actually increasing in the four years before 1981, but it flat-lined between 2007 and 2011. The unemployment rate was also higher in 2011 -- stuck at more than 9 percent for almost three years. And the labor-force participation rate declined from 2006 to 2011, while it increased from 1976 to 1981.

 

Conditions have been ripe for labor protest the past few years. But labor has lost the capacity to mobilize effectively. True, the AFL-CIO did join with other groups to organize a rally on the National Mall in 2010. But turnout was a fraction of what it had been for Solidarity Day. Labor's turnout was lower than for Glenn Beck's Tea Party rally five weeks earlier.

 

As unions have declined, new forms of mobilization have gained prominence, such as the loosely structured protest networks that have dogged international economic summits over the past decade. These networks have supplanted unions as the main vehicles for articulating resistance to economic liberalization. And they have space to grow because liberalization has crushed the labor movement: They're like the new species that thrive after a wildfire destroys an old-growth forest.

 

However, this doesn't mean that new forms of protest are equally effective. One problem is the inability of loosely structured networks to mobilize quickly. The economic crisis was already three years old when Occupy began. And there is a problem of representativeness. The Occupy protesters are younger, better educated, whiter and more politically radical than the population at large. This raises the question of whether the movement can articulate grievances with the same legitimacy that once belonged to a broad-based labor movement.

 

Assuming, of course, that Occupiers can articulate grievances coherently at all. The consensus-based decision making they adhere to makes it harder to define precise demands for action. Although the protesters' coolness toward engagement in everyday politics helps to keep more radical elements inside the tent, it lowers the probability that demands will produce results. The labor movement had similar internal difficulties. But it also had a structure that enabled it to manage those difficulties and express its demands more effectively.

 

Certainly, the Occupy movement has helped to highlight the problem of inequality. But influencing the policy agenda is only the first step in actually reducing inequality. The question now is whether these new forms of economic protest can evolve to perform the tasks once undertaken by the labor movement: translating broadly felt anxieties into policy demands, mobilizing large numbers for political action and negotiating with policy makers to get results.


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8Comments
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Don't you have to have had a job at sometime, or at least be looking for one, to claim you represent the "labor movement"?  These squatting bands of misfits seem content only to prevent honest working people from getting to their jobs.  Worse yet, they participate in lawless activities, consume millions in scarce municipal tax dollars for additional police presence and sanitation and generally make a nuisance of themselves to anyone unlucky enough to live within earshot of their brainless activities.   It's a wonder any of them actually survived their vermin infested, makeshift encampments last year to return for "round two".
May 3, 2012 1:15PM
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What inequality? The Constitution exists to guarantee the equal protect of people’s rights under the law. It does not exist to guarantee a more equal distribution of income among the citizenry. The idea that the government has this purpose or the authority to redistribute income is a Socialist projection that should have be rejected long ago.

May 2, 2012 1:44PM
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A couple of years ago, a major grocery chain opened a new store in a town near here. They advertised for job applicants. They had 40-50 come in and were only able to hire 4.  That was the number of folks who were able to pass the drug test.  My wife works for a major drug store chain. If the quality level of worker is representative of the rest of the unemployed work force, I am not surprised that employers are being picky.  Imagine that!! Employers actually want workers who will show up when scheduled and be willing to actually work.

May 1, 2012 2:52PM
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The occupiers need to occupy a bathtub then go out and make looking for work their full time job
May 1, 2012 10:18PM
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Don't start that garbage occupiers need to find a job I have been trying to land one for almost a year the market is so screwed up it is unreal. They are way too picky for their own good so I say damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead to destroy all lobbyists That  is part of the reason our stupid government can't get anything done all this worthless pork barrel all these a@#wholes keep coming up with in all those bills, resolutions or whatever useless term you want to give them. It is time to wipe the slate clean our government has grown too corrupt and indecisive we can no longer bury our heads in the sand. Everyone complains about the inaction of the government, well if you want to see where the blame really lies go look in the mirror and that includes me as well I am just as guilty as anyone else. We keep voting for one worthless party or the other. Republican or Democrat doesn't matter they are both equally to blame for all this. If you really want change we are the ones that need to overhaul the system and not rely on who is already there to do it for us. It was all of us that as people which created it and it is the people that need to change it. It is not all one branch of the government either, yes the President  shares the blame but the House of Representatives and the Senate  are even more responsible they are the ones sitting on their butts for the past 30 plus years and have done nothing to stop this all from happening. So that is the way it is you don't have to take my word for it, the writing is on the wall and it is up to all of us as citizens of this great land to read it. As long as we let them control us or follow blindly we as a nation will not survive it has already started since 2008, just look around you they are telling us how and when to pray what we can and can't read regardless of your faith. Everyone should have the right to worship as they see fit in this world regardless of your faith or the name of the book used to do so. I do not force other to worship the same way that I do and I expect the same consideration from them!! ^v^ 
May 4, 2012 6:19AM
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Ten years ago I used to complain about the wealth gap, too.  Then I decided nobody gave a crap about my problems and took the last $1,500.00 to my name and started my own business.  Now I'm worth about $30 million and have 100 very well paid employees.  We make all our products in the USA and export most of it.  The funny thing is I'd have three times as many well paid employees and export three times more if the goverment would stop taking over half my net profits in the form of taxes.  I need the money to grow and the government just takes it and gives it to China to cover the interest on treasury debt.   

 

 

May 1, 2012 10:21PM
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Before you all start in on me yes I am still looking and applying for jobs, and that is as far as I will discuss it! ^v^
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