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What Organized Labor Could Learn From Occupy Wall Street

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, December 13 2011

At a Personal Democracy Media event held last night, panelists deeply involved in the labor movement repeatedly touched on what they called the failures of traditional institutions to adapt to the 21st century.

The wide-ranging, two-and-a-half-hour-long event covered territory ranging from the emergence of "open-source brands" — the way "Occupy" became a prefix for dozens of related, uncoordinated, complementary efforts, spontaneously becoming unauthorized sub-brands of the wider movement because nobody's there to withhold permission — to the increasing power of personal connections and personal narrative. But for several minutes, speakers with experience in the labor movement focused on the organizational arthritis that appears to now harry big unions like SEIU.

Labor leaders are struggling to understand — and emulate — movements like Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, panelists said at the event, "From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street: The Future of Networked Democracy." Two panelists in particular — Engage Network's Marianne Manilov and Jessica Shearer, an Occupy organizer and union activist — offered rare on-the-record insiders' critiques of the juxtaposition between the horizontal Occupy movement and the more hierarchical organization of traditional unions.

Shearer asked the audience to recall Oct. 5, the day of a joint rally in which thousands of Occupy protesters and union members gathered in lower Manhattan.

"Unions are racing to catch up with the fierce and nimble kids in the park," said Shearer, taking the audience back in time to that joint Oct. 5 Occupy/union rally.

"For the first time in a labor march, almost every single sign is handmade," said Shearer. Before Occupy, Shearer directed the New York Healthcare Education Project, a project of SEIU and the Greater New York Hospital Association. "By Nov. 16, tents are out, but the unions are all in. The crowd grows to 33,000."

The president of SEIU, Mary Kay Henry, she pointed out, had started the day endorsing President Barack Obama, and ended it being arrested as part of the Occupy movement. Occupiers, she said, had two things that unions now lack: Authenticity and little fear of risk.

"What we lack ... is human-scale outreach," Shearer said. "Decades of defeat have reigned in our imagination.

"Occupy Wall Street can teach us much," Shearer said later on in her remarks. "Down in Zuccotti, there are dozens of spiral notebooks with the names of union members who want to get involved," she said. "The rank-and-file subcommittee of the Labor working group has four or five subcomittees of its own. They're meeting non-stop and they are having so much fun."

As an example, she pointed to the success that labor union supporters and Occupy Wall Street supporters have had in protesting the union contract dispute involving Sotheby's.

"Most unions don't know what to do with this kind of self-organization. People want to be asked to do more," she said. "Maybe they don't want a rally in D.C. or to sit in Sheraton getting a pep-talk before each election. We don't know. We don't ask." The Occupy movement can help restore meaning to the labor movement, she said. "If we've learned anything from Zuccotti, it's that there is more than just numbers," she said.

Manilov, the co-founder of The Engage Network, echoed that idea as she spoke about organizing movements at Occupy Wall Street and throughout the country.

"Occupy is transformative in that it aims at a time when so many are being left out, and left behind, to leave no one behind," she said.

The power of that kind of movement was reflected the group's recent Occupy Our Homes day of action, Manilov said. Efforts by Occupy groups in Rochester, New York, Ohio and Atlanta to stop home foreclosures inspired the national day of action in 19 cities, she said. "It's not a campaign going outward, it's something coming up," she said.

Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, offered a view that found similarities in the way the Tea Party was spontaneously organized from the bottom up. In retelling the origin story of the Tea Party, he cast the conservative movement as something that bubbled up around him while he watched.

After a first day where 35,000 people participated in 49 tea parties, Meckler said, he found himself thrust unwillingly into a position of leadership.

"Suddenly, I was the de-facto California coordinator," he said. "It wasn’t really leadership, I was just willing to step up and ask some questions and raise my hand and find out. Ultimately that led me across the country, and I realized there were people who had done this all over the country."

Those people found each other, he said.

"Pretty soon there were a core group of people saying: what do we do next, where do we go from here," Meckler said. "And I saw it, because of my background as a technology lawyer, as open-source. This was exactly like the development of open-source software.

"That first line of code had been written," he continued later during his remarks, "and it was, 'a Tea Party is a public protest against a government run amok.' It was nothing more than that, and people began contributing to that code."

Shearer, who also managed campaign efforts to elect President Barack Obama in nine key states, took the opportunity to suggest, as Micah Sifry has, that Obama kneecapped the people-powered organization that voted him into office as soon as he settled in to the White House.

"The list that the Obama campaign put together is the best list in history," she said, referring to the Obama for America email list "That is a list that is truly representative, that is deep in all kinds of communities across this country."

As the Republican Party's race to select someone to campaign against Obama kicks into high gear, Shearer suggested that things would have been different if Howard Dean, and not Obama, had been the Democratic leader after November 2008.

"If Dean had been put in charge of the Democratic Party after that election, that list might have really built the democracy. It might have built a party. It might have allowed people a place to engage," she said. "Instead, it was this weak echo chamber, where they couldn't be one step to the left or one step to the right of anything the president said."

Another approach could have made a big difference during the health care reform debate. When Obama announced that he did not think there could be a public option, many forums associated with Obama for America toed that line.

"That should have been the moment when people threw him against the wall and said we demand a public option! And he should have said: look at these crazy people! What am I going to do, I have to give somebody a public option," Shearer said.

The Occupy movement, she said, is doing the opposite. "Occupy is changing the space, Occupy has already changed the conversation, it's changed what the president is saying radically, it's changed the constituency people think they need to speak to."

Even as someone who had been involved in so many campaigns and elections, Shearer said she hoped that at this point, the Occupy movement did not take that path.

"I hope that Occupy, at least not for a long time doesn't engage that way in electoral politics, that they continue to push the conversation, they continue to shift the ground, they continue to expand our political imagination and they let the politicians work it out amongst themselves," she said, "and come to us and figure out how to speak to the 99 percent.”