As “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations have gone national, observers are taking note of the prominent role of labor unions in this anti-business crusade. The rote denunciations of “corporate greed” at these events could have been lifted from almost any AFL-CIO convention speech. That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that union organizers are putting words in protestors’ mouths. Yet it does strongly suggest that organized labor and street radicals recognize each other as natural allies. Given their overlapping worlds, it’s fitting that one of the prime movers behind this far-Left, multi-city sturm und drang festival is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), some of whose top operatives are highly experienced in the art of damaging the reputation of major companies. And there are plenty of other unions getting in on the action. Ironically, anti-corporate activists are being enabled by corporations themselves.
Occupy Wall Street, formally speaking, began on September 17. On that day, anti-capitalist radicals gathered in Lower Manhattan at Zuccotti Park, not far from the World Trade Center site, to voice their displeasure with what they saw as legalized robbery by the country’s financial services industry, and corporations generally, of the nation. The protestors claimed to represent “99 percent” of America, the portion getting the shaft from the wealthiest 1 percent. They redubbed the space “Liberty Park,” an informal return to the area’s original name, Liberty Square Park. Organizers knew what they were doing. Because the park is privately-owned and operated (by Brookfield Office Properties), it is not subject to City of New York curfew rules. Yet because it is public space, it must stay open 24 hours a day, a fact Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly reluctantly explained to the public.
The movement quickly captured the imagination of a loose coalition of socialists, anarchists, clergy, teachers, hackers, college students, environmentalists, union members and other activists around the nation. Here was a truly spontaneous gathering of the people, said organizers – ground zero for the Revolution! Soon enough, Occupy Wall Street inspired copycat franchises bearing names such as Occupy Atlanta, Occupy Boston and Occupy Pittsburgh. This is a nationwide phenomenon. And it’s not about to go away anytime soon. The illegal (and unpunished) three-week occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol from mid-February to early March, a public employee union-driven mass protest against budget curbs proposed by Republican Governor Scott Walker, was small stuff compared to this.
Superficially, at least, Occupy Wall Street is the Left’s equivalent of the Right’s Tea Parties. Each movement seeks to transform widespread discontent over federal bailouts of banks and corporations into a broad populist program. Each seeks to recruit followers via carnival-style rallies. Each seeks to expose incestuous relationships between business and political elites. And each considers itself to be the essence of patriotism, a fulfillment of our Founders’ vision. Vice President Joe Biden, for one, sees a parallel. Occupy Wall Street protests, he recently told Washington Ideas Forum, have “a lot in common with the Tea Party.” He elucidated: “Let’s be honest with each other. What is the core of that protest? The core is the bargain has been breached with the American people. The American people do not think the system is fair.”
Yet Occupy Wall Street, along with its roughly 140 “branch offices” around the nation, operates on a very different set of assumptions than the Tea Party. As such, it has different motives and a different audience. True, each opposes crony capitalism. But whereas Tea Partiers see far too much government economic intervention, Occupy Wall Street activists see far too little. The latter’s desire for public control over the economy and severe punishment of the presumed malefactors of wealth isn’t immediately apparent amid the feel-good anarchist-communitarian vibes. But it’s there all the same. In Chicago, for example, this past Monday thousands of protestors marched along Michigan Avenue chanting, “Tax, tax, tax the rich.” (Who exactly would do the taxing, if not government?) As a variation on this theme, a prominently displayed sign during demonstrations in Manhattan’s financial district declared, “Eat the Rich.” Meanwhile, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) founder and former chief organizer Wade Rathke is celebrating the protests as an “anti-banking jihad.” The central problem of our economy, to such people, is not the corruption of capitalism; it’s capitalism itself.
Occupy Wall Street’s brief mission statement, published on its web site (www.occupywallst.org), is saturated with the recognizable language of populist sentimentality and aggression of the extreme Left. It makes clear its conviction that a tiny minority is lording over the rest of us:
Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.
Elsewhere on the website, an anonymous author confronts the putative ruling class with the equivalent of a defiant fist: “We do not fear your power and we will continue to fight for a better world. We will never stop growing and each day we’ll continue to expand, block by block and city by city.”
This leads to a second defining feature of Occupy Wall Street – that of style. This ad hoc movement has a penchant for aggressive and often illegal modes of confrontation. Consider the key word in the group’s name: “occupy.” Activists, quite deliberately, have cultivated a paramilitary style of taking over – as opposed to renting or visiting – parks, streets and other public spaces. The “nonviolence” that the campaign organizers and apologists claim to be their defining tactic is a ruse. There is nothing peaceful about invading someone else’s property, regardless of the reason. Even public property implies the existence of an unbreakable trust with the taxpaying public. Tea Parties, to be sure, have had their share of unappealing eccentrics, but none have resorted to this sort of menace. They typically were one-day affairs during which participants behaved reasonably.
There isn’t much that is reasonable, by contrast, about Occupy Wall Street and its related campaigns. In Washington, D.C., protestors burnt at least one dollar bill outside Federal Reserve headquarters; so far as one knows, even the most fervent supporters of Texas Republican Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul – the Fed’s worst nightmare – haven’t resorted to such behavior (though Rep. Paul has endorsed the protestors, and especially their opposition to the Fed). In New York, one Occupy Wall Street demonstrator defecated on an NYPD patrol car, while hundreds of other protestors marched along Fifth and Park Avenues, passing by buildings where corporate CEOs reside in order to heckle and shout up at their windows. In a separate incident, about 700 protestors were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge when they defied a police order and continued to block traffic. In Chicago, a contingent of protestors blocked rush hour traffic, while another marched on a hotel where the Mortgage Bankers Association of America (MBAA) had been holding a meeting. And in Boston during the wee hours of Tuesday, October 11, police arrested some 100 demonstrators who refused to leave a section of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway; protestors had been living in makeshift tents this month in nearby Dewey Square Park before expanding their domain.
The Occupy Wall Street movement thus is anti-capitalist street theater in search of a mass political movement. More than any other type of institution, the labor union has the will and the way to build such a movement. Labor leaders know it. That’s why they are increasingly getting involved with the occupiers. By working through radical nonprofit organizations, moreover, they can supply money, logistics and public relations without being excessively overt about it.
A good example of union-driven networking in the current campaign is the Working Families Party (WFP), a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multi-state entity founded in 1998 as a radical alternative to mainstream Democrats, though the party often cross-endorses progressive Democrats as well as runs its own candidates. A WFP spokeswoman, Nelini Stamp, describes her role in Occupy Wall Street as “part of the organizing team and the outreach team that has managed to bridge the distance between that first day and this day and between the grassroots folks here and the labor movement.” She doesn’t shrink from expressing her intentions. Demonstrators, she told Free Speech TV reporter Laura Flanders, are “actually trying to change the capitalist system we have today because it’s not working for any of us,” and are asking, “How do we really reform and bring revolutionary changes to the states?”
But in addition to being a deceptively influential element on the political scene, the Working Families Party from the start has been a front group for ACORN, which formally disbanded last year following numerous revelations by Congress and the media of impropriety and since has reconstituted itself under various guises. It operates out of ACORN’s New York chapter office in Brooklyn and its executive director is former ACORN operative Dan Cantor. New York Communities for Change (NYCC), the successor organization to ACORN’s New York chapter, for example, is headed by longtime ACORN lobbyist Jon Kest. NYCC is also a key player in the Manhattan demonstrations. And New England United for Justice, a major force behind Occupy Boston, is headed by former ACORN National President Maude Hurd.
ACORN and the Working Families Party in turn owe much of their high public profile to union activism, each getting invaluable help from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the United Auto Workers (UAW). Two of the party’s three current co-chairs are Bob Master and Sam Williams, respectively, officials with the CWA and the UAW. The other WFP chairperson is former ACORN Executive Director Bertha Lewis, who took over the nonprofit network from Wade Rathke in 2008.
Unions, in fact, have helped create protests across the nation. In Southern California, for example, about 75 Occupy Orange County protestors marched outside a Chase Bank in Anaheim and vowed to march on additional banks; the group is led by the Orange County Labor Federation. In Chicago, the Chicago Federation of Labor worked closely with Occupy Chicago in marching on the MBAA and Futures and Options Expo conferences. And in Boston, the Greater Boston Labor Council lauded the group Occupy Boston for shining “a spotlight on the imbalance of power in our nation and the role that Wall Street has played in devastating our economy.” Each of these labor federations is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
It is in New York where unions are pouring in the most resources. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have publicly endorsed Occupy Wall Street. ATU President Larry Hanley, a member of the AFL-CIO executive committee, praises local members for voicing “huge support” for Occupy Wall Street. “Working people’s voices have been drowned out by huge money,” he stated. The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), also allied with the AFL-CIO and representing an estimated 600,000 employees, has endorsed Occupy Wall Street as well. Sounding much like the protestors, NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn puts it this way: “Teachers and public employees represent the other 99 percent; they are not in the 1 percent. We’re supportive of that overarching message.” The national leadership of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the CWA also support the demonstrators. Prominent New York City-area unions providing backing include Service Employees Local 1199 and Transport Workers Union Local 100. Support consists of more than just words. Unions have bused members to Zuccotti Park to take part in protests, conducted onsite teach-ins, and strategized with Occupy Wall Street leaders. SEIU Local 1199 has supplied clothes, water and pizza to park occupiers. And the big cheese himself, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, recently paid them a visit.
If one union leader more than any other epitomizes the effort to instill discipline and aggression in the anarchic, non-hierarchical world of the protestors, it is Stephen Lerner, an SEIU board member and longtime operative of that union. His specialty, as Union Corruption Update noted at length in April, is sabotaging the reputation of banks and corporations. During the mid Eighties, the shadowy Lerner helped launch the union’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign in cities across the U.S., using tactics of extreme public intimidation to force high-rise building contractors into signing master contracts with unorganized workers. Lerner this past March was caught on audiotape speaking before an audience at Pace University in Manhattan describing a five-point plan to undermine the entire U.S. economy, a campaign to be led by the SEIU and other unions, with selected community groups serving as fronts.
Lerner, a revolutionary who knows a teachable moment when he sees one, isn’t letting this moment in history go to waste. At an October 3 conference in Washington, D.C., “Take Back the American Dream,” he remarked: “We have solutions. We just have to build it bigger and larger.” He believes in attacking CEOs personally so as to render them social pariahs. At a meeting of SEIU Local 1775 in Seattle this September 22, he declared: “We’ve got to be clear on the human beings who are bad,” singling out JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon as an appropriate target for mass hatred. Lerner sees the bad guys as not even 1 percent of the population. In a 2007 interview, he stated: “We literally have a handful of billionaires that are marauding around the globe, buying and selling things, and they need to be held accountable.” He may well be behind some of the recent urban occupations, too – a recent unattributed photo of an Occupy Chicago rally would suggest as much. At the very least, he’s got important people listening to him. Lerner has been a visitor to the Obama White House at least four times. That’s not nearly as often as his mentor, former SEIU President Andrew Stern, but it’s still more than virtually all of his opponents can claim.
For now, Occupy Wall Street is a motley collection of activists whose lack of central direction renders them, at least to the casual observer, benign. But in the end, political movements, in order to be self-sustaining, centralize operations. Even the supposedly most non-hierarchical and anti-bureaucratic movements require people at the top engaging in the necessary networking, planning and logistics so that the amateur majority can demonstrate to their hearts’ contents. To some extent, all complex organizations, in order to succeed, require bureaucracy. This classic Iron Law of Oligarchy, one might add, holds true for political activism on the Right – anyone familiar with the Tea Parties knows these events have been well-planned and coordinated. Politics requires expertise. Unions have the expertise as well as the motive to do damage to business in ways that ACORN and other hard-Left radical community groups could not do on their own.
The irony here is that major corporations – the very target of the demonstrators – have enabled this movement. Years of acquiescence by major companies to radical demands on a wide range of issues have made them into easy marks. It is corporations even more than unions, for example, who have served as paymasters for nonprofit organizations run by “civil rights” hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. As NLPC President Peter Flaherty observed only days ago, allies of the radicals already occupy corporate suites.
The financial meltdown of 2008 and its after-effects (e.g., high unemployment rates) especially are by-products of corporate acquiescence to the Left. It was major banks, along with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, who enthusiastically went along with demands for affirmative action in mortgage lending imposed by Congress, federal regulators, and less directly, by community groups like ACORN. They aggressively ramped up their mortgage portfolios with high-risk loans to allegedly “underserved” borrower populations, while major brokerages, here and abroad, bought the loans and marketed them as securities to investors. When the inevitable defaults and foreclosures piled up, the result was a near worldwide financial collapse. As for JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, so reviled by the SEIU’s Stephen Lerner, the company under his watch has donated heavily to ACORN Housing Corporation, an ACORN spinoff since reconstituted as Affordable Housing Centers of America. Dimon also is a generous Democratic Party donor and a personal favorite of President Obama. Once again, a sound principle has gone unheeded: Corporations gain nothing by appeasing their attackers, for the attackers will never reciprocate.