November 3, 2011

NYC Union Leaders Stall Working-Class Fightback

The “Occupy Wall Street” protests have triggered a positive response from working-class people everywhere. After the government’s bailout of banks and corporations, workers and poor people have been made to pay with layoffs and budget cuts. The widespread sense of anger has begun to turn to a recognition that it’s time to take action.

Leaders of the trade unions and community organizations had done little or nothing to protest the mounting attacks since the economic crisis hit, so they were shamed by the enthusiasm for the OWS initiative and prodded to act militant themselves. They sponsored a rally at Foley Square in downtown Manhattan on October 5 in solidarity with OWS. The event drew over 20,000 people, but the unions organized few of their own members to attend.

That’s why League for the Revolutionary Party supporters joined with other unionists and Wall Street protesters to campaign for New York City’s unions to mobilize their members and the working class as a whole for a massive march on Wall Street in early November. The idea was to build on the momentum already created and pressure the union leaders to organize an action that could start to rebuild workers’ sense of power and potential for struggle. By raising basic demands against the anti-worker attacks and for a program of public works to create jobs, such a march would have addressed the most important concerns of working-class and poor people today. (See a sample protest motion and a partial list of endorsers at

The campaign quickly gathered endorsements from OWS occupiers and protesters, as well as from union members who want to see their unions act. It was endorsed by the City College and New York City College of Technology Chapters of the Professional Staff Congress union. Then, after a group of union members and OWS protesters lobbied the Central Labor Council, the CLC’s Delegate Assembly voted unanimously to recommend that the CLC Executive Board endorse and mobilize for such a protest on November 5.

But since then, the leaders of New York’s unions have failed to take things forward. Because there is growing sentiment among workers for a fightback, union leaders have not wanted to speak against proposals for action. Instead, they have offered their members vague promises to organize a big protest in line with the CLC delegates’ vote, but so far, they have not publicly committed themselves to doing anything.

Transport Workers Union Local 100 was the first union to express solidarity with OWS. The campaign for an all-union mass march received early support from many Local 100 members, including some on the union’s Executive Board, and the union’s delegate to the CLC, Kevin Harrington, had seconded the motion for a mass march. But just days later, at a shop stewards meeting on October 24th, the response of President John Samuelsen to the proposal was evasive.  While suggesting the CLC would organize something similar at some point, he refused to publicly commit the local to building a mass march.

At the PSC Delegate Assembly on October 27, LRP supporters circulated a motion that called on the PSC to publicize and mobilize for the proposed march. Before that could be discussed, however, the meeting had to consider the union leadership’s motion to affiliate to the Working Families Party. The WFP negotiates giving its line on election ballots to Democratic (and sometimes Republican) candidates in return for promises of minor policy concessions. In this way, the WFP helps union bureaucrats resist calls to break from their strategy of preferring electoralism to mass struggle. LRP supporters joined others in speaking against the WFP and its fronting for capitalist parties, but after a lengthy debate the leadership’s proposal to affiliate was approved. When the question of supporting the CLC Delegates’ vote for a mass workers’ march on Wall Street finally came up, President Barbara Bowen dodged the issue by reporting that the CLC Executive Board had already decided to organize a march in late November or early December, with demands for economic justice that were yet to be determined. Since then, however, the CLC has not announced any such decision or demands.

As we wrote immediately after the CLC Delegates Meeting voted unanimously to call for the protest:

The challenge now is to make sure that the union leaders respect the CLC delegates’ vote and really build the march. That won’t be easy.

Since the economic crisis broke out on Wall Street in 2008, this country’s union leaders have barely lifted a finger in opposition to the wasting of trillions of taxpayers’ dollars on bailing out the banks and the terrible wave of layoffs and budget cuts that have followed. Comfortable in their positions of privilege, the union leaders have mostly been concerned with holding onto their power and channeling workers’ anger into the trap of voting for the Democratic Party.

In the CLC Delegates Meeting itself, there were already signs of backsliding. No sooner was the vote being taken than CLC President Vincent Alvarez, while promising to respect the decision, seemed to suggest that the CLC Executive Board might need to be flexible about some of the details of the protest.

Any union leader who takes a real step toward organizing struggles by workers against the attacks on the jobs and living standards will find us and many militant workers ready to join them in that effort. But in our experience, the pro-capitalist, pro-Democratic Party union leaders can be expected to use an inch of “flexibility” to avoid organizing a real fightback against the anti-worker attacks.

So far, the city’s union leaders have confirmed our worst expectations. However, all is not lost. OWS protests continue to flare up, especially in response to police attacks. Militants should continue to challenge their union representatives to explain what they are doing to organize a mass union march on Wall Street and to raise motions in all union meetings demanding an all-out mobilization.

While local unions continue with plans for their own sectoral events (like Local 100’s November 15 mobilization to kick off contract negotiations with the MTA), the only union-backed event that we are aware of in conjunction with OWS is a November 17 rally at Foley Square. Significantly, while a number of unions and community organizations are participating in the planning meetings, none have publicized the event. They haven’t even posted a notice of it on their websites.

The union leaders don’t want to mobilize their members in actions that will raise expectations of a fightback they have no intention of leading. Their plan seems to be to re-run the October 5 rally. But while October 5 was a step forward at the time, to repeat it would be demoralizing.  Some unions, like TWU Local 100, made no effort to use union staff and shop stewards to mobilize members to attend, only making the token move of informing the ranks of the protest via phone and e-mail at the last minute. Most other unions did less.

Along with OWS, the campaign to pressure union leaders to mobilize a fightback has helped raise workers’ expectations of their unions. Given their pro-capitalist views and their proclivity for bureaucratic inaction, we expect the leaders to do as little as they can get away with. All militants must therefore keep up the fight for a serious working-class mobilization on and against Wall Street.