I stumbled across this interview which Sarah Jaffe conducted with Steven Lerner, a traditional labor organizer, and was amazed I hadn’t noticed it when it dropped at Alternet. I’ve been looking for cogent essays that can put #OccupyWallStreet into perspective for progressives who still hear “Unions” or “labor movement,” and see Norma Rae standing on a table and waving a union sign.
Labor organizing is something most of us take for granted, but it’s a very challenging thing to do, and it’s why some get very short with #OWS, feeling that the upstart should be more respectful of, if not outwardly more derivative of traditional organizing. But as Lerner points out, it is precisely because it’s not those things that brings the greatest learning and promise to Labor, and to much larger Progressive ambitions in general.
This terrific interview will educate people with very little background on Labor issues, just why organizing has been such a challenge for the past century, and particularly in the last 30 years. Until recently, it’s been going after corporate management, and not the people who really drive the economy. #Ows provides a model where the fight is taken to those most responsible for our national malaise and economic meltdown.
Earlier this year, long before Occupy Wall Street turned Zuccotti Park into Liberty Plaza, Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer with SEIU and mastermind of the Justice for Janitors campaign, wrote in New Labor Forum of “large-scale sit-ins, occupations, and other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience that must inevitably overcome court injunctions and political pressures.” Read more
The entire interview is vital reading, from this nugget forward:
There were many reasons why I think it worked, but one of them was that we had an analysis of who had power. In addition to the community organizing and the many different things the campaign did, the strikes and sit-ins, none of that would’ve worked if we hadn’t directed the campaign toward those with the greatest power—the people who controlled the real estate that janitors were cleaning.
For me, this interview rekindled some of my initial fire about #ows. I had flipped my position from initial skepticism, to embracing it, then back to a cautious observer posture. There is still much to like about this nascent but still very fragile idea for a movement, and I would really like to think it can become something that doesn’t change skin quite so often, as it takes on the look and feel of whatever local Occupy event had last captured the media’s attention. Even so, I think Lerner may be overly optimistic about our ADHD-afflicted media, and how difficult it may be to bring it all back to life after a winter in hibernation. But I am encouraged by the fact that he has that optimism.
I am also still very skeptical of the anarchic modeling that still characterizes many of #ows’s projects and planning (loosely speaking). It has strengths that need better understanding, but also weaknesses that need more open discussion without the contentiousness and acrimony that too many experience when trying to discuss the movement on a conceptual level with it’s more devoted and visible advocates.
But if enough people with Lerner’s understanding and savvy can stay involved, and nudge #ows toward less abstract, more concrete actions that middle class folks can relate to, I think there is a real chance that a permanent, sustainable #ows presence can emerge. One that can attract and hold sufficient leaders, organization, resources, and participation to sculpt an organic and sustainable organization that can evolve into a much better advocacy movement than Unions – with their necessary ties to management – could ever achieve on their own.
Before the #ows zealots start hurling rocks at me, let me say clearly that it is not my position that more Union people are needed to take over #ows. Only that more smart and seasoned activists, with rich, diverse and relevant experience to share, must ultimately get involved in the direction and planning of wherever it is that the #ows endeavor is to become. And sooner, not later.