Editorial – Unions (and Social Justice Networks) vs Occupy

Since I began to occupy, and certainly in the days afterwards, one of the things I contemplate is whether or not unions are a good thing. Of course, they have been a driving force in women’s equality and workers rights, but on the other hand when the garbage workers’ union strikes, no one wants to smell that! As a young man coming into the world, I have been trying to educate myself in the processes that cause society to be as it is now. While occupying St James park for forty days and forty nights, some things came to mind such as “Why is it that more people are not here? Surely more people care about their city, their community, their fellow humans on this planet enough to want to be a part of something that seems (to me) the start of an intellectual golden age.”

And then it hit me, sometime after the City Hall budget meeting where some protesters were arrested, pepper sprayed, and beaten; After the main group of protesters who represented various activism groups had mainly left the stage of Nathan Phillips Square. The realization, in short, was that many groups have been established to research and deal with social issues, and one of those groups is the United Steelworkers Union. Another example of those present was Stop The Cuts, and I’m sure others were present. That realization blended perfectly with my notion that Occupy was so scattered in ideology that many would not be able to understand the messages without a focus.

To progress to the next level of efficacy, Occupy will need to learn from these existing groups to find the resources, monetary and personnel. We have much to learn in general from these groups who have spent their lifetimes fighting for social justice and equality. I think, then, that it is a great thing that Occupy has become the ‘People’s Mic’ for these kinds of organizations. Unions and other groups are strongly focused on some of the kinds of things that Occupy has mentioned, but there is always that fear I have heard expressed many many times over: ‘They’re co-opting us, using us as pawns’. And this fear is, in my mind, only partially justified.

There is a certain, ‘by any means necessary’ mentality that I can understand to be justified in situations where social control and inequality are concerned. I get that. But at the same time there have been some actions that were carried out in the name of Occupy, without the approval of Occupy, nor with great research behind it either. I am referring to the day at St. James park when just before an action, boxloads of ‘Robin Hood Tax’ T-shirts were handed out. I am personally against simply taxing the banks a bit more, as a prior bank teller, I remember that when times get tough, the bank charges more fees, and never charges fees to the ‘best’ clients, and so indirectly the Robin Hood Tax only taxes people with less than enough money to be in the ‘best’ pile, where all the fees come from investments and not transactions. Actions like this need to be presented as coming from the actual source.

It is one thing to support Occupy, and bolster their numbers at key times, it is quite another to literally put your message on Occupiers’ torsos. For me, that is the deciding line. When you have a message, carry it yourself, and let Occupy assist in popularizing it, but do not write it on T-shirts to be handed out by the Occupy Logistics Committee. At the time they were handed out, anyone living in the park would have taken one just because they needed clothing. Its a little like a starving child being given a can of cola then having photographers capture the moment for use as an advertisement.

Moving past that day, USW has been carrying their flags and messages themselves, and Occupy has been there to help. This is in no way offensive to me. A lot of people do not know about USW being one of the founders of the NDP, and USW is also one of the first international unions that arose as a response to international corporations and corporatism. I am glad that the USW has found a respectable way to integrate with the movement, and I anticipate other groups finding a voice through the ‘People’s Mic’. The bottom line, is that Occupy can be the glue that can forge a political force to be reckoned with out of manifold causes and unions that are losing strength due to mainstream pressure on two fronts: one is the fact that ‘activism’ is becoming a dirty word, and the second is the systematic union busting tactics supported by the Harper Government.

Unions in themselves can be great for facilitating communication between employers and workers. On the other hand, not all workers can get into the unions. I worked for the company that was eventually bought by Metro, shipping produce to stores all across Toronto. I kept my productivity at the top of the chart every week, never missed work, and had no problems with anyone. I did this for a couple years. I was a temp. I could have continued to work there for years and would have never been offered a position in the union. I paid union dues but received no benefits. I hope this paints a picture of the possibilities. The issue is not that unions are bad, but rather for unions to be justified; they need to include every worker in their organization, and not just the ‘lifers’. As long as unions create a 2-tier system of pay and benefits, the general population is going to continue to slip away from believing their existence is justified. Some claim that unions pay makes other problems for the companies, creating a landscape where many companies cannot compete in Canada. The issue here is likely tied to outrageous CEO payscales: It is my opinion that no one should ever be paid more than 60k per year, but this is not the issue: the issue is inclusivity.

As long as unions continue to work only for themselves and not for their fellow workers who are not in the union, unions are unjustified in the amounts they receive. Their surplus is shown by the philanthropic work they do despite the minimum wage being so low and the average union workers’ wage being so far beyond that of a worker doing the same job with the same qualifications that cannot get into the union. If there is extra money it should not be taken from the employer in the first place.

I see great potential in unions. In Germany as well as in Japan, since Jimmy Carter’s administration went overseas to re-establish these countries post-WWII, there are unions that actually own the company, that actually elect their own boards of directors. These employees actually earn stock in the company along with wages. Co-determination is the future of the global labour movement I feel. Companies following this model see better productivity than most others following the conventional Top-down/Boss-Employee model. The side-benefit is that everyone begins to vote in the political elections because they become accustomed to the process. The key is that if unions remember to fight for the rights of those not in their unions, then unions will suddenly see public support skyrocket.

Occupy’s most recent action, the BMO flash mob dance, was a success. I hope to see more great direct in-your-face actions like this, especially when you consider both groups are represented, and both have added their own flair to it. MediaWrench was there, and the video below is chronologically correct, leaving very little out. I hope you enjoy it. And more importantly, I hope Occupy continues to integrate with other social justice groups from all around the world, to amplify the message that “S*** is F***** up” – as the sign in the OWS Lego set proclaims.

by Kris Harrison & Jared Khan

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