Some thoughts on Unions and the Occupy Movement.

I grew up in the golden age of unions.

It was the 70’s, and the rights of the working class were issues that carried weight. Not many journalists would risk trampling on the unions, because they knew the unions represented the average Joe, the nascent Boomer generation, and at that time the media cared about the average Joe.

Fast forward to today.

The occupy movement, starting with the physical occupation of Wall Street by thousands of protesters and the subsequent sister movements throughout North America, went virtually unreported for a month in the mainstream media. An entire month went by, as thousands of protesters vented their frustration at the way our society is financially organized, because those in charge felt that the dirty ramblings of the little people didn’t matter. The leaders of government and industry believed nobody of import would ever put any stock in what those trouble makers had to say, and the corporate interest was most certainly not served by encouraging the lower classes to think they deserved better … so no reporting.

Eventually, as we all know, they were shamed into reporting on the protests. They were impossible to hide, as social media coverage had become extensive and thorough. This didn’t mean the resulting coverage was fair however. Mainstream media’s entry into the foray resulted in the greatest media spin ever foisted on a civil movement. The occupy movement’s primary message of “we are the 99%”, symbolizing the fact the majority of the citizens were being robbed by the minority, was diluted and downplayed, and they were accused of having no focus. Mainstream media could therefore cover the protests, not as a civil disobedience movement trying to address social injustice issues that affect all of the middle and lower class, but instead as a “when will the occupy movement get a coherent message” story. All that was ever discussed on Fox, CNN, and most of the other big news players was how the protesters didn’t have a leader, how they had no easy to sell message, how they had no eloquent sound bites, ad nausium. In other words, all the coverage was about how there was nothing for anyone to care about. Naturally, as the various protests began to be forcibly shut down the reporting tended to be extremely favorable to the government’s positions … police violence overlooked, support rallies ignored, and most importantly, how we simply can’t have these dirty protesters here during Christmas, right?

The protests, as far as I am concerned, therefore failed in their primary goal of causing a change in attitude among the middle class, one that would precipitate actual change in how our various western nations are governed financially. So while the jails were full of protesters, bloodied and ignored, not a single charge was ever laid against a Wall Street banker, in spite of a staggering volume of hard accounting and physical evidence showing crimes were taking place for many years leading up to the 2008 crash. These crimes continue to this day, and yet still not one charge. Not one investigation.

The only tangible change achieved by the occupy movement?

The press freedom ranking of the U.S. fell 27 points to place them 47th in the world.

What was the problem?

I think, partly, it was a matter of not understanding they needed to make bigger friends than they.

The occupy movement was/is populated by the early adopters of social activism; the very young, the highly disenfranchised, the homeless and the hopeless. They truly do represent the middle class mainstream, but
a part of the mainstream that is at a different stage of its life.

Think of it in terms of the hippy movement of the 60’s. Those hippies went on to become corporate lawyers and marketing executives, but while they were protesting those wars, they sure didn’t look as intelligent or as important as they do today. At that point in their life THEY were the social activist early adopters of their time. They had the right idea, just as the occupy movement does, but like them they hadn’t yet attained the attention of the 99%. They didn’t get the attention of the all important middle class. Of course, when they finally made friends with the media of the day, and were therefore provided with the legitimacy of association, the world changed. Nobody from that generation will forget the image of Hunter S. Thompson wearing the American flag, and yelling slogans into the crowds. It was pivotal, and it defined a great amont of the 60’s angst.

The occupy movement today needs it’s legitimacy. It needs it’s defining moment when the rest of us look at them and suddenly “get it”. The empowering epiphany that allows us to think change can really happen. But they are not going to be able to do it alone.

To succeed, the occupy movement needs to get the attention of the middle class. Once they engage them, they will have not just the voice of the 99%, but also it’s power. The middle class is under pressures it hasn’t seen since the second world war. It is desperately looking for help, and by definition probably looking for a leader as well. It is looking for somewhere to place it’s trust, and someone to galvanize it’s feelings. The occupy movement hasn’t succeed yet, but I think eventually, and with some help, they will.

Lovely. How?

It’s actually fairly obvious.

In the last century or so, who has most consistently represented the needs and interests of the lower and middle classes?

Government? Perhaps, but right now in north America they are working hard against middle and lower class interests. It is government who is not enforcing it’s own laws, and therefore explicitly allowing the crimes on Wall Street to continue. It is government who overlooks imported goods being made by slaves, while at the same time advocating that it’s own citizens should somehow try to become cost competitive with them. Clearly government serves the interests of the corporations and the wealthy, but not the majority of the citizens. They are perhaps not the enemy, but they are most certainly not to be trusted.

The business community? Considering the fashion in corporate circles these days is to brag about just how mobile and fluid your slave workforce in China is, I would suggest they would be exactly the wrong people to approach. Quite frankly, they are working towards the day when Canadian and American workers labour under the same conditions as the Chinese worker slaves.

The answer really is quite obvious.

Unions.

In spite of all their troubles, they are the most consistent of all the NGO’s in their defense of the values and desires of the lower and middle classes of North America. No other social entity can make the claims they can; vacation pay, sick leave, maternity leave, etc, etc, etc. All thanks to their efforts. To be middle class in the 70’s was to be a union worker, and that was not considered a bad thing.

So, assuming the labour groups are forward thinking enough to reciprocate, why haven’t the occupy movements begun trying to align themselves more with organized labour?

I suspect that it’s simply because, thanks to a concerted effort by the barons of industry and government, and a terribly naive innocence of the power of media on the part of organized labour, unions have been successfully branded as shiftless, lazy, corrupt and greedy organizations who are the root cause of all the evils facing the lower and middle classes today. Names like “jobs for lifers” or “labour gangsters” are seen daily in the commentary sections of online media, and as far as I can tell, at no point has the labour movement ever answered those charges with any effectiveness. The fact these accusations come from paid corporate astroturfers is unimportant, because the end result of organized labour’s ineffectual rebuttals has been the public perception of unions being turned around 180 degrees since the 70’s.

Now unions are seen as the enemy of the middle class, even by the very people who would benefit most from an association with them, and that somehow being a member of a union makes you lazy, untrustworthy, and of lesser moral character.

That has to change.

The occupy movement found itself branded shiftless, leaderless and without focus or understanding. Unions have found themselves branded as lazy, entitled, and just looking for a free lunch. The goal and the effect with both organizations has been the same; To take a potentially effective voice against the current status quo and remove it’s legitimacy. To take these two organizations, and ideas they represent, and turn them against themselves, so those in power can remain so.

These two entities both aspire to achieve the betterment of the common person through economic emancipation, and they both find themselves vilified and marginalized by those who are in charge. So, to my mind, these two entities need to begin speaking with the same voice. Here are some examples of core union/occupy values that have been bastardized;

Family values = religious zealots

Job stability = unrealistic expectations

Fair wages = anti-competitive

Union leaders and occupy leaders need to get together and begin redefining the debate. The middle class is under sustained attack, and has been since the beginning of the never ending recession of 1982. Hours are increasing, pay is decreasing, and the basic necessities of life are becoming more and more difficult for great swathes of the population to attain. Working together, these two groups could begin the process of making business and government accountable for their actions. They could make slavery wrong again, even if it’s in another country. With the strength and legitimacy of the unions, and the energy and drive of the occupy movement, mainstream media could be made to once again play catch up to the trends and directions of the citizens. Governments could be bent to the will of the people for a change, instead of simply to the will of their current corporate overlords.

I do not believe North America is irrevocably lost to corporate avarice, and I think that these two groups are the key to bringing it back. They each contain a wealth of intelligent, driven members. Men and women who are articulate, forceful, and ready to stand in front of an economic tank to make things right. Working together they could give each other a strength they do not currently possess, and the 99% will notice.

When they do, the 99% will choose their champion.

When that happens, we will cease the current race to the bottom, and restart the long process of becoming a just society.

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