Unions Just Don’t Get It

The big news from the #OccupyWallStreet yesterday in New York City was the addition of many local unions to the protests in the streets.

And yet, somehow, the unions seems a bit befuddled by the growing side-to-side energy and interest in these self-organized protests. Why is everyone paying attention to these relatively small gatherings, they said, when we gathered many more people last year in Washington?

The New York Times reports one labor leader as saying, “The labor movement needs to tap into the energy and learn from them,” Mr. Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said. “They are reaching a lot of people and exciting a lot of people that the labor movement has been struggling to reach for years.”

He’s right, unions do need to understand the energy that is propelling the protests forward, but they won’t be able to duplicate it because it’s simply not in their DNA to allow their members to self-organize. Unions are the quintessential command and control structures, they need to provide a united front for negotiating with companies and governments, which means absolute message control and lock-step orders from on high.

Unions are the ultimate fortresses. They are in a constant defensive posture, they cannot let outsiders in, too scared to let insiders out.

Give their culture, it is not surprising that when a union organizes a protest no one else shows up. The union membership shows up when and where it is told to. Their grievances can be quite legitimate, but we are left on the outside to show up when they tell us to, shout what they want us to shout. One thing we know for sure in this networked world; no individual is interested in doing what an institution wants it to do just because. If we’re not engaged, listened to, represented then they’re on their own.

So, there you go, Union folks, no need to be befuddled anymore, I just explained to you why the OWS protests are getting more attention than yours!



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Allison Fine


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  • Dear Allison,

    I love your blog and the work that you’re doing. However, I must take exception to what you said about organized labor and their seeming befuddlement at the “growing side-to-side energy and interest in these self-organized protests.”

    The point you sorely miss is that it’s not that Union’s are befuddled by these leader-less, self-organized protests, it’s that they are befuddled by the protesters who won’t organize into a fortress that will always defend what they have earned.

    Lest we forget, it was organized labor (organized protest) in the U.S., which was basically the vehicle which enabled the creation of a middle class (see 8-hr work days, 5-day work weeks, living wages, fair job security, retirement at 65 w/pension, etc).

    Unfortunately, for decades now, Labor’s strength (the ability to organize and sign work agreements) has been whittled away. Our membership is at an all-time low. Correspondingly, but not surprising, the gap between the rich and poor is continuing to grow wider.

    People are finally understanding that they are being short-changed, cheated, by Wall Street and their cronies who are beholden to it. My befuddlement is not that the protestors are saying enough is enough, or that they are leader-less or are able to self-organize, it is that they think change can be affected without organization and a steel to defend what they have earned.

    #OccupyWallStreet protests are occurring because for 25-yrs Corporate America has severely crushed Unions and their memberships. It was inevitable that #OccupyWallStreet-like protests finally happen. The only way out of this quagmire is to organize into fortresses that will stand up for the rights of workers. The best vehicle for that is the organization that created the middle class in the first place; organized labor.

    In solidarity….

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