Carl Horowitz

‘Occupy Wall Street’ and dozens of similar protests around the nation were only the beginning. The Service Employees International Union, as much as any organization in or outside the ranks of organized labor, is making sure of it.

The SEIU these past several months has been playing a crucial behind-the-scenes role in transforming these rallies into the raw material for a new generation of activists. Through varied front groups, the union is taking its fight against banks, energy companies and other corporations to a new level, making sure elected officials not in its corner feel the SEIU’s wrath. These nonprofit organizations typically operate under benign-sounding tags such as “good jobs” and “a fair economy.” And they seem spontaneous to the naked eye. Yet they bear the hallmarks of SEIU stage management. And as their youthful leaders become more sophisticated and better networked, the union – and organized labor generally – may wind up a good deal more effective in the drive to place the U.S. economy under public control.

From almost the beginning, unions have been a driving force behind the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement and its manifold offshoots in the U.S. and Europe. Of course it didn’t seem that way. Those 24/7 campout appropriations of public space were part political protests, part upbeat communal gatherings. Far from being centrally-managed, the occupiers, especially the young adults, appeared as idealistic populists who found their voice. And in the process, they were helping the rest of us find our own. The wealthy, now redubbed the “1 percent,” too long had been lording everyone else – “the 99 percent.” Now their days were numbered. What started on September 17 in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park not far from the World Trade Center reconstruction site was now Ground Zero for a peaceful worldwide revolution against capitalist excess. The Democratic Party, in the pockets of Big Business almost as much as the Republicans, were too compromised. The real party of opposition could be found in the streets. So went the story.

Yet aside from the demonstrators’ appalling lack of grasp of financial markets and policy issues, their occupations were not as spontaneous as they looked. Political movements, by their very nature, require a tight network of leaders in order to press claims and win concessions. As a successful business requires organization, so does successful opposition to it. No doubt the occupiers were having fun. But some of them also were forging ties with seasoned activists on the Left to develop a long-range political program.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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