Two interesting things happened in the last week concerning the #occupywallstreet protest, which is that the traditional unions came in to join and, on the national stage, counter-protests such as #iamthe53 have emerged. I found them interesting because they may yet, in their wrongness, provide cohesion to what is as yet growing as a bona fide grassroots – if woefully inarticulate – movement.
The unions that joined in the protests downtown last Wednesday, for instance, soon discovered that they don’t look very much like the protestors at all. Namely, the protestors are young and the union guys are… not.
“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.”
I was laid off two weeks ago – my last day was this previous Friday – from a union position. Now, DC37 is not a particularly strong union, as it’s spread a mile wide and an inch deep, but it also suffers from the problems that stronger unions like the UFT and TWU local 100 suffer from. To quote one commenter on the NYTimes article,
I’ve been in a teacher’s union for the last ten years and I can tell you why the unions haven’t been able to get young people excited – because the leaders at the unions are making deals that sell the younger generations out in order to keep their privileges.
Pensions, benefits guarantees and job security for older union members despite universal cuts (the NYCDoE had to eat a 2.5% budget cut – or around $150 million) came on the shoulders of the lower ranked staff, who do not get those same benefits and, according to contracts in place, never will. When the debates with the city forces public unions to make concessions, all the concessions are felt solely by the younger staff. That means that, for someone starting out, the unions – which are ostensibly in place to defend workers – have effectively become yet another layer of management. Personally, I’ve paid union dues for three and a half years and have explicitly received no representation, nor, thanks to their current system, have I been able to accrue seniority.
So it’s with a bit of sour grapes that I watched the unions join the festivities with less than total camaraderie. With that friction, perhaps, will come by necessity a specific message, as this movement grows and coalesces.
The other bit is the backlash against the “we are the 99%” message, which has been this “we are the 53%,” which is the percentage of Americans whose incomes are enough to warrant federal income taxes. Basically, their message is “yeah, my life may be hard, but through hard work I’ve managed to make a living, so quit your bitching.”
Here’s the problem, though: Yes, the protestors are having trouble embodying their plight, and have not been especially great at explaining their views, but they’re kinda right. However much the protests now look like a circus, and however much the Tea Partiers of the mid-term elections looked like, well, idiots, that doesn’t stop the fact that things aren’t as they’re supposed to be, and the anger and frustration expressed by these people is quite real.
Specifically, We’ve now had a decade where median incomes have dropped. Not “dropped” adjusted for inflation, but dropped. That hasn’t happened since the Great Depression. Further, the only folks whose incomes have gone up are all in the top 5%. We have double-digit unemployment in a time when we’re seeing world record corporate profits, the jobs available actually pay less than they used to, and while the incomes of the top 5% have gone up, their tax burden has actually gone down. This is the new Gilded Age.
These working- and middle-class people are still making do? Congratulations: Good for them. That’s not easy to do. But, quite frankly, it should never have been as hard as it’s been made to be, and a lot of people – despite their hard work and good decisions – are simply not making it. It took me six years of being flat broke to pay off college, I’ve had to switch my career twice because the first two industries have effectively collapsed, and I’ve been laid off twice in the last four years during wholesale workforce reductions. This “lost decade” has been my twenties, and I want them back. Even then, I know that I’ll still muddle through, and I’m in a better position than a lot of people. It ain’t easy at all – in fact, it’s pretty fucking hard – which is why I’m shocked that such folks, being in and out of poverty themselves, still insist on blaming poverty on the poor.
This insipid and short-sighted “I got mine; fuck you” backlash is exactly what I expected when the protestors downtown couldn’t stay on message. That being said, their opposing argument may yet force a more finely honed set of demands from the protestors downtown and their compatriots around the country.