SEIU and others are embracing the movement that has succeeded as they have faded
Unions are in a death spiral. Private sector unionism has all but vanished, accounting for a measly 6.9 percent of the workforce. Public sector workers are being hammered by government cutbacks and hostile media that blame teachers, nurses and firefighters for budget crises. To counter this trend organized labor banked on creating more hospitable organizing conditions by contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the Democratic Party the last two election cycles. In return Obama abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made union campaigns marginally easier, failed to push for an increase in the minimum wage, and installed an education secretary who attacks teachers and public education.
The Obama administration’s dismal record on labor issues has been compounded by the rise of the Tea Party movement, which portrays unions as public enemy No. 1, and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the political floodgates to corporate money. By last year, organized labor realized that its days were numbered unless it took a different approach.
So it went back to basics. Across the country unions threw resources into community organizing, aiming to build a broad-based constituency outside of the workplace for progressive politics. In cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., newly formed community groups found ready support for organizing around issues of economic justice, but they were stymied by a national debate dominated by voices blaming government spending for an economic crisis caused by Wall Street.
Occupy Wall Street changed that. It flipped the debate from austerity to inequality, uncorked a wellspring of creative energy and started taking creative risks that unions typically shun. Within weeks unions adopted the 99 percent versus the 1 percent and started organizing actions under the Occupy banner. One labor leader said “the Occupy movement has changed unions’” messaging and ability to mobilize members. Union-affiliated organizers around the country say it has helped workers win better contracts and bolstered labor reformers.