NYT on How Unions Are Learning From Occupy Wall Street

The New York Times reports on how the American labor movement, whose membership and power have crumbled over the last few decades, is getting something of a second wind from the Occupy Wall Street protests.

The picture I get from this report by Steven Greenhouse, one of the few labor beat reporters left in the mainstream press (props, NYT), is one of a stodgy movement finally letting the “kids” in and modernizing. You can walk around in circles in a police pen in front of headquarters like you’ve done for decades, or you can grab attention some other way.

Unions have long stuck to traditional tactics like picketing. But inspired by the Occupy protests, labor leaders are talking increasingly of mobilizing the rank and file and trying to flex their muscles through large, boisterous marches, including nationwide marches planned for Nov. 17.

Greenhouse reports that unions are using social media like Twitter “much more aggressively after seeing how the Occupy protesters have used those services to mobilize support by immediately transmitting photos and videos of marches, tear-gassing and arrests.”

And organized labor is co-opting Occupy’s slogan contrasting the 99 percent and the top 1 percent, which has crystallized the issues of inequality, both of income and power, in a way nothing has in generations.

Indeed, as part of its contract battle with Verizon, the communications workers’ union has began asserting in its picket signs that Verizon and its highly paid chief executive are part of the 1 percent, while the Verizon workers who face demands for concessions are part of the 99 percent. A dozen Verizon workers plan to begin walking from Albany to Manhattan on Thursday in a “March for the 99 percent.”

The contrast between how Big Labor reacted to the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and how it’s embracing Occupy today is intriguing.

Again this is very early, and Greenhouse is good to note that all is not smooth between the two camps, but this story is one worth watching.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,