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Anger, Frustration and Unrest:

05 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

"Inside Edge" Newsletter

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How Unions Factor in the “Occupy Wall Street” Protests

“The folks that control this country care about one thing… how the stock market goes what the bond market does… how the bonuses goes. We have a very simple strategy:

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

How do we bring down the stock market?
How do we bring down their bonuses?
How do we interfere with there ability to be rich?”

These words mean a lot in the United States with protests happening around the country. But what does this have to do with me (a former high level union official) providing you with an “inside edge” into union strategies and tactics. Let’s take a closer look.

The nation’s union leadership has always worked towards their goal of making big social issues part of the UNION AGENDA. The believe in capturing society’s mass anger and frustration, taking control of leadership and the direction of the causes, and riding out the wave as long as it benefits the union machine. In current times, it is the Occupy Wall Street protesters. These protesters are composed of thousands of young and energetic people who are protesting a system thatthey see as broken that have drawn the union into their movement. This series of protests has created the perfect storm for the union. They have found a target audience; ready for change, ready for a cause that promotes the “working man” to new levels. This built in audience is primed to replenish the union’s dwindling membership numbers.

This is a strategy that has been around as long as the unions have been in existence. In fact, this type of strategy stems from the core of the birth of unionism. Unionism was born out of an atmosphere ofa systematic unfairness on the part of management, society and governments. It was created out of a belief that these forces were insurmountable, thus creating the false indignation and righteous anger needed to motivate people into taking on the union cause, which was to bridge the gap between what they saw as the “haves” and the “have not’s”.

When I was a union official, we (union leadership) were consistently reaching out to social, religious and non-denominational organizations, grass roots groups, and college students. We set up long term policies to form lasting alliances with these groups to continuously tap into their resources while trying to predict when the next opportunity to reach out to the masses would take place. At the same time, we worked to create an environment where this frustration could take root. Anger and frustration are fundamental tools in the union arsenal. These are tools that the union relies on to motivate organizational growth.

Union strategists look all over the globe to help foster these types of movements. They form strategic alliances and sharpen their blades with the experiences and levels of expertise they acquire abroad.It is important to understand that the people who advise international union leadership and decide which movements to support and which hotspots (inside and outside the U.S.) fit their long-term goal of growth are not local low-level union officers. These union leaders are sophisticated and highly educated professionals who study global political and social unrest. The “tipping point” was the term we used when describing the moment when the so called “working class” people in the U.S. got to the point where they were so distrustful of the corporations and financial institutions that they would blindly set out to punish them. They would throw every grievance that they had into the pot. It was better to have a movement with this anger and frustration soloosely formed because it was easier to infiltrate and influence the movement where they could redirect the affected people into the union-organizing machine.

In the early 1990’s, unions set a course to globalize their influence and align themselves with unions across the globe with hopes of improving organizing efforts with pressure applied to multinational corporations in contract negotiations. This expansion would open up manyopportunities to attack the companies financially and logistically withthe goal of forcing management into caving to their demands. During this period, I was personally in the U.K., Mexico, Central America and South America working on union outreach programs while observing strategies on “cultural shifting” which was (and is) setting the atmosphere for mass dissatisfaction and disassociation with the “main stream power base” and finally, the denunciation of the local and/or national political systems.

The rise of the electronic age has changed the dynamics in which movements are measured. In the 1990’s, when the French unions shut down Paris, I witnessed how strategic meeting places were decided upon in a moments notice to avoid intervention from authorities. The unions created well-organized “cells” that supported the overall strategy. These cells were based on the “buddy system”, which could get the word out when needed. Today, communication systems are light years ahead of where they were then. It is not very hard for the union to get word out to millions of people with a few keystrokes without fear of exposing themselves to authorities.

The 1999 WTO Conference Protest (or as we called it, “the Battle in Seattle”) demonstrated not only how much the speed of communications were increasing to move mass amounts of people at an event, but how it was also opening the doors to coordinate information sharing on an international level in real time. This was also an eye-opener that showed the possibilities that technology would bring into present times.

Between 2000 and 2011, we have seen many “cultural shifting moments” (or mass movement moments) that union leadership has aligned themselves with. For example, unions have tied themselves to immigrationreform throughout the nation. In Los Angeles, there were over a half million people marching in the streets with the unions. They were not only participating but also actively promoting and directing the theme. Over the past 10 to 20 years, we have had many examples of unrest where unions have infiltrated events and manipulated them for their own use. Another example would be earlier this year where we started seeing protests in Egypt, Greece, England and Italy (and many more). American unions were there, “lending” their voice. U.S. unions have worked with labor unions in these countries and have been amazed at the speed and sophistication of how word spread of these protests, which have brought down governments. Here in the U.S. we had a mass protest in Wyoming (andin other parts of the country) as government leaders tried to regain control of their spending deficits. The similarities between all of these protests start with the participants who are mostly young people who feel disenfranchised, angry and feel no control over their own destiny. This is when something happens to start the “tipping point”. Many times it is the over reaction of authorities towards the protesters.

When I was watching the first day of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I witnessed this over reaction on the part of the authorities.Protesters were sprayed with mace. I began thing that that would be the “tipping point” moment for this protests and the start of something bigger. With all of the social media at the fingertips of these protesters, it is no wonder this movement has grown at lightning speed all over the country. I recently spoke to a contact inside the AFL/CIO. She told me that supporting and helping to “direct” the Occupy Wall Street protest is currently viewed as a “great bargaining tool for the union” and that it would put them in solidarity with the next generationof workers. It was her feeling that this type of movement could change the perception of unions as being obsolete (a relic of the past). This was evident over this past weekend when thousands of union supporters showed up to march with the protesters. The union was met with chants of “Here comes the cavalry!” in a showing of gratitude to the unions.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a perfect storm for the unions. They will bleed it for everything they can. They are fighting a common enemy together. Corporate and financial institutions are an easy target right now. They are already most likely recruiting protest leaders into the union system. I did the same thing at the WTO protest in Seattle as well as at many other events across the country.

The union has benefited from anger and angst since the days of Coxey’s Army, which was a march and protest on Washington D.C. of the unemployed in 1894, to today’s Occupy Wall Street protests. Remember that quote at the start of this article?

“The folks that control this country care about one thing… how the stock market goes what the bond market does… how the bonuses goes. We have a very simple strategy:
How do we bring down the stock market?
How do we bring down their bonuses?
How do we interfere with there ability to be rich?”

This quote wasn’t from the days of Coxey’s Army and it wasn’t from a protest leader in the Occupy Wall Street protests. It was from Steve Lerner (SEIU Union Official). He said this in 2010 – well before anyone was organized to “Occupy Wall Street.”

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