Organized labor’s early flirtation with Occupy Wall Street is starting to get serious.
Union leaders, who were initially cautious in embracing the Occupy movement, have in recent weeks showered the protesters with help — tents, air mattresses, propane heaters and tons of food. The protesters, for their part, have joined in union marches and picket lines across the nation. About 100 protesters from Occupy Wall Street are expected to join a Teamsters picket line at the Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan on Wednesday night to back the union in a bitter contract fight.
Labor unions, marveling at how the protesters have fired up the public on traditional labor issues like income inequality, are also starting to embrace some of the bold tactics and social media skills of the Occupy movement.
Last Wednesday, a union transit worker and a retired Teamster were arrested for civil disobedience inside Sotheby’s after sneaking through the entrance to harangue those attending an auction — echoing the lunchtime ruckus that Occupy Wall Street protesters caused weeks earlier at two well-known Manhattan restaurants owned by Danny Meyer, a Sotheby’s board member.
Organized labor’s public relations staff is also using Twitter, Tumblr and other social media 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. The Teamsters, for example, have beefed up their daily blog and posted many more photos of their battles with BMW, US Foods and Sotheby’s on Facebook and Twitter.
“The Occupy movement has changed unions,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “You’re seeing a lot more unions wanting to be aggressive in their messaging and their activity. You’ll see more unions on the street, wanting to tap into the energy of Occupy Wall Street.”
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.
Organized labor is also seizing on the simplicity of the Occupy movement’s message, which criticizes the great wealth of the top 1 percent of Americans compared with the economic struggles of much of the bottom 99 percent.
A memo that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. sent out last week recommended that unions use the Occupy message about inequality and the 99 percent far more in their communications with members, employers and voters.
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.”
“We think the Occupy movement has given voice to something very basic about what’s going on in our country right now,” said Damon Silvers, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s policy director. “The fact that they’ve figured out certain concepts and language for doing that, we think is really important and positive.”
Over the last month, unions have provided extensive support to Occupy protesters around the country, from rain ponchos to cash donations. National Nurses United is providing staff members for first-aid tables at many encampments, while the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s headquarters two blocks from the White House is providing shower facilities for the protesters occupying McPherson Square, 300 yards to the east.
Unions have also intervened with politicians on behalf of the protesters. In Los Angeles, labor leaders have repeatedly lobbied Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa not to evict the protesters. When New York City officials were threatening to evict the Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park, hundreds of union members showed up before daybreak to discourage any eviction, and the city backed down.
Like any relationship, however, the one between the Occupy movement and labor is complicated.
Dozens of Occupy protesters have joined union members to picket the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and Verizon offices in Washington, Buffalo and Boston. (A Verizon spokesman said the Occupy protesters “do not have the benefit of any information about the Verizon issues except what they’ve been told by the union, which is obviously one-sided and most likely inaccurate.”)
In New York, the Occupy protesters have joined the Teamsters in their attacks on Sotheby’s. The art auction house locked out 43 Teamster art handlers on July 29, after the union balked at its demands for sizable concessions.
In addition to the lunchtime protest at the Danny Meyer restaurants, Occupy protesters also joined recent picketing against Sotheby’s outside the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Diana Phillips, a Sotheby’s spokeswoman, said the company had offered a fair contract and “is unwilling to accept demands that virtually double the cost of their contract.”
Arthur Brown, a mental health worker who is one of the founders of Occupy Buffalo, where 50 people camp out each night, said the Occupy movement badly needed labor’s backing if it is to change the nation’s policies and politics.
“Young people started this movement, but they can’t finish it,” Mr. Brown said. “They don’t have the capacity or the experience to finish it. We really need the working class and union folks, the older folks, the activists from the ’60s. ’70s and ’80s, to help make this a full-fledged movement that will change the political landscape of America.”
But some Occupy protesters worry that organized labor might seek to co-opt them.
Jake Lowry, a 21-year-old college student and an Occupy participant, said: “We’re glad to have unions endorse us, but we can’t formally endorse them. We’re an autonomous group and it’s important to keep our autonomy.”
George Gresham, president of 1199 S.E.I.U., a union that represents more than 300,000 health care workers in the Northeast, said his union wanted to help the Occupy movement amplify its voice.
“This is a dream come true for us to have these young people speaking out about what’s been happening to working people,” Mr. Gresham said. His union has offered to provide 500 flu shots and a week’s worth of meals for the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
María Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said it remained to be seen whether the unions and the protesters could, by working together, achieve concrete change.
“Workers are with the Occupy movement on the broader issues; they’re with them on the issue of inequality,” she said. “The question is, can the labor movement or the Occupy movement move that message down to the workplace, where workers confront low wages, low benefits and little power? Can we use it to organize workers where it really matters, in the workplace, to help their everyday life?”