Unions and Occupy Wall Street face challenge of cooperation without cooptation

As unions and advocacy organizations offer more and more support to Occupy Wall Street (in that vein, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union has endorsed), reporters are focusing on the relationship between the more established groups and the new group of protesters.

The protests have grown as unions have added bodies and offered material support. Union leaders have also offered positive quote after positive quote. For instance:

“The way our society is now headed, it does not work for 99% of people, so when Occupy Wall Street started … they kept to it and they’ve been able to create a national conversation that we think should have been going on for years,” [United Federation of Teachers President Michael] Mulgrew said.

But some reporters are seeing frustration in such quotes. Rachel Weiner at the Washington Post‘s The Fix writes:

But at the American Dream Conference in Washington, D.C. this week, there was a noticeable hint of annoyance that these protests have gotten so much media attention while union marches have been largely ignored.

“We had 10,000 people march on Wall Street last year,” AFL-CIO executive director Arlene Holt-Baker told reporters. “We see this as a continuation in many ways, where these young people are stepping up.”

Now, whether that’s frustration is all in the tone, because the point is inarguable: Unions have been fighting to draw attention to Wall Street abuses for years, just as Occupy Wall Street is doing. That this could be the source of some frustration isn’t too surprising; Weiner just doesn’t really make the case for it. The New York Times‘ Steven Greenhouse and Cara Buckley do some actual reporting on this question:

Several union leaders complained that their own protests over the past two years had received little attention, though they had put far more people on the streets than Occupy Wall Street has. A labor rally in Washington last October drew more than 100,000 people, with little news media coverage.

Behind the scenes in recent days, union leaders have debated how to respond to Occupy Wall Street. In internal discussions, some voiced worries that if labor were perceived as trying to co-opt the movement, it might alienate the protesters and touch off a backlash.

Others said they were wary of being embarrassed by the far-left activists in the group who have repeatedly denounced the United States government.

Those paragraphs highlight a number of the complexities here. Unions have reason to be frustrated that their efforts—whether large rallies, lobby days that brought union members to Capitol Hill, or other advocacy—have been largely ignored. At the same time, if too much Occupy Wall Street coverage goes to unions, the original protesters have legitimate reason for frustration. (Though to the extent that the protesters don’t mostly offer spokespeople, it’s probably not a bad thing that reporters, who all too often quote the least articulate or most inflammatory person at any protest, have in unions an obvious place to go for quotes that carefully make clear the person quoted is not an Occupy Wall Street “leader” but also make the case for anger at Wall Street.)

It’s a delicate balance, and one complicated by the fact that when it comes to activism on the left, the media so often either ignores or portrays it in the worst possible light. Unions have resources and research and members, all of which can help to build up Occupy Wall Street. They also have a public presence that’s pretty well cemented into place, often in ways that make it difficult to avoid seeming stale, and an existing format for protest that, let’s face it, can feel stale no matter how passionately you believe in the cause. Occupy Wall Street is new and fresh and drawing attention for that—but sometimes in ways that are nearly guaranteed to draw skepticism and bad coverage from the media. The question is, is there a balance to be reached between unions and the protesters that will build up and spread the protests and awareness of the issues? If there is, will it change anything about how the media covers progressive activism? (I’m more optimistic about the former than the latter.)




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