In an interview on Alternet, longtime labor organizer Stephen Lerner, one of the forces behind SEIU's nationwide Justice for Janitors campaign, which successfully organized the traditionally unorganizable—part-time, subcontracted, often undocumented workers—talks about the importance of the Occupy movement as an independent force, free from the constraints of labor's economic and historic relationships:
When I stress that this is the importance of Occupy, it's not a criticism of unions to say that they live in the real world. That's part of unions' strength, and they're winning real benefits and protecting members. That's why we need something like Occupy that can do the things that unions haven't been able to do in recent years.
You know, when you look back to the first organizing of the CIO, the sit-down strikes, they partly were able to do that because they had nothing to lose. It's hard to imagine unions taking a similar level of risk right now because the very success of unions means that there are pension funds and buildings and assets to protect and a legal system that has dramatic penalties if campaigns have a real economic impact on corporations.
So what's incredibly exciting is to go from the theory—there's so many problems in the country, so many people are dissatisfied with what we have that we need something new, and it wouldn't look like what we currently had. I guess you could say Occupy is sort of theory and practice meeting.
It's a fascinating read that highlights some of the successes and failures of the labor movement in recent decades, while shedding light on why the Occupy movement, as inchoate as it sometimes is, inspires and excites so many progressive activists. It also gives lie to the right-wing accusation that unions are somehow trying to co-opt the Occupy movement. That's the last thing organized labor would want to do, as Occupy's independence is exactly what gives it the freedom to be so effective.