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Union members & Occupy Wall Street: Two interviews

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Organizing Upgrade interviewed two New York union members about their experiences working with Occupy Wall Street.

Organizing Upgrade interviewed two New York union members about their experiences working with Occupy Wall Street.

Interview with David Martinez, art handler and mover at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City, and member of Teamsters Local 804.

Sotheby’s workers were locked-out from their jobs at Sotheby’s in August 2011, just before Occupy Wall Street began. Throughout the fall, a group of supporters and Occupy activists got involved in activities to support the locked-out workers. Unfortunately, the lock-out continues.

To help the Sotheby’s workers in their campaign, visit

How long have you worked at Sotheby’s?

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This is an easy one: 20 years.

How did you get active in the union?

Well, I worked there for 10 years before I really got involved in the union. The first 10 years were pretty bad. First, I never ever saw any union representative.  I think the most I ever saw of the Local was a leaflet laying in a break room promoting the incumbent’s re-election for office. It was hilarious, they looked like the cast of the Sopranos!

All I heard around the shop was that they were useless. No one in the shop really talked or acted “union.” I finally became aware that there was a steward, but just what he did or was supposed to do was a mystery to me. It seemed that a few of the older guys had some contact with the Local (because they had previously been on bargaining committees) but whatever they knew they kept to themselves. There was no transparency whatsoever. What they knew about the Local, or about the politics of the Union or even about how to behave like a union member, if they really knew anything at all, they kept to themselves. In other words, there was no union leadership within the shop. The type of “unionism” you’d get is; “you don’t like it, read your contract and see what it’s got to say about that.”

And of course no contract was readily available. I could go on. I think you get the point. I think that it all became pretty apparent to me actually how bad things were when we ended up voting in a pretty disastrous contract. This is when we had pretty serious tiers integrated into the collective bargaining agreement. The bargaining committee sat in front of the members and pretty much said, “well, this doesn’t affect us so we don’t care, and if you don’t like it go ahead and vote it down, but we are voting for it.” Imagine that! That’s when I fully realized that our so called “leaders” didn’t care and didn’t have a plan. They just wanted to make it to retirement. To be fair, probably not everyone felt that way, but it really didn’t matter because that was the sentiment that won the day. Furthermore, there was no plan at all other than to vote it in, and the Local certainly wasn’t doing anything other than sitting there and watching us implode. As a younger member (I was in my 30’s when this happened) I really expected these older guys, guys who had been union members for 20-30 years, to show some leadership and present us with a plan. It didn’t happen. That’s when I realized that if anything constructive was going to happen it wasn’t gonna come from them.

I know you have been active in Occupy Wall Street, and bringing together OWS and the Sotheby’s campaign. How did that come about?

Well, when I first became aware of the occupation in the park I said to myself “that’s crazy, that’s never gonna work.”  I think a lot of people did, but as we all know now, and fortunately, we were wrong. Those early occupiers deserve a lot of credit. No matter what you have to believe that you can affect change and stick with it. It’s kinda like the contemporary situation in union movement in that way. When we were building up our Local we always used to try to boost our confidence by paraphrasing that cheesy line from Field of Dreams. “If we build it they will come.” We’d say. Well, it’s true, and come to the park they did. Once you came to Zuccotti the energy and enthusiasm was undeniable. All we really had to do was tell our story. It’s a pretty good story you gotta admit. I doesn’t take too much imagination to figure that the Sotheby’s lockout is pretty much the emblematic struggle between the 99% and the 1%. What was really needed was some education about exactly who Sotheby’s is, what they do, and who exactly their clientele are. A lot of people know the name, but they aren’t not clear about what they do, they just know it has something to do with rich people.  So that took some time. Then of course we got involved in the Labor Outreach working group.

Did your co-workers have any concerns about working with OWS? Have you been able to talk about broader OWS goals inside your union?

Well, none of our guys have really been “working” with them. I think that the activism and success of OWS is admired by members, and I think that we have tried to incorporate some of their methods. The “mic check” has certainly been embraced and enjoyed by members. And we certainly have more than a few members who were totally energized by OWS and became more involved in our struggle than they previously had.
Certainly the activists within the union are thinking this way, but I don’t think that the bigger picture has really trickled down in a big way to the members.

Right now we are focused on winning our current struggle, which is to get a good contract and get back to work. We have been preaching the need for solidarity to our members for the past several years, but they didn’t listen too hard. Well, here we are now and what we were saying has come to pass.

I believe that the lockout has truly provided the members with a very CLEAR first hand example of exactly how corporate America tries to run its agenda down the throats of working men and women. What each member does in his own head to connect the dots about this I and how it affects them as a human being and a union member I can’t say. But I’ll certainly be there to help them try to figure it out.

Do you feel that the space for political discussion and organizing has changed since the lockout? And since OWS? Can you say a bit about that?

Certainly OWS has opened up everything so that now we can have the larger political discussion.  And of course the lockout brings the whole importance of the Union home. I think before we were talking to deaf ears. Unfortunately, in life, I think that people are resistant to dealing with certain things (for example; their health, finances, etc..) until a crisis hits. Fortunately, we were as prepared as we could be for a “labor situation.” We had a strike fund in place, we had the Local on our side, the members were all well informed, etc.. I think that people just don’t believe it until it hits them in the face. I ‘m saying all this because, after this experience, I think that it won’t be so hard to get more members more actively involved. So, yes, the lockout has changed things in this regard.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the challenges of being a rank and file activist?

It’s a constant challenge! Anyone who ever gets an email from me is reminded of this. I’ve got that tagline at the end of my email: “two steps forward, one step back.” Well, that’s exactly what it’s like. You’d be surprised sometimes what you can achieve or what people are capable of when they are just given the chance. Those little victories are what keep you going. On the other hand, more often than not these victories are diminished. The reasons are many, but needless to say there is always some kind of minor setback. That tends to discourage some people. You have to always keep the larger picture in mind. Once you come to accept that that’s just how progress is made, it becomes easier.

Interview with Karen, rank-and-file activist in a New York city union.

How did you get active in the union?

I started working in 2004. In 2008 I read about major budget cuts in the city that would affect the services we provide and lead to layoffs. I got active with some coworkers trying to inform other coworkers of the upcoming cuts to mobilize a fight back plans.

How did you get active in Occupy Wall Street?

In 2008, I began to build outside alliances with the community which include students and community groups and other unions. Most of these allies I still have to this day. But back in 2010, a group called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts: student, labor, community, was formed.  This group of rank and file union members, student and community groups held several actions across the city. One action was an encampment at City Hall in June 2011 to bring attention to the drastic budget cuts that affected all social services and student tuition hikes and mass layoffs. This encampment lasted until the budget was eventually passed. In August 2011, there was a buzz on the internet about a similar encampment but this time it was going to be on Wall Street. Our group held several meetings on the topic of Occupy Wall Street. Because this was just a “call” from the Internet, there was a “wait and see attitude” about this event that was picking up momentum as the day grew closer. After seeing what happened that 1st night of the occupy movement, there wasn’t any doubt that this was the start of a “movement of awakening.”

Did your co-workers have any concerns about working with OWS? Have you been able to talk about broader OWS goals inside your union?

Most of the co-workers I spoke to at the time were aware of Occupy by the news media and could definitely identify with the Occupy message. Many wanted and did get involved. Even before our union officially endorsed Occupy.

Do you feel that the space for political discussion and organizing has changed since OWS?

Yes, it changed from being in the park and now those same conversations are still happening but in doors at the many different working groups of occupy.  The occupy movement has helped usher in a new layer of activists in the struggle with more grass roots solidarity.

What do you think is the potential for the future, in terms of OWS and the unions working together?

Yes, I do see a future of OWS and unions to continue working together. But I also see that as unions still seem to follow the same “script,” OWS is being more creative in their fight back tactics.  More rank and file union members will connect with OWS because of the “disconnect” with top-down union leadership format, which in my opinion can’t win any gains for workers.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the challenges of being a union member trying to do political work?

The greatest challenge is to educate, and then “energize” the rank and file members to see the bigger picture. To look beyond your own working conditions, or your own contract, and see the full on attack on ALL workers. Every gain that workers have won in the past: pensions, job security, a living wage, low health care cost are under attack. All social services that we all need to survive: affordable housing and low cost college tuitions ,even Medicare and social security are under attack. To win a war this big we need union members, the unemployed, under-employed, immigrants, undocumented, women, the LBGT community, we need the masses of workers all over the world to be just as focused as the 1% war of austerity on us, the 99%.