Amid Possible Strike, D.C. Labor and Occupy Movements March Together

October 14, 2011

Published at Common Dreams and Socialist Worker.                  (Update: 32BJ Contract Settlement)

If Wall Street has become the symbolic nerve center for greed and inequality, its political traffic merges onto K Street, Washington DC’s Broadway for deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists.

Photo by Chris Garlock, Union City

But like Wall Street, K Street is now also home to activists who are fed up with a system that rewards the wealthy while delivering nothing but cuts to the rest of us. Part of the general Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread around the country, “Occupy DC” activists are camped out in MacPherson Square where they are working to replicate the kind of occupation that has rocked the streets of New York’s financial district for the last month.

This week, K Street was also part of a march route for building cleaners fighting for a fair contract. The workers – who are preparing for a possible strike in the coming days – marched shoulder to shoulder with Occupy DC protesters.

With their contract that was set to expire on October 15 at 12:01 a.m. – a deadline that has now been extended to October 17 – members of SEIU 32BJ have voted to strike if a settlement is not reached. The union and other labor groups assembled at a park near MacPherson Square on Wednesday where they were joined by Occupy DC and other occupying protesters in the city.

Chanting “Sí se puede” and “No contract, no peace,” close to 500 workers and their Occupy protest supporters marched in the rain through downtown donned in SEIU’s signature purple shirts and hats. Activists from MacPherson Square wore union-tagged parkas as they marched with a banner that read “Occupy DC.”

The nearly 12,000 office cleaners who have been in contract negotiations since early September are fighting for fair raises, reasonable workload standards, and more full-time jobs with benefits. A large majority of the predominately Latino workforce is forced to work part-time, bringing home poverty wages and almost no benefits. Some workers make as little as $9 an hour. Many are expected to do the same amount of work in four hours with half the number of staff than they had only a few years ago.

Meanwhile, DC’s commercial real estate sector is thriving, with one of the strongest markets in the nation. Cleaning companies in the Washington Service Contractors Association have been pushing back against workers who are demanding a contract that reflects the rising cost of living in the area. The companies claim that current wages and other terms agreed to in the 2007 contract were reasonable before the onset of the Great Recession from which they say the industry is still recovering.

But for 32BJ and its members, such claims are belied by the fact that building owners are enjoying their most profitable year since the economic crisis hit. According to the Washington Post, the chief executive of Boston Properties, one of the largest building owners in D.C., told analysts on a conference call in August that while the outlook for the economy in general “certainly doesn’t look promising…what is relatively good are the commercial office buildings in major cities.” One commercial real estate expert estimates that only 8 percent of operating costs for large building owners in D.C. goes toward cleaning services.

In other words, the large commercial building owners are not so different from the corporate titans and hedge fund managers on Wall Street sitting on $2 trillion while teachers are being laid off and the poor are being kicked off of public assistance. Occupy protesters and the workers of 32BJ are demanding their fair share from the wealthy minority at the top.

And the janitors’ fight extends far beyond Washington D.C. The struggle in the nation’s capital is part of a larger 32BJ contract battle that involves some 60,000 building cleaners from Connecticut to Virginia. As one of SEIU’s mega-locals, 32BJ affiliated with the national union as a result of the latter’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign in the 1990s.

At Wednesday’s protest, 32NJ Capitol Area Director Jaime Contreras affirmed that the workers are ready to strike if need be. He pointed to the rising cost of rent and transportation that workers face in the area and vowed to fight until a fair contract is won.

Speaking to the larger injustices that the janitors’ struggle symbolizes, Contreras reminded workers and the Occupy protesters at their side that CEO pay went up 21 percent in 2010.

“Something is wrong in America when one percent of the people own 33 percent of the wealth,” he said. “We’re not afraid of the bosses. We will fight to the end until we win a fair contract.”

Others to address the workers included Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights community organization, and Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO. City Councilmember Jim Graham spoke as well. He and the rest of the City Council have signed a pledge in support of the janitors.

The convergence of labor and the Occupy protesters at the action highlighted the fact that both groups are engaged in the same struggle. In broad terms, they are all fighting against economic inequality and a system that puts the priorities of profit above the needs of people.

And with the workers and activists linking arms, organized labor and Occupy protesters in the nation’s capital have an opportunity to put more muscle into the movement against corporate greed. Whether or not this solidarity can be sustained with the combination of labor and other left forces remains to be seen.

The wave of protest occupations against corporate greed that began on Wall Street has taken the country by storm. In cities across the U.S. masses of people are calling out Wall Street barons and the politicians in both parties who do their bidding. While the media and other establishment figures have at times been easily puzzled by the protesters’ purpose, the reason for this organized expression of rage couldn’t be more obvious.

People are coming together because workers and the poor – or “the 99 percent,” as protesters call themselves – are suffering the effects of an economic crisis created by the same parasitic class at the top that continues to enjoy the spoils of its class war against the rest of society. The accumulated anger produced by decades of class warfare against workers and the poor has found expression in this struggle – a struggle born in an age of bank bailouts, tax cuts for the rich, home foreclosures, union-busting, record unemployment, and merciless cuts to social spending.

That this movement has swept the country was not inevitable, but nor is it surprising. The support of the labor movement has undoubtedly helped attract wider layers of society into the struggle, including union members, the unemployed and the underemployed,

In New York, local unions like Transport Workers Union Local 100 and SEIU 1199 threw their weight behind the protests. Along with the sympathy generated by unprovoked police violence against Occupy protesters, high-profile endorsements at the national level from the AFL-CIO and others propelled the Occupy Wall Street movement onto the stage of national politics.

In Washington, DC, protesters have also received endorsements from a number of local unions. On Wednesday, the Occupy protesters marched to the National Labor Relations Board, calling for fairer labor laws, before joining Communication Workers of America (CWA) at a Verizon Wireless store – CWA members at Verizon are still stuck in contract negotiations with Verizon following their historic two-week strike on the east coast involving 45,000 workers back in August. The final stop for Occupy protesters on the labor march was the janitors’ protest. There, activists expressed solidarity with the workers and invited the workers to join them in their occupation.

This was an important step in the local Occupy movement. Following the tense scene in Manhattan this week that concluded with a victory against the threatened eviction of protesters in Zuccotti Park, a new jolt of energy and determination is fueling the movement in the lead-up to this weekend’s global day of action. In D.C. the day of action will include a massive march and rally for jobs and justice led by Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network, commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King at the site of the new national memorial built in his honor. The march promises to bring together labor, civil rights activists, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.   

Efforts to put the thrust of organized labor behind the Occupy struggle in D.C. in the longterm, however, are complicated by the fact that there are still two separate occupations in the city. One was planned months before the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged and began a few days after protesters in MacPherson Square – who are more directly tied to the Occupy Wall Street movement – started their occupation.

The hundreds who have been camping out in Freedom Plaza in what is called the “Stop the Machine” occupation present a longer list of issues and demands than Occupy DC protesters have raised, including anti-war and environmental justice demands. Both Stop the Machine in Freedom Plaza and Occupy DC in MacPherson Square have been mutually supportive of each other, but there are also signs of tension. Efforts on both ends to merge the two occupations have been met with resistance, especially in MacPherson Square.

This division has been a source of frustration for some who argue that it will be difficult for D.C. labor and other groups to unify with a struggle that is itself divided.

As Clara Castillo, a rank-and-file member of 32BJ said on Wednesday, “We are stronger united – that’s why we are here.”

That’s as true for the Occupy movement as it is for the janitors. The looming prospect of a walkout among janitors will be an important test for the local movement as the level of strike solidarity among protesters will help determine if broader forces can be brought into the struggle.

That solidarity would also underscore the need for unity among the protesters and the instrumental role that the organized working-class can play in the larger fight against the injustices trafficked by Wall Street and K Street.

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Related Plug :  OCCUPY THE HOOD!
This is a must-watch performance by Lupe Fiasco, performing with a Palestinian flag and an Occupy Wall Street t-shirt at the 2011 BET Hip-Hop Awards. It is another sign of the times and the radicalization taking place as class struggle heats up in the form of the Occupy movement – and to a level not seen in decades…

Radicalizing the mainstream in the era of #OWS

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About SubterraneanDispatcher

Brian Tierney is a longtime socialist activist who works as a communications specialist for a labor union in Washington, DC. After completing his undergraduate studies in International Affairs and Latin America Studies, he has been working in the labor movement and writing reports and analyses on various struggles for social and economic justice. In addition to reporting on protests in the DC area, he also writes about union struggles, immigrant rights, the fight to defend public education, and struggles of the poor and working class in general. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Nation, The Progressive, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Socialist Worker and The Neoprogressive. Brian can be reached via email at btier@yahoo.com.

Posted on October 15, 2011, in Austerity, Budget Cuts, Corporate Greed, Cronyism, D.C. Labor, Environmental Justice, Healthcare, Immigrant Rights, Labor Movement, Occupy, Plutocracy, U.S. Politics, Union Rights, Workers Rights. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The name of the movement is “Occupy TOGETHER” (emphasis added) – at least that’s the name of the central website. Yet, there are some who do not share the spirit of unity conveyed by the name. There are some who believe certain issues and groups should not be brought into the fold. Of course, there are forces that absolutely do not belong in this struggle, including libertarians who want no regulation of Wall Street (precisely the opposite of what this movement is about), or people with bigoted views who buy into the same oppressive politics (i.e. racism, anti-abortion, etc.) that the ruling one percent use to keep our side divided.

    But there are some in the movement who don’t think unions have a place in the OWS struggle. And still there are others who evidently think immigrant rights, LGBT rights and other anti-oppression issues should stay out. On the one hand, the suspicion toward mainstream liberal groups and union leadership is absolutely right. But, in the labor movement, there is a difference between the leadership and the rank-and-file. To assert that the latter as a collective is bad for the movement is utterly wrongheaded and counterproductive. It is based on a totally simplistic understanding of the labor movement and working-class politics in this country – and it’s rooted in an ahistorical perspective on movement-building. I believe that those who have such views are in the minority. But in certain places they are very vocal and they need to be challenged. For those who want to exclude issues of oppression, they lack any serious analysis of the interconnectedness of these issues and the overall system of exploitation and greed. Racism, sexism, homophobia – these are all weapons wielded to keep “the 99 percent” divided. We cannot mount an effective struggle against Wall Street, the banks, and the capitalist system as a whole without making the fight against the oppressive politics of the ruling class an integral part of that struggle.

    Occupy TOGETHER!

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