- - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Labor’s alliance with the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement takes another step Thursday as the two groups join in pro-jobs rallies. It’s a courtship that is simultaneously understandable, risky and perhaps a little disappointing.

The effort by unions to lend support makes sense on several levels. Labor can supply much-needed organizational help and discipline. Meanwhile, the OWS demonstrations have characteristics that labor can use, such as enthusiasm, youth, imagination, popular appeal and numbers.

Just as important, despite their spontaneity and potpourri of messages, the OWS protests essentially revolve around the problem of growing economic inequality, and the fact that those who caused the financial meltdown are doing just fine, while working people who had nothing to do with it bear the consequences as they struggle financially.

That said, the partnership poses some potential dangers for labor. To understand this, keep in mind that a core feature of the American labor movement is that it has bought into the system. Unlike its revolutionary compatriots in several European countries, including France and Italy, it does not seek to overthrow or even radically alter the economic or political status quo.

Rather, U.S. labor aims to expand the existing system by bringing more people into the middle class. It seeks to divide the pie into more parts, not demolish it, so more people enjoy the benefits.

Because the OWS movement is a work in progress, it’s unclear to what extent it shares this approach or these objectives. Moreover, some individuals at the rallies have used inflammatory language or engaged in violence.

By linking arms, labor stands to benefit from the excitement generated by the OWS movement and the popularity it has attained, particularly among the young - where labor has had difficulty making inroads. At the same time, unions face guilt by association - fairly or unfairly - if things spiral out of control at these protests.

Now, why would I apply the word “disappointing” to labor’s involvement?

While some observers have described labor’s support as an effort to capitalize on the enthusiasm and energy of the protesters, that captures only part of the reason. A major achievement of the rallies, and the primary lure for the labor movement, has been their success in focusing attention on the growing inequality in this country, a trend with troubling implications for our economic and political systems.

The rising gap between the rich and everyone else, the skyrocketing salary differential between CEOs and those who work for them, the growing concentration of wealth, threaten the survival of a vibrant middle class that long has helped define the United States and that sets us apart from other nations - and whose very existence owes much to the decades-long work of the American labor movement.

And yet, it took Occupy Wall Street protests to make this inequality part of the national dialogue, offering a counterweight to the tea party emphasis on less government and lower taxes. The OWS demonstrators also have focused attention on the extent to which students, military veterans, the unemployed, homeless and others are struggling while those who brought America to the brink are once again getting their extravagant bonuses.

Economic inequality, until recently the province of academics or liberal economists, has now entered the popular lexicon. And so it’s understandable that labor wants to be involved with a movement that has managed to disseminate this message and to influence public opinion.

But this raises the following question: Why hasn’t the 15-million-member labor movement been the one shaping the national dialogue around these issues? Doesn’t the fight against economic inequality represent the very essence of what labor is all about?

Indeed, unions work every day to expand the middle class and provide working people with a decent standard of living. It’s not an easy task, especially in this economic and political environment, but trade unionists push ahead, and they sometimes make progress. So why did it take a ragtag group of protestors to communicate the message about economic inequality to the public?

The current leadership of the labor movement is aggressive, creative and cognizant of the need to more effectively get the word out and show people that labor is as relevant as ever - and that can’t come too soon.

*Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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