Worker “Occupations”: A Promising New Protest Technique for Labor?

In These Times reports that workers in three states have recently staged “occupations” in an attempt to win concession employers. In Chicago, workers actually took over a factory; in Atlanta and West Virginia, they organized camp-outs near their workplaces. These occupations won some concessions from employers, but already a backlash is brewing. A bill in the Georgia state legislature “would ban picketing outside of the home of CEOs and give a company the right to ask a judge to force protesters—whether union or nonunion—to stop picketing outside of any business.”

One of the reasons the labor movement is so weak in this country is that labor law places very stringent limits on how unions and union supporters may engage in protests. Sit-down strikes and secondary boycotts are illegal, and there are limits on how unions may picket and what they can say while picketing. One reason those giant inflatable rats are so popular at picket lines is that they are one way of getting around those antiquated labor laws.

It’s notable that the recent worker occupations both met with success and managed not to run afoul of the law. It will be interesting to see if this technique spreads and what kind of impact it might have. But as the case in Georgia illustrates, many state legislatures are hostile to unions and are likely to move quickly to shut down such activities. It remains to be seen whether such bans would be upheld by the courts.

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Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee