The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Occupy Wall Street:
The Unions Look to It for the 2012 Elections

Jan 26, 2012

November 15, eight weeks after beginning a camp in Zuccotti Park, the protestors of Occupy Wall Street were evicted by New York City police. Other Occupy encampments had already been cleared, including in Atlanta, San Diego, Nashville and Denver, following a particularly violent attack by police in Oakland, California. By the end of November when police swept through the camps in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Philadelphia, most of the camps in major cities had been closed down, including Detroit, Seattle and Portland, Oregon. Baltimore and San Francisco followed suit in mid-December. Occupy Chicago – even though active – had never been able to maintain a camp. Unlike many other Democratic mayors, who temporarily and cynically oozed “empathy” for the protestors, the city administration of Rahm Emanuel refused to allow a camp inside the city from the beginning. By the end of the year, Washington D.C. and Miami were among the few major cities where an Occupy camp continued.

The shutting down of the camps may have put an end to what many activists called “the first phase.” But it certainly did not eliminate Occupy as a political phenomenon. Some people who were active in the camps speak of taking a break in order to prepare an “American Spring” when the camps will be re-established. Others have been involved in more traditional style demonstrations and actions, aimed at a multitude of targets, often organized by already established organizations, such as the unions, left or community groups.

So the question is, where is the Occupy movement going – to the extent that we can speak of a single movement. There are large differences from one city to another; and a wide range of views, even diametrically opposed views, within a single city. There is no clear agreement, for example, over what role the unions should have in Occupy, or what attitude Occupy should have toward friendly Democratic politicians and toward the upcoming elections.

In any case, the apparatuses of many unions have certainly shown their intention to use whatever influence they might gain in Occupy to recruit forces for the 2012 Democratic Party election campaigns, especially that of Barack Obama.

Fresh Air in the Political Atmosphere

Springing to life, supposedly as the result of a proposal circulating through social media sites, roughly 2,000 people came down to Wall Street on September 17, with hundreds remaining that night in Zuccotti Park, “occupying” it.

In fact, there had been a foreshadowing of the take-over-Wall-Street idea last spring. New York City unions organized four marches in May and June, which flooded through the Wall Street area, blaming the big Wall Street banks for budget cuts to NYC schools, city services and the city workforce. The last June demonstration brought out 20,000 unionists and their allies, marching from Brooklyn across the bridge down into Wall Street. That was immediately followed by a three-week “occupation” of City Hall Park – called “Bloombergville,” in an ironic toast to NYC Mayor Bloomberg. And activists in Washington D.C., concerned with the wars, the problems of health care and the lack of jobs, had taken out a permit last summer for a permanent camp in a park in that city, to start on October 6.

In any case, the takeover of Zuccotti Park, especially after the mass October 1 arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge, served as a kind of beacon, from which the idea of “occupying” public areas rapidly spread to almost every major city in the country and to many medium size cities, as well as university cities and even a few small towns.

None of the camps were more than a few thousand at their height, and most, if we count essentially only the people who stayed in the camps, were not much more than some hundreds, and many were often less than that. But the very existence of the camps, and the assemblies associated with them, served as focal points for pulling tens of thousands into some actions. And the slogan that rapidly became the watchword of Occupy, “We are the 99%” – even if it was in fact inaccurate socially – spoke to resentment widespread in the population.

In an earlier time period, working people might have looked with distrust on a crusade like this – somewhat marginal, composed for the most part of young petty-bourgeois people. Not this time. Workers seemed to appreciate the fact that young people camped out in the middle of the cities, in seeming defiance of the authorities. Some have joined the demonstrations, and even a few, the camps. Denouncing the wealthy 1% and the banks, the Occupy activists touched a raw nerve.

Today, the richest 1% of the population get almost one quarter of the total income of the country, the biggest share since an earlier generation of Wall Street titans pocketed a similar amount in 1928. And the disproportionate hold on wealth is even greater. By 2009, the richest 1% owned 42% of the country’s financial wealth, while the bottom 80% owned only 7%. And the gap has been growing.

The springing up of Occupy reinforced and expressed the bitterness simmering in ordinary layers of the population about their worsening situation. And its rapid spread was a challenge to the decades-long demoralization oozing through the working class and other ordinary parts of the population.

For the first time in decades, the political atmosphere was not being shaped only by organizations like the Tea Party, whose populist rhetoric has always been a front for the very wealthy who fund it, using it to pull the middle classes and part of the working class in an openly reactionary direction. Instead, there were people in the center of all the cities, at the same time, under the Occupy name, with the same 99% slogan, denouncing the wealthy and the banks.

During the weeks the camps existed, thousands of people were arrested. Some were people who decided to be arrested, in order to make a kind of “civil disobedience” statement; for example, most of the 700 people arrested on October 1, on the Brooklyn Bridge. Some were arrested within the framework of an agreement with police or authorities allowing people to decide to be arrested; for example, many of those arrested in various cities in the bridge protests of November 17, or in October in Chicago. But there were also others, especially in Oakland, who faced a tough round up by the police, involving clubs, tear gas, and even rubber bullets. But however the arrests went down, those arrested drew wide moral support from ordinary layers of the population.

With the Camps Shut Down, Occupy Seems to Be Everywhere

As the camps were vacated, signs with the Occupy name began to appear in a much wider range of activities, aiming at more targets than in the first days. And that gave the sense that Occupy was continuing to grow.

In some cities, Occupy activists reinforced or added the Occupy name to actions carried out by groups who had been organizing legal activity and support for people trying to have their mortgage rewritten; for example, in Las Vegas, San Diego and Detroit. They joined in demonstrations at Welfare offices carried out by advocates for the poor and welfare rights organizations. In cities like Oakland or Atlanta, they joined with activists who had a history of protesting actions by the police. In Los Angeles, they joined with the AFL-CIO, SEIU and immigrant rights groups to protest actions taken by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). In Michigan, they caravanned with United Steel Workers members to support locked out workers in a Findlay Ohio Cooper Tires plant.

Some demonstrations seemed aimed mostly at keeping the Occupy name on the front of the stage; for example, Occupy activists joined in at the end of the nationally televised Pasadena Rose Parade – the preliminary for one of college football’s biggest bowl games.

Other actions shared a kind of “social worker” outlook, for example, working with the churches in several cities to provide Thanksgiving meals for the homeless or with social service activists to set up a free “health fair” in Washington D.C.

In some notable cases, Occupy activists carried out actions for people, in the name of those people, substituting themselves for the people involved. On the West Coast, for example, from Vancouver Canada down to San Diego, activists carried out several one-day demonstrations in November and December to block the entrance of the ports, with a range of signs supporting port workers and the ILWU, and denouncing globalization. The one-day demonstrations were symbolic, but they attracted attention and sympathy, particularly the first time, from many of the workers whose access to the port was blocked. However that may be, the Occupy activists did not take into account how people would react, much less how to engage them – other than handing some of them a leaflet telling them their port would be shut down, asking support for the Occupy protest. And there was some resentment among the port workers, particularly on the second one-day shutdown.

In some cases, like the “anti-commercialism” protests on the Friday following Thanksgiving, Occupy activists were outright contemptuous toward the “99%” they pretended to represent. In many cities, activists paraded through big chain stores like Wal-Mart, denouncing “commercialism,” bunching to clog the already long check-out lines – in the face of people who rush to the stores to get a chance at the big sales that are traditional that day.

Other actions picketed the headquarters of the politicians – especially Republican politicians, including at the places the Iowa caucuses were held, and earlier at a conference of conservative Republicans in Washington D.C. However, when it seemed that only Republicans were being targeted, Occupy Wall Street demonstrated in front of Democratic office-holders, for example, outside a Democratic Party $25,000 a plate fund-raiser for Wall Street’s high rollers in New York.

Congressional offices of both Democrats and Republicans were “occupied” in December in an action essentially organized by the unions and their liberal allies, but with support from Occupy activists. The “occupiers” stayed in Congressional offices until a representative talked to them or until the office closed.

In January came “occupy the court” – small demonstrations in Washington and in federal courts around the country – to protest the “Citizens United” decision. The Republican dominated Supreme Court had ruled in 2010 that since corporations are “persons” in the eyes of the law, there could be no more limits placed on their contributions to election campaigns than on the contributions of human “persons.” It’s a decision that the Democrats particularly worry about, since the Republicans ordinarily, but not always, get the bulk of corporate election money.

On a monthly basis, ever since mid-October, Occupy has called for demonstrations either in conjunction with the unions, or “coincidentally” on the same day that the unions had announced their intention to demonstrate. Generally, these were the biggest of the demonstrations, given the ability of the unions to provide troops. Over a hundred thousand people demonstrated across the country in November, for example. For these demonstrations, the unions made little attempt to call out the rank and file, but even with just their apparatuses, staff and some activists, they gave Occupy the appearance of a mass movement on those days.

A Movement without a Program, without Demands, and without Leaders

From the beginning in New York, Occupy groups declared that they had no program, other than the “process” itself, no demands to make on power, no leaders who represented them, no one who would speak for them.

In one sense, Occupy was doing nothing but giving a kind of expression to the anarchist views that many of its originators shared. And they were using much of the same very formal and restrictive rules of functioning – including elaborate hand signs – that had surfaced earlier in Spain in the movement of the Indignados. Decisions could be made in the assemblies or in the “groups” only by “consensus, ” that is, total agreement. (Given the interminable discussions, “consensus” soon became “modified consensus”: in some cities, 90% was enough to by pass an objection; in other cities it took only 66.7%.)

More basically, this insistence on no demands and no program was a reflection of the enormous heterogeneity of those attracted to Occupy. Even the first September demonstration brought together, as its “originators,” academic anarchists, “non-violent-passive-resistor” anarchists, hackers, anti-globalization activists, along with communists, trade unionists and student activists from Bloombergville, as well as people who had been to the protests in Spain. Soon added to that mélange were Libertarians and supporters of the extreme-right-wing and elitist Lyndon Larouche. There are people who had voted for Obama in 2008, but had been disappointed in him, along with those who saw no choice but to vote for him again in 2012, given how disgusting the Republicans are. There are students employed by the Ron Paul campaign, and student activists paid as interns for the unions, many of whom were active in the college “sweatshop” campaigns. As more groups around the country began to declare themselves part of Occupy, some were organized in conjunction with local leftists, some with liberal organizations loosely linked to the Democratic Party, like Action Now, or Rebuild the Dream, or even Move On, for example. Others, like some of those on the West Coast, included young people who styled themselves after the window-breaking anarchists of the WTO protests.

How could this mixed bag decide what should be the aim even of the demonstrations at the banks, for example? Should they demand that Congress resurrect the old banking regulations of the 1930s, or should they aim at getting rid of the Federal Reserve, or denounce the politicians who bailed out the banks – or simply denounce the banks? There might have been leftists in almost all the Occupy groups from the beginning, but Occupy itself was certainly not about to call in question the very capitalist system, of which the banks are an integral part.

In fact, given “consensus,” not to mention the insistence that Occupy has no program, issues like this were decided for Occupy, by people acting in its name. Thus Occupy DC issued a kind of program, “The 99% Deficit Proposal,” which essentially repeated, almost verbatim, all the propaganda liberal Democrats were making about the budget. It was introduced with an explanation that it did not represent the views of other Occupy groups, nor even of all the people active in Occupy Washington. Nonetheless, it was widely circulated as representing the views of Occupy. It was, for example, paid for as an ad in the papers by Occupy San Francisco.

Who would decide who spoke for Occupy – these groups that declared that they were “horizontal,” that they had no hierarchy? In the absence of a “hierarchy,” it seemed that anyone could.

In fact, very quickly, the various Occupys did develop a hierarchy – to the extent they didn’t start out with one. There may have been a rule that no one could “facilitate” – that is, chair – a meeting two times in a row. But there quickly developed a “Facilitators Working Group” to decide before the assemblies, who would “facilitate,” what would come up, how to present it, etc. Later, for example, in New York, people from the Structure Working Group prepared a proposal to set up a “Spokes Council” that would regularly take over many of the “process” decisions from the General Assembly – including for example, what to do with the half a million dollars that had been donated to Occupy Wall Street. The “consensus” required to take the decision to set up the Spokes Council was arrived at in a relatively lightly attended general assembly on October 23, after similar proposals had been voted down several times before.

None of this is very extraordinary and wouldn’t even cause much of a raised eyebrow these days – except it highlights the cynicism behind all the talk about no program, no leaders, no hierarchy.

Of course, in a mass movement, there would be a wide range of views. But the only way for those views to be tested – as opposed to be talked about – would be for all those who have different programs, policies, proposals to stand for them openly under their own name, to carry them out under their own name, to confront different policies with each other.

But Occupy is not a mass movement. If there were a mass movement, people who wanted to control it against the interests of the forces active in it would act exactly the way Occupy has been set up now, with a way of functioning that serves to hide the real decision-making behind the scenes.

It’s this unclear situation and arcane way of functioning that allows the union apparatuses, structured as they are, to play a very big role in Occupy – and for purposes very different than those of many of the young people today drawn to Occupy.

Pretending to Be Little More than “Supporters”

At the beginning, the union leaderships took a back seat to the young people active in the camps and the assemblies, quietly offering financial help, donating food, supplies, tents, bringing in their troops for the occasional big demonstrations. They weren’t publicly at most of the activities, but their numbers at the big demonstrations with their jackets, hats, t-shirts, etc. gave them weight and influence – as did their student interns who became some of the most responsible people allowing the camps to function.

Many of the big demonstrations were papered with signs, prepared by the unions, calling for support for Democratic Party electoral propaganda. For example, along with two SEIU locals, “Good Jobs Better Baltimore” and “Move On,” Occupy Baltimore sponsored a march for jobs in November, which called on “Congress” to pass the “Rebuild American Jobs” bill – Obama’s bill, which Congressional Republicans had opposed. If implemented, that bill would have given more money to business than anything else. But given the title of the bill, and the Republicans’ refusal, the demonstration was little more than a ploy to embarrass the Republicans as people voting against jobs.

Certainly, there are people active in Occupy in different cities who very clearly express their distrust of both parties, and often their distrust of the union apparatuses for pulling activists into actions that lead people into next fall’s election campaign. Occupy Los Angeles, for example, issued a statement strongly critical of SEIU for trying to use the Occupy name for that purpose. (SEIU had paid for a number of Occupy Los Angeles activists to go to Washington, supposedly for an Occupy demonstration, but then pulled many of them into a conference organized by Take Back the Dream, in preparation of the elections.)

In general, however, the union leaders have been prudent not to call on Occupy openly to support the Democrats. Instead, they have been accumulating credit by supporting Occupy and by turning out forces for Occupy demonstrations, beefing up its numbers. And, as SEIU’s president, Mary Kay Henry did, many of them have presented themselves for arrest in an act of “civil disobedience” along with Occupy demonstrators.

The aim of the union leaderships is to use the credit they win to bring young people attracted to Occupy into the new ranks of Democratic party troops this coming spring – much as Move On was used in 2008 to attract disaffected young people, pulling them in as active troops on the ground for Obama’s election campaign.

It’s Necessary to Understand this Capitalist Society

Some young people have been attracted to Occupy. Moved by the glaring inequalities, outraged, wanting to change the situation they find themselves in, they have thrown themselves into activity.

To work to turn out the vote in another election campaign for one of the two big parties is exactly the opposite of changing anything. It is the old lesser evil argument that has diverted people for years and helped to produce the current horrible situation.

If there are people, young and not so young, who don’t agree with this, who don’t want to be maneuvered once again into activity that will turn back against them, it’s necessary to understand how this capitalist society really functions, the role the politicians play, the capitalist class they serve, the hold that class has today on all of society.

All the talk about no program, no demands, no political party is a way to hide from those questions.

On the contrary, these are the questions it’s absolutely necessary to deal with. It’s necessary to have a clear view of who does what in this capitalist society, of which class owns and controls, but also which class has the power to take control out of the capitalists’ hands and use it to build a new society.

It’s necessary to have a clear vision about what kind of society it is necessary to build. That society is one without profit. It is called a communist society.