United States: Occupy wake-up call caps remarkable year

Trade unionists join Occupy Wall Street.

[For more on the #Occupy movement, click here.]

By Jane Slaughter

December 30, 2011 -- Labor Notes -- It’s been an exhilarating year. Crowds of people finally moved into resistance after decades of misrule.

The year began with Egypt, moved quickly to the snowy streets of Wisconsin, and re-erupted in August with Verizon workers out on strike and longshore unionists in Washington state dumping scab grain onto railroad tracks.

What no one could have predicted was that a relatively small number of young people at Occupy Wall Street would touch off a wave of imitators across the country, from Detroit to Abilene.

November’s electoral victory in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich’s anti-union bill went down to sound defeat, capped off a remarkable year for US workers.

The pervasive resonance of the “We are the 99%” message forced even a complacent media to begin reporting on the soaring inequality—in income, in taxes, in wealth, in power—that has worsened most Americans’ lives for more than three decades.

The new-found energy is rejuvenating, making it easy to forget that we haven’t won most of these battles yet. Our side is now fighting, but the other side is still on offense. The continuing strife in Egypt reminds us of the staying power it takes to transform a society. No one knows what will become of the Occupy movement, though its message is sure to persist.

Still, we’re way ahead of where we were this time last year. It’s heartening to see the welcoming reaction of union leaders and members to the Occupy movement. Likewise for the willingness of Occupiers to work with unions—institutions they had good reason to see as hidebound.

Learning from Occupy

It’s ironic that for years unions have been saying many of the same things as the Occupiers but Occupy captured the public imagination and unions haven’t.

Unions are far larger than the Occupy assemblies, with members who are more strategically located to wield power. So why did Occupy take off?

1. The Occupiers chose a bold tactic, symbolically seizing Wall Street, the symbol of the 1%. Unions seldom even strike anymore, much less force themselves into the public eye. In 2010 we saw only 11 strikes of more than 1000 workers.

In the 1970s, in contrast, there were 269 big strikes a year.

To see what a workplace occupation might do for the labour movement, we have only to remember the Republic Windows workers’ occupation of their Chicago factory in December 2008. That small group not only won their demand but gained admiration nationwide.

2. The Occupiers have a better slogan.

For the last 20 years unions have insistently defended the middle class, by which is meant workers with middle incomes.

The 99% slogan captures far better the idea that we have an unrighteous enemy. Naming the 1% points to the pinnacle of the economy. Harping on “the middle class” just says that union members differentiate themselves from the poor.

3. A crucial aspect of movement building is defining the enemy. Occupy’s slogan evokes class hatred. The notion of a 1% says a tiny oligarchy has killed democracy.

Many unions, in contrast, spent the 1980s and 1990s trapped in cooperation plans and partnership with employers. If the employers were our partners, who was it that was downsizing, globalising, speeding up, demanding concessions?

Unions are still sometimes weakened by the futile desire for partnership with their adversaries. United Auto Workers president Bob King recently wrote: “The UAW is fundamentally a moderate, pragmatic and socially responsible player in the dialogue.” Who is that supposed to inspire, the 1% or the 99ers?

4. If you want to get the attention of the powers that be, you have to throw sand in the gears.

We shouldn’t forget how important order and control are to governments and corporations. They must show they’re in control even when it comes to who’s sleeping where. That’s why the defiance implied by the park encampments had to be crushed.

In the US labour movement’s own biggest uprising in years, in Wisconsin last winter, most of the action was rallies. Some attracted more than 100,000 people—a monumental showing. But they didn’t impede business as usual: profit making and the functions of government.

Members and supporters were mobilised as never before, and the answer to the question “What next?” was “recall Republicans”.

The labour movement needs to relearn an old lesson: We make progress when we disrupt business as usual. It will take risk and sacrifice—not necessarily sleeping out in the cold, but the risk of losing the “middle-class” respectability that our leaders have grown so fond of.

From Wukan to Wall Street - A Democratic Socialist Year in Review

by Billy Wharton co-chair Socialist Party USA

2011 ended just as it began – with mass protests against a deeply authoritarian regime. This time it was in the Chinese village of Wukan a place that had once been a “showcase of growth and harmony,” but is now transformed into the center of protests against inequality and political corruption. A Chinese official sent to quell the protests caused by the dissident villagers described the mood, “the public's awareness of democracy, equality and rights is constantly strengthening, and their corresponding demands are growing.” What a perfect summary of the spirit of 2011, a year when people all over the world began to realize their collective strength and ability to change the course of history.

Not surprisingly, 2011 was a great year for the Socialist Party USA. Our organization has grown over the past year. Even better, we have grown in a healthy manner by adding new members who are interested in spreading the message of democratic socialism and new locals in areas where there were none before. Places like Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and in various parts of California all now have fledgling socialist locals. This is a signal that the long hard winter of left-wing political organizing in the United States may finally be ending. And nothing helped to thaw the ice more than Occupy.

Occupy Wall Street connected Americans with the wave of protests taking place across the globe. It has been a collective eruption of the pent up anger and frustration building at the base of our society. Chants of “We are the 99% (and so are you)” and “Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out,” resonated with millions of people who had seen their homes, their jobs and their futures destroyed by yet another capitalist economic crisis.

Socialist Party USA members have been involved in Occupy from the start. We were there on the first day in Downtown Manhattan and we led one of the first break away marches toward Wall Street. We were there on the Brooklyn Bridge facing down the police and joining 700 others in going to jail for a movement. We have also participated in countless hours of organizing meetings and political discussion. And we have participated in nearly every other Occupy action at locations throughout the country.

We intend to be builders of this movement – broadening it, inviting more poor and working class people in and lending our organizing expertise to Occupy. Simultaneously, we offer our vision of democratic socialism in order to create a society based on peace, solidarity and justice.

2012 promises to be an even more exciting year for socialists. We will continue our positive work with the Occupy movement. As the capitalist economic crisis produces even deeper negative effects on working people, OWS may grow even stronger. We welcome the return of protest politics to the American political landscape. We want to extend the use of non-violent civil disobedience. We want broaden the challenges to the top 1%. We can make history in 2012, transforming it from the “year of the protester” to the year of democratic revolution.

We also have an exciting electoral campaign to wage in 2012 that will challenge the two ruling parties of the system. In addition to our local candidates for office, Stewart Alexander from California and Alex Mendoza from Texas are our Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates. They will draw on the long tradition of socialist presidential campaigns such as those of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas while rooting their message in the growing present-day desire for jobs for all, healthcare for all and an end to stranglehold of the Military Industrial Complex. Alexander/Mendoza 2012 will be a campaign of real hope, a place that offers a few answers to the question of whether another world is possible.

Socialists have the “patient impatience” that Dr. Martin Luther King once spoke about in relation to the Civil Rights movement. We are patiently growing our organization and, in the process, working to strengthen the movements we are engaged in. Yet, we also feel the impatience for change expressed by the Wukan protests, by those engaged in last year’s Arab Spring and by the Occupy protests.

We hope that 2012 will be our year to help to place democratic socialism where it belongs – as the preferred political choice for poor and working class people.

If you are already a member, I ask you to continue to expand our message – organize locally in the name of the Socialist Party, help build a local Occupy movement and encourage others to Vote Socialist in 2012. If you are not organized, but are interested, I encourage you to contact us and learn more about the positive possibilities and history of democratic socialism.

Working together, we can transform this country from a playground for the 1% to a healthy, productive society that operates democratically.