By Marc Dixon
“I AM NOT YOUR ATM,” “No Bonuses for Big Banks,” and “Wall Street: Never Again” were among the placards carried by the thousands of protesters participating in what was dubbed as the biggest anti-Wall Street demonstration in decades. It was the spring of 2010. Richard Trumka, the President of the AFL-CIO, the rally’s lead sponsor, said he wanted to force a “which-side-are-you-on” movement for politicians when it came to Wall Street Reform. An impressive showing for sure, it still lacked much political punch. Later that year in the run-up to the midterm elections, progressive organizations put 175,000 people on the Washington Mall to call for jobs and for more accountability from politicians. Labor, civil rights, and numerous other groups made impassioned claim after impassioned claim. Few listened. The rally paled in comparison to the attention surrounding the novel protest group on the right, the Tea Party, or even the Daily Show’s commercialized “Rally to Restore Sanity” a few weeks later.
For all the handwringing over OWS’s lack of organization and clear demands, or its countercultural image, it has already succeeded at getting the public and politicians to consider issues that progressive groups have struggled to get on the radar for decades. The subject of media fascination since mid-October—Time magazine’s U.S. story of the year—OWS has in some ways done the unthinkable. It has got people talking about inequality. The eviction of local Occupy camps across the country puts the movement at a crossroads. While unquestionably meaningful and even life-changing for many of its participants, OWS’s broader impact on the political landscape will depend on its ability to infuse existing social movement organizations, ones built for political mobilization, with the direct action impulse and potent call for change.
Talking About Inequality. Successful social movements are good at political communication. With a flair for the dramatic and some media savvy, they can call attention to issues that have been ignored or organized out of politics and give them new life. “We Are the 99 Percent” brought attention to inequality, its causes and consequences, and the failings of our society for the many with a clarity and oomph that other movements had consistently failed to muster. It resonated far beyond the sprawling Occupy camps (more than 1,400 cities had Occupy Together “Meetups” as of mid-December). News stories on inequality have spiked in recent months. Polling suggests the increasing salience of the income inequality issue for average Americans. Democratic politicians have slowly followed their lead, from growing support for a Robin Hood tax to more progressive stances on tax reform in the states. President Obama channeled some of this energy in a recent speech, even referring to the average income of the top 1 percent. The growing economic disparities at the center of much of the protest will no doubt figure into the 2012 election cycle.
This much is a godsend for organizations on the left. Of course OWS is bigger than our current electoral politics. That is the point after all. OWS and local Occupy movements have sought to create a space where people could work issues out on their own and envision a more inclusive, democratic process free of corporate influence. OWS’s consensus-based or horizontal model has drawn much criticism in part because it is so out of the ordinary, as it marks a departure from everyday organizational life that is hard to place in conventional political terms. If these criticisms tend to miss the extensive planning that went into the original site selection and occupation or the effective use of technology as an organizational resource in its own right, they do hit on a larger point. While people are fed up with politics as usual, it is still difficult for many to make sense of and engage alternative political forms like OWS, even while agreeing with many of the issues. With the occupation of already shrunken public spaces becoming increasingly difficult, questions about the broader accessibility of OWS and its relations with other social movements are all the more critical.
Which Way Forward? Loose coalitions of Occupy, labor and progressive groups like MoveOn.org are beginning to capitalize on the momentum when it comes to more familiar forms of political mobilization. Early returns are promising. “Take Back the Capitol” actions in early December put protesters in front of House and Senate members, hitting on concrete policy issues like the jobs bill. Fledgling union-Occupy alliances have witnessed labor increasingly adopt the language and more disruptive tactics of Occupy, provide resources to local encampments, and Occupy protesters join ongoing union pickets.
Over its long history, the labor movement has often benefitted from the spark of younger, more innovative social movements, but it has never been easy. The recent west coast port actions are instructive. The combination of one of the more militant local Occupy movements in Oakland and a progressive labor union with a proud history of solidarity actions in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) provides a best case scenario for far-reaching coalition work. Yet the mobilization by Occupy movements to shut down west coast ports, a key “economic apparatus of the 1 percent,” was met with resistance from ILWU leadership. Even for the more activist-inspired unions, the fears of liability for striking in breach of contract are significant. Unions’ embrace of disruptive tactics is hamstrung by highly restrictive labor laws. Moreover, the ILWU’s version of democratic process—members voting at a scheduled union meeting—did not align with the more flexible General Assembly model of Occupy.
Working across generations and distinct models of activism poses certain challenges and will take some time (and tense moments ahead) to get the kinks out. Yet, if history is any guide, even small changes in the direction of the younger innovators can have major consequences, both for unions and for progressive politics more generally. For labor leaders like Trumka, OWS and the public awakening to bread and butter issues like inequality has to be nothing short of amazing.