“Where’s the Fairness?” chanted about 300 striking Summit Medical Center nurses and other supporters on May 1 in front of Alta Bates Hospital on the Berkeley/Oakland, California border. This California Nurses Association (CNA) event was part of a string of events for the Occupy movement’s call for a May Day General Strike (M1GS). Reporters, tweeters, and bloggers converged in downtown Oakland to report on more tear gas and arrests, but a broader analysis of May Day in the Bay Area conveys a different story.
Historically, successful political movements have a broad-based alliance of distinct groups engaged in their own struggles but which also come together under a common cause. On May Day, labor and community-based organizations, along with Occupiers, participated in a series of events which demonstrated the potential for this unity.
Yes, potential. When I mentioned this observation to some Occupy and labor activists, the reaction was that I was being, well, Pollyannaish. Indeed, two key actions that day created movement schisms. Nonetheless, it is because more organizations want to participate in this broader movement that these inevitable debates occur. Indeed, the organizing of diverse semi-coordinated actions that day by a variety of groups – Occupy, student, labor, immigrant, etc. – was a sign of the possibility of an alliance, however tenuous.
When I witnessed revolutionary movements in Central America in the 1980s and in the Philippines in the 1990s, one key element of those struggles was a coalition of organizations, often called a “united front” that linked up religious, women’s, labor, farmers and other sectors. Sociologist and social movement scholar Jeff Goodwin found that such a broad-based multi-class coalition is critical for successful revolutions.
Just a few days before the M1GS (the Twitter hashtag for the day), the first sign of that struggling partnership came when the Golden Gate Transit Authority workers asked that the Occupy activists not shut down the Golden Gate Bridge. In frustration, Occupiers then pulled out of any bridge action. Soon after, labor requested that the picketers move the protest to Larkspur, a main hub for Marin County commuters to take ferries into San Francisco. Rather than a failure, though, this decision to follow the will of the union showed the significance of the growing solidarity. This rally at the port, as well as at the San Francisco Ferry Building, resulted in a crowd of protesters who had planned to shut down the Golden Gate Bridge but came out to support the striking workers instead.
Being an Oakland resident, though, my first event that day was one of three 8.30 am rallies called by Occupy Oakland. About 100 people stood in front of the Child Protective Services Building, where one woman said to the crowd of mostly white Occupiers, “The 1% never get their kids taken away!”
However, being Twitter obsessed on days of activist events (and academic conferences), I saw that the Oakland police were converging on the anti-capitalist rally a few blocks away. I made it to their rallying site too late but witnessed a few hundred protesters marching into downtown Oakland with the combat police following. I was not too inspired by the turnout at these first two events, given the tens of thousands that had showed up for the last Oakland General Strike, but it was still early.
When I walked up to the CNA rally, though, I noticed a dramatically different mood. I saw a sea of red shirted nurses with signs that read, “RNs on Strike for Patient Care” on their shirts with many sporting “WTF Sutter” stickers. Most drivers of cars passing by the busy Ashby Avenue honked their horns in support, from SUVs to Priuses, from City Buses to Ambulances. This event was much more festive, upbeat and better attended than the previous events in downtown Oakland. But where were the Occupiers? While not physically present at this rally, the Occupy movement, nonetheless, still had an impact on this May Day event, said one CNA staffer, who realized the significance of multiple actions on one day.
Reports from the day’s events show that Occupiers were actually in full force themselves in downtown Oakland for a noon convergence and rally, where they were met with police repression.
Next up for me, though, the University of California-Berkeley, where I am a doctoral candidate in Sociology and New Media. Unlike other Occupy events on campus, which have consisted of mostly students, this was clearly a worker-focused event with students and faculty in support. Representatives from at least four local unions on campus (UPTE, AFSCME, Teamsters and the UAW) with workers ranging from food service workers to graduate students were in attendance. The march went from the main campus entrance to the rally at the University Health Center, where union leaders handed the university’s HR representative, Deborah Harrington, a list of demands.
But to imply that the Occupy movement and the labor movement are joining together for one giant love-fest is over-reaching. In fact, the pinnacle event in Oakland for the day showed tension in the Occupy/labor-community alliance.
When I got off at the Fruitvale BART station, the heart of Oakland’s Latino neighborhood, I was struck by the swelling crowd. People I interviewed commented on the big turnout of a diverse group of people, much like the General Strike march last fall. As we were marching, we noticed one part of the march had moved ahead while another part was stopped. We were confused. Were the police shutting it down? In the middle of the break in the march was a line of Occupy protesters dressed in black with masks and shields, aka the Black Bloc. We walked back and asked around as to what was happening. One event volunteer in a yellow reflective vest was helping to rope off the second part of the march, and she said, “We have two separate marches. The Occupy movement couldn’t guarantee our safety.” She was referring, of course, to undocumented workers who could face deportation if arrested.
Occupy organizers, though, have a different perspective on what happened, and the debate has been hashed out online. The whole march, they say, was organized by the Coalition for Dignity and Resistance, which included labor, community organizations, as well as Oakland Sin Fronteras (OSF), which held back the march until the Black Bloc activists could reassure them of their safety. OSF and other community-based organizations have been participating in the May 1 Immigrant Rights marches for years. Nonetheless, May Day events have been central to the labor movement since the Haymarket massacre in Chicago over 100 years ago, which, coincidentally, involved anarchist labor organizers. And while this march was not necessarily a labor event, per se, workers centers, such as Poder, actively participated in the march.
I doubt most participants even realized there was tension that day despite the behind-the-scenes disagreements, divided marches and even separate actions and strife. And these divisions, according to Boots Riley, an Occupy leader, are common with any movement. From my observations, the upshot of Oakland’s M1GS is the most vibrant and diverse action yet. It did not have the breadth and numbers of the events last fall, but the unity, however, tenuous is much deeper.
Furthermore, however successful last fall’s Occupy launch was because of the lack of demands, at this point the strength of the labor committee within Occupy Oakland has allowed the movement to create more concrete demands around workers’ rights. The Labor Committee within the Occupy Oakland movement has clearly been hard at work building alliances, as more local unions signed on to the May 1 General Strike than the one last November. The labor movement has also been somewhat revitalized by the Occupy movement.
What’s the upshot? Occupy, Labor and other groups have the potential to create a growing alliance in Oakland. Note, that by definition an alliance consists of separate groups (with their own constituencies and agendas) that are uniting around a common cause. While culturally and politically, these two groups may differ, they are both focused on the widening disparities between the 1% and 99%.