photo by SG

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupy Moves Onwards

This will probably be dated as soon as I finish writing it, but I'm trying to get back to writing more and I think there's plenty to think about the Occupy movement that needs to get put down and discussed.

When the Occupy movement initially made its way out of New York, many of us were deeply skeptical of it. New York City, we argued, has such a distinctive economic and political landscape that the tactic of occupying a major piece of land will not be as effective elsewhere. In this, we have been shown to be correct and incorrect. Correct in that no other occupation has had the same vigor and strength that NYC's has. In a city where whole industries are created based on the fact that real estate is expensive and everyone is crowded together, it's no surprise that occupying a park near the financial nerve center of the the country would bring more people out and be more dangerous and disruptive to the ruling classes than in other places. Friends and comrades have consistently challenged of the tactic and fetishization of occupations, rightly. But where we were wrong is that the movement associated with the tactic has continued despite its obvious weaknesses.

The occupy movement has sent out waves throughout the working class, completely unexpected to skeptics like me. The battle to determine the meaning and content of the occupy movement continues, with opportunistic elements of the socialist left, the business unions, and the political-motivated non-profit sector entering the fray early on. Because of the ambivalence that radicals have felt towards the Occupy movement, we've largely ceded the leadership of local occupations to people associated with these groups, or at least allowed existing leadership to be moved by these groups. All is not lost though.

Radicals have been able to enter the Occupy movement, at least locally and I would guess nationally, to push specific ideas and themes to a wider audience. This operates on two levels: within the movement and within the working class. Inside the movement, radicals and IWWs have been consistently complimented and gravitated towards based on our seriousness towards doing work and our sense of fun and creativity. The main critique of the Occupy movement from the right-wing has been its lack of demands, and the big secret is that people inside the movement, or at least inside the wing of the class that finds the movement inspirational, share this criticism. Ask the leadership of any occupation movement about the demands issue and they're likely to wax poetic about the importance of the consensus and the General Assembly. Easy for them, the actual occupiers are a shock team of students and young unemployed people not actively looking for work. The majority of the section of the class that takes inspiration from the 99% theme and the idea of resistance has to work every day or is out looking for it.

Here radicals and the IWW have had a tremendous amount of success by pushing our ideas inside the movement. Our members are well-trained on how to organize workers, so it is no surprise that we approach the occupations with the same approach - get shit done. The leadership, which cares more for media strategy and "proper" practice than revolutionary change, is easily pushed aside by Wobbly organizers whose ideas and actions are easy to come around towards. Our sense of fun has also been powerfully felt, at least locally. When we mobilize our members to a demonstration, we are noisy, clever, and fun. People respond to this well, as most people at any given demonstration either feel confused by the ritualistic speechifying and chanting of the liberal left or dulled through years of dealing with it. Our physical involvement also allows us to push radical messages in positive, affirming ways. Last week an IWW contingent got a 400+ march at OccupyMN to chant "Oakland workers got it right, we need a general strike!" and brought a level of militancy and smiles to peoples' faces. One IWW comrade took the boring and off-putting "We are the 99%" chant and started pushing the message "We are the workers of the world" to the same cadence, which many responded to favorably. Obviously just pushing radical slogans is not enough to radicalize the struggle, but by pushing ideas and bringing people around to them through proving ourselves, we can push the struggle in a more radical, practical direction by showing a path away from the vague anti-banks and politicians ideology of the movement and towards an explicit revolutionary vision that shows how direct action can improve things for working people.

The Occupy movement continues to be small, partially because of its incoherence and its insistence on the tactic of occupying a space 24 hours a day. Yet its resonance is wide, and this is the milieu that radicals should especially seek to target. Many working people find the demands and ideas of the occupiers to be powerful and their ideas resonant, but are culturally alienated from the occupations because of the tactic. Here, we need to continue to target and push our ideas through mass outreach and through connecting the slogans and concerns of the movement to our ideas through projects that excite people. The slogan and rallying cry "Occupy Your Job" has been floated by some IWWs, and we will see if this slogan holds. Regardless, picking up on the energy created by the Occupy movement and moving it towards more clear, concert tasks and projects that can actually get things done is a critical task for revolutionaries in the current moment.

In this, we have been unintentionally aided by the police. The massive, coordinated expulsion of the occupations across the country this week was a clear attempt by the security forces to end the movement through forcing the conflict to be about whether or not we can camp or not and away from the issues it raises. This has prompted many forces within the movement, notably the more forward-thinking business unions, to push away from the ritualization of the occupation tactic. They are right in doing so, and its our opportunity to lose if we don't pick up on this chance to reframe the debate away from the tactic of occupations and towards a strategy of class conflict. We have a moment in front of us where the discussion no longer has to be about whether or not to support or participate in the occupations (and if so, how) but rather how we can take the energy created by the media events and publicity stunts the movement has pulled and use it towards building more organizers in shops, a more organized class (for how many people was this their first experience of meetings outside of church or work?) and ultimately a stronger, more diverse IWW. We need to make it so that soon Occupy doesn't mean a physical takeover of a public space, but an idea that evokes militancy, a social space for people to meet, change each other, and be changed, and a spot from which we can launch our next campaigns and attacks on the bosses' power.

Outside the House of Labor

I've been thinking recently about the way that the labor movement sees itself and talks about itself. Labor movement activists often talk about labor as a kind of community, a place where individuals can reach across differences and speak to each other based on a shared connection to their unions and unionism more generally. There are big, well-funded internal publications that the large unions produce which help move this discourse. But there are also independent voices which participate in this discourse. I can think of Labor Notes as an example that I'm most familiar with.

Labor Notes and magazines, blogs, or other publications like it have this particular way of speaking about the labor movement and the changes that it needs to implement that I've always had a lot of trouble connecting with. I like Labor Notes, I think its a useful piece that praises rank-and-file struggles and shows how the bosses and the business unions are strong and powerful but also have weaknesses. It's the kind of publication that shows that working people can have independent publications that highlight our stories of success and explain why and when we fail with a good analysis (usually).

But I've always had trouble connecting with the language that LN and similar publications use to talk about the labor movement. There's a positioning of "inside and against" that I've always been unable to connect with. The discourse often goes "we are the labor movement, we need to do better, we need to get better leadership and democratize our unions, we need to organize the unorganized." I like all the reclaiming of the labor movement narrative, that's a great step I think. Saying that "we," being rank-and-file workers, are the labor movement and that unions are not just the union leaders, is really important. But to me as an IWW organizer, I've never felt part of some community of labor.

I think this could be partially because we're a union so influenced by the left but I don't think that's all of it. I think its also because our shops don't have stable contracts that allow us to engage in fights against a bureaucratic leadership. Most of us don't have good union jobs and therefore some allegiance to the successes of the movement and a desire for it to change. We have crappy jobs that we are trying to organize because we need to and believe in a better life for ourselves on a very direct basis. We don't feel the pressures of the capitalists trying to use the unorganized to undermine our higher wages, because we work in the unorganized section of the class and spend all our time trying to organize it.

In short, and I'm not sure if I'm making much sense with this, I feel like there's a disconnect in how we as the IWW articulate our membership in the labor movement. Other unionists are able to engage in a critique of the labor movement by testifying to their presence as part of that movement and therefore their investment in it. I can't do that because I always feel like any time we're in the room with other labor unionists they treat us variously like idiots, children, or opponents to be watched behind crocodile smiles. It's far easier to identify with the left's critique of labor as something that's outside me then the union movement's critique from this perspective. And not because I agree with the left's positioning; I'm a labor organizer goddammit! It's just that through the state of my lived experience and that of my fellow organizers, we often do not have much in common with those unionists who seek to reform their unions and get a better contract. I just want some bread and roses and a revolution.