OWS: the Quandary for Long Time Activists
I encounter many long time activists in a quandary how to relate to #OccupyWallStreet. A vibrant, growing mass movement involving thousands of activists is always far more interesting and exciting than the ongoing drudgery (fundraising, event organizing, education and outreach, etc) of keeping existing grassroots organizations going. There is a strong temptation to abandon current organizing commitments to join the groundswell created by the OWS movement. While this might be the right move for some activists, it’s vitally important that others use their existing roles in union, peace and justice and environmental networks to bolster and support the anti-greed movement.
All Our Single Issues Have the Same Root Cause
There are strong strategic arguments for all unions and single issue peace and justice and environmental groups to get on board, in some way, with #OccupyWallStreet. All the corporate and government abuses our single issue groups are fighting have the same root cause – namely the corporate takeover of government. Yet many of us find it difficult to address the corporate tie-in from our single issue silos. Moreover there is already evidence that the current civil unrest in all major American cities is beginning to impact disastrous US policies in the Middle East.
How Do We Best Support OWS?
On the other hand, I question the value of long time union, antiwar, pro-democracy, peace and justice, homeless, sustainability and immigrants rights activists abandoning our existing commitments to camp out in the park. It makes more strategic sense to use our influence in the grassroots networks we have built up over decades to support and collaborate with #OccupyWallStreet. In this way we can provide inroads for younger, more militant OWS activists to sectors of society they might otherwise find difficult to access.
In my view, where existing union and community groups can best support the OWS movement is by providing logistical, material and tactical support as it expands into the productive sector. OWS can only exert real pressure on government, banks and other multinational corporations by disrupting business as usual – with corporate-targeted sit-ins, consumer boycotts, wild cat strikes or a combination of all three. In Egypt, it was the unions’ threat to shut down the Suez Canal that ultimately forced Mubarak to step down.
Many older activists, especially in the Open Source, sustainability and local democracy movements have already made significant gains in undermining corporate rule. The sustainability movement, for example, is responsible for an explosion of community-based alternatives to corporate controlled food, energy, transportation, education, health care and money. Equally impressive are the hundreds of communities in the local democracy movement which have passed ordinances restricting the right of corporations to build new hog farms, spread sewage sludge and deplete aquifers with bottled water operations.
Appealing to a Broad Base of Supporters
For their part, #OccupyWallStreet has already been remarkably effective in networking with existing groups. Good examples include the participation of OWS members in a march supporting Communication of American workers in their dispute with Verizon, an anti-eviction action OWS helped homeless advocates organize in Brooklyn, and the strong backing #OccupyWallStreet has received from organized labor. I attribute OWS coalition building success to their insistence on a broad inclusive vision (i.e. refusing to make specific demands). This enables them appeal to the widest possible base of potential supporters. I can’t count the number of large coalitions I have joined in the last thirty years that were scattered to the winds the moment we decided to formulate concrete demands. The last one was the 9-11 Coalition Seattle activists formed in September 2001 to protest the impending US war in Afghanistan. Over the five weeks we spent arguing over specific demands, our numbers shrank from one hundred plus to fifteen.
The November 2 general strike called by Occupy Oakland was the first test of OWS’s fragile coalition with labor. In a period of high unemployment, persuading unionists who still have work to put their own jobs on the line is no mean feat. While Occupy Oakland was unsuccessful in shutting the city itself down, a wild cat strike by Oakland longshoremen succeeded in closing down the Port of Oakland (http://tvnz.co.nz/world-news/occupy-oakland-succeeds-in-shutting-down-port-4499879).
To be continued, with a discussion of the effect of OWS on foreign policy.