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      Tuesday
      Feb142012

      Notes on Occupy and Labor

      Port Huron Statement, Prophetic in 1962

      Because private corporate power had so many public consequences, the Port Huron Statement (PHS) argued for an economic democracy (p.54) in which the “major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic regulation.” And workplace democracy experiments. The ethical issues was that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival, educative, not stultifying, creative, not mechanical, self-directed, not manipulated, because "this experience has crucial influence on our habits, perceptions and individual ethics.”

      In terms of political strategy, the PHS was based on the hope that organized labor would renew itself as a generally progressive force in American society (p. 158), beyond labor legislation and social welfare improvements. PHS urged a major drive to organize the unorganized, and lead a progressive wing of the Democratic Party opposed to the Dixiecrats and the Center. Students were seen as the new agency of social change, but the PHS held that it would take an alliance between students and allies like labor to bring about economic and political change.

      To place these words in their setting, 1963 became the year of the March on Washington whose demand was for Jobs and Justice, a coalition platform (I was there). The civil rights movement and voter registration were weakening the Dixiecrat power in the same South where right-to-work laws were strongest. In California the farm workers were beginning to organize the UFW. Supporting and allied with all these efforts were the UAW led by Walter and Victor Reuther who intended to build a social justice movement as well as a labor movement. The split with conservative labor was deep; George Meany refused to endorse the 1963 March which Reuther supported. In 1964, Victor Reuther attacked the “Cold War view of the world as distorted and oversimplified”; in 1966Only two years later, Victor Reuther would accuse the AFL-CIO of being a front for the CIA in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam.

      There was a path to visionary leadership, organizing and political success. It depended on a labor movement led by Reuther, who now was funding King’s organizing efforts among the poor like the Memphis workers; a civil rights movement led by King linking civil rights and unemployment; a growing farm worker movement led by Chavez and funded also by Reuther;  a student movement mobilizing the campuses; and political leadership by Robert Kennedy. Two of those leaders were assassinated in 1968, and Reuther was dead in a plane crash two years later.

      The other problem was structural. The AFL-CIO was deeply involved in a military Cold War anti-communism, which was shared by many if not most Democrats and by Reuther until the Vietnam War had escalated and sharply divided America. King was held back from speaking out against Vietnam until 1967, when he was condemned for his remarks. Chavez, despite his deep pacifism, held back from criticizing the Vietnam war as well. Even the US National Student Association, the umbrella group of student government leaders, was infiltrated and funded by the CIA until the connection was exposed in 1967. So while the anti-war movement grew from 1965 to 1968, the students and the pacifists had no powerful allies, no majority coalition to look toward, and so became a single-focus movement that grew more radical and desperate as the killing went on.

      The point I am making in this course is that the New Left had a vision and a plan to participate in building a coalition that would challenge Cold War priorities, prevent war and invest in a domestic agenda involving civil rights, health care, education and a war on poverty. It was a plausible plan for creating a new governing majority and electing a president.

      It failed because of the assassinations, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the diversion of American budget resources away from domestic needs.

      We never saw ourselves, in the beginning, as a fringe, or counter-cultural, or dissident radical minority. We thought we could make the future ours. We didn’t know what we were up against.

      Fast Forward

      Today, the One Percent still controls most of the wealth. While America is more diverse, while official discrimination has declined, while environmental consciousness is greater than every before, we have become worse off than at any time since the 1930s. This is the crisis which finally resulted in the Occupy Wall Street uprisings of the past year. 

      I am not going to dwell on the international pattern of the risings, except to make one key point. Whether it’s Venezuela or Egypt or the UK, whether it’s the 1999 Seattle confrontation or those in Cancun, Miami, Genoa, Japan or beyond, the movements and revolutions have shared a common grievance against a form of capitalism called neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is defined usually as a diminished role for government spending and regulation, and sharp reduction in wages, benefits and overall economic regulations, and their replacement by increased reliance on the private marketplace, especially the rise of finance capital – call it Wall Street – which has dramatically escalated its share of the American and Western economies while manufacturing has been outsourced to lands where labor is extremely cheap and regulations over the workplace, health and safety and pollution are virtually non-existent or non-enforceable.

      I don’t believe this is so-called natural workings of the free enterprise system. My belief is that government and public policy shape the direction of the economic institutions whether in a more progressive or more conservative direction. This is what I think happened after the 1960s. The rising success of the social movements caused a rising counter-movement in opposition, not only in the form of increasingly law-and-order policies and mass incarceration, but in a successful business assault on the gains of the 1930s and 1960s by organized labor, by the growth of government programs like medicare and social security and consumer protection, and by the increasing representation by women and people of color in all the institutions they had been excluded from. If the counter-movement had an origin, it was in a private memo written by Lewis Powell in 1971 just before Nixon named him to the Supreme Court. Briefly the memo led to the creation and vast strengthening of the Business Lobby, the most unified, well-funded and strategic association of business power assembled in many decades.

      In 1974, over the veto of interim President Gerald Ford, the US Congess terrified the business establishment further, by establishing the limits on campaign contributions, campaign spending and campaign secrecy of donors, in history. But in 1976, a US Supreme Court appointed by Nixon and including Lewis Powell, struck down the limits on campaign expenditures, declaring that money is an instrumentality of free speech and, as such cannot be limited. In the same year, Ronald Reagan became governor of California, and five years later was president of the United States. Reagan’s platform was a version of  the Powell Memo, centered mainly on weakening the power of organized labor and marginalize the campus radicals and inner city rioters. Many Americans were panicked also by the rise of OPEC and the spectre that our disproportionate access to the world’s oil would be threatened – 4 percent of the world’s people consuming 40 percent of that resource, according to the Port Huron Statement, then and now.

      One consequence of the counter-movement against the 1960s, is that starting in 1973 the average standard of living working class and middle class families became stagnated, with most families having to work longer hours with less benefits to make the same income. In many cases, both adults in household have been working to obtain the same income which formerly came from a single employed person. The constancy of this treadmill has pulled a curtain over upward mobility for a majority of families, caused increased hostility towards immigrant workers, and blighted the future of college students with a burden of debt which takes decades to pay off. A primary reason for this stagnation was the decline of organized labor as a force in shaping politics and public policy:

      • 12 percent of American workers are in unions, compared to 30-40 percent in 1960;
      • 37 percent of governmentt employees (7.9 million) are in unions;
      • 7 percent of private sector workers(7.4 million) are unionized today;
      • Transnational corporations control 75% of world trade and 150 million jobs globally.

      Essentially what happened was this: in response to the growing power of labor, consumers, blacks, latinos, women and government agencies like the EPA, and campaign reformers, the organized business community first tried to relocate in right-to-work states where wages were low and regulations friendly or non-existent, and then since the 1980s accelerated a relocation to such business-friendly havens in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The process became known as globlization, a sort of neutral or dreamy term which practically meant the globalized escape of private investment and corporate capital from the framework of wages and regulations that had been created by previous generations of social movements.

      To look ahead, the only solution to this problem, I will argue, is the globalization of wage standards, consumer protection, air pollution and other environmental standards in response to the globalization of private capital – in the simplest terms, an extension of the New Deal labor and regulatory protections to become a global New Deal, with improvements including green energy sources and greater decentralization in keeping with the diversity of the planet’s people and bioregions.

      I see the Seattle battle with the World Trade Organization as the most direct predecessor to Occupy Wall Street in this process. Corporate globalization has given rise to the globalization of resistance over these two decades. The demands of Seattle were essentially: global labor standards including the right to unionize; global environmental standards; global human rights standards; and global democracy standards. It was a direct action movement which tried to “occupy” and block the new private machinery of decision-making known as the WTO. The WTO was composed of the trade ministers of most countries, authorized to enact enforceable standards protecting private investors but not, for example, standards protecting sweatshop workers. Enforcement was the purview of dispute resolution panels composed of three trade experts meeting behind closed doors to determine whether any local or national laws or regulations obstacles to so-called “free trade.” Government subsidies to the poor, or government protections for domestic industries, or government patents on indigenous medicines, were considered violations of this free trade – even though protectionism was the very method by which the American economy was built in a time of British economic dominion.

      Seattle was a complete surprise to the ministers from 100 countries gathered there. Protestors with previous experience in the direct action campaigns to save the redwoods, chained themselves together in order to block hotel entrances and street intersections as a way to stop the WTO from meeting to adopt its new protocols. The techniques used at Seattle – egalitarian assemblies based on consensus decision-making, for example – were to foreshadow the Occupy movement in the future. Seattle became a conflict between “democracy in the streets” and an undemocratic gathering of finance ministers who were planning to repeal laws and regulations which had been adopted by the world’s governments under pressure from mass social movements. After a globally-televised standoff for one week, the WTO ministerial was blocked from completing its business, and even President Clinton called for “democratic transparency.” 

      An important offshoot of the anti-globalization movement was the student-worker alliance against sweatshops.

      The political ramifications of Seattle and the WTO conflict were immense. The Clinton-Gore Democrats, liberal on social issues but cultivating corporate support, embraced NAFTA, a trade regime for Mexico, the US and Canada, modeled on the WTO principles of corporate free trade. This not only accelerated US corporate investment in Mexico, decimating Mexican agriculture and spurring mass migration to the North, but it split the Democratic Party and provided an opening for Ralph Nader run for president on an anti-corporate third party platform in 2000. It’s a matter of bitter debate whether Nader caused Gore to lose that election, or whether Gore gave Nader the issue on which he would run. But there can be no question that Nader’s attacks weakened Gore, or that Nader could have endorsed Gore in the swing states, or that the November election was stolen in Florida and the US Supreme Court upheld the result.

      That led to the Bush years which featured a multi-trillion dollar war in Iraq based on borrowing rather than funded by taxes, and a tax cut for the very wealthy which added another trillion dollars to the widening deficit, and a culture of rampant financial deregulation which resulted in speculative excesses, Wall Street scandals, and the bailouts of 2008 and 2009.

      The election of our first African American president, the Wall Street bailout, and the passage of an expensive national health care package provoked the rise of a right-wing populist movement which branded itself as the Tea Party.

      The Tea Party counter-movement was able to recapture the US House of Representatives and shape a political debate dominated by cuts in spending. Not military spending, not tax expenditures for the rich, but cuts in education, infrastructure and attempts to slash or privatize Medicare and Medicaid. The logic of this right-wing populism could be found in the economic theories of  Hayek and Friedman, and the novels of heroic individualism by Ayn Rand. Reducing taxes, eliminating unions, and slashing environmental regulations, according to this catechism, would encourage capitalist investors and companies to invest in creating millions of new jobs here in America, so many jobs that the revenues from lower taxes would be enough to revitalize the economy.

      Instead such policies, embraced on both sides of the Atlantic, worsened a global recession. Unemployment ran at ten percent. The real unemployment rate, including those with part-time jobs unable to find full-time jobs, and those to discouraged to keep looking for work, was double ten percent or higher in many low-income neighborhoods. Not only many homes, but higher education and the future itself, seemed to be foreclosed for millions of people.

      People waited in patient frustration to see what the new government of Barack Obama would do, just as they waited for a period of years after the 1932 election of F. D. Roosevelt.

      In Wisconsin, one year ago today, thousands could wait no longer. One of the Tea Party’s newly-elected governors, Scott Walker, acted to eliminate the long-established state policy of collective bargaining for state public employees. As if by accident, the Egyptian people overthrew their longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarack, in the same week that Scott Walker introduced his legislation. A Valentines Day march of 50 graduate student teaching assistants was joined by high school students and, in days, became a march of thousands and an occupation of the state capitol in Madison. What made Wisconsin uniquely a social movement was its expansion to include thousands o people who were not members of organized unions or political parties but who simply felt violated by an assault on policies which they had taken for granted in their everyday lives.

      This was the root of what became known as Occupy Wall Street six months later, on September 17, 2011.

      Occupy Wall Street was, like every social movement, an unexpected surprise in its sudden birth, exponential spread, and engagement of public consciousness. The call to occupy Wall Street came from a Canadian magazine, Adbusters, produced by a group of artistic revolutionaries who called themselves “culture jammers.” Based on a revolutionary group of performance artists in 1968 France, known as the Situationists, culture – jamming sought to liberate the mind from the bombardment of commercial advertising meant to stimulate the economy of consumption. The Adbusters’s call consisted of a one paragraph statement which said “Occupy Wall Street, September 17, Bring a Tent.” The rest is history. Soon there were one thousand occupations across North America and many more around the world.

      The occupations undertaken by the Occupy movement were different than occupations of the past which jammed the gears of commerce and production, for example, the sit-ins at lunch counters which inflicted economic damage on chain stores in the 60s, or the factory occupations of the 1930s which blocked the production of steel, iron, and consumer products. They were different than the occupations of Berkeley’s Sproul Hall in the FSM, which interrupted the smooth administration of the “knowledge factory”, or the strikes and boycotts of the UFW, which threatened the seasonal harvesting of grapes and their distribution to consumer markets.

      Occupy Wall Street never occupied Wall Street at all. The occupation was of public space, of the publicly owned and privately operated Zuccotti Park, and soon after public parks and plazas in hundreds of cities. Perhaps this was in keeping with the widely accepted Adbusters’ philosophy that revolution was primarily a matter of altering perception. Encampments of protestors in tents, busy creating their alternative cooperative societies, was a visual obstruction of the controlled and orderly administration of everyday life under the care of city halls and police departments. Or perhaps it was the only space from which to force attention to the issue of massive corruption and income inequality, the gap between the 1 Percent and the 99.

      We can say that in just two months, Occupy moved from the cultural and political margins to the mainstream of public and media attention. The media coverage was phenomenal, for reasons no one has yet explained. But there is a general consensus that Occupy Wall Street “changed the national conversation”, as the pundits say, from the budget deficit to issues like the gap in income and the flooding of corporate money into politics. The Tea Party Republicans were pushed on to defense, while the President and Democrats in general benefited from the change in public perception.

      The Machiavellian authorities seemed to find the permanent presence of the tents and their inhabitants intolerable. Despite continuing problems of street crime, drug addiction and homelessness in all American cities, suddenly the official focus turned to allegations of such scandals occurring in the Occupiers’ tents. In city after city, sometimes coordinated and sometimes not, the police were sent to clear, hold and reclaim the public spaces. The problem was out of sight and out of mind for a time, and certainly the Occupiers were disrupted, displaced and derailed…for a time. But no one believes the protests have been defeated and now the pundits are engaged in a great guessing game called Wither Occupy?

      I don’t know the answer to that question more than anyone else, but I would make these comments:

      • Participatory democracy is far more than small-group consensus-based decision-making.
      • Wisconsin is more like a model of participatory democracy unfolding. Wisconsin includes temporary occupation of the public Capitol building, massive and continual demonstrations in freezing weather, clear and concise demands for the recall of the Governor and repeal of the law, an alliance of organized labor and the activist community, engagement of the broader public in a grass roots process of signature-gathering, community organizing, and voter mobilization.  
      • Occupy has succeeded in gaining organized labor support but without agreement on common demands or any synthesis between very different organizing styles and methods;
      • Occupy contains powerful tendencies which support anarchism as a philosophy and rejects voting, lobbying, associations with political parties, and even the issuing of demands because those are seen as legitimizing the power of the State and co-opting social movements;
      • Occupy is dependent on tactics and messaging that will attract more objective coverage from the mainstream media and solidify the support of the general public;
      • Given its internal dynamics, Occupy may not be able to, or wish to, take advantage of opportunities for broad public mobilization in favor of specific reforms of Wall Street or income redistribution;
      • Occupy may divide between more militant and moderate tendencies as typically happens in the course of social movements. To the extent that it lives by the mainstream media, it may also die by the mainstream media.

      This appears to be the first election in over 50 years in which the central debate will be over economic and political issues such as corporate power, economic inequality, the corruption of money in campaigns and so on. Occupy may be demonized by one set of politicians while being wooed into moderate reform by others. How Occupy can unify and occupy a central role in the national debate remains to be seen.

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