Monday, December 12, 2011

Where are the 99%?

Oakland Port protest November 2, (from Flickr, Brian Sims)
OWS attempted to shut down all of the West Coast ports from San Diego to Anchorage today. The OWS groups in all the major West Coast port cities agreed to join in the protest, as did Houston and even OWS groups in a few landlocked cities decided to participate by blockading Walmart stores.

While the action was ambitious, aggressive, and partially effective (several terminals in various cities were closed and their workers sent home for “safety” reasons, according to the San Francisco Chronicle), it suffered several substantial flaws.

The first problem was that OWS did not have the support of the unions. In fact, none of the unions officially supported the action, while some union members were outright hostile, claiming their unions hadn’t even been consulted by OWS. Many said they sympathized with OWS, but felt like this was attack on their livelihood rather than a direct hit on the “1%.” Others called the protest presumptuous meddling by outsiders (see here and here).

The fact that the ports sent workers home and did not try to have the police break the pickets indicates that they believe their employees will blame OWS for their lost wages and not the terminal operators. Furthermore, it suggests that they are willing to lose some profits for a day if it will help discredit and crush the OWS movement.

Even so, the pickets were not sufficient to shut down all the terminals at all the ports. In order to completely shut down a port the workers themselves must to refuse to work. Citizenry can picket and try to blockade the port and hope that workers will honor their picket. However, if the workers want to work and the police break the picket, the best they can hope for is a disruption or slow down. In contrast, if the workers refuse to work nothing gets done except by the few scabs who manage to squeeze past the picketers.

Clarence Thomas, President of ILWU local 10, in Oakland, said he wouldn’t cross the picket line and he thought his ILWU brothers and sisters would honor the picket, as well, since his local had a long and proud history of honoring pickets, even community-based ones. He also felt that the unions’ reticence reflected the conservativeness of their leaders, and not the sentiments of their rank and file.

All of this highlights the fact that neither the OWS movement nor the unions are doing much organizing. The OWS movement seems to think that all they need to do is put out a tweet or a facebook call, and thousands will understand their goals and tactics and readily join in. They claim they represent 99% of Americans, yet even at their strongest, they have only mobilized a tiny fraction of the 99% in any given community to show up to their encampments and demonstrations. In the case of the West Coast port shutdown, it was clear that many of those whom they claimed they were supporting (i.e., union members) didn’t understand or appreciate the support.

OWS is in essence a vanguardist movement: a small group decides what are the appropriate tactics and demands, and calls on everyone else to follow (or join in). The movement mushroomed from such a call on the internet by Adbusters to go out and occupy Wall Street. The sentiment that the rich are too rich and jacking the rest of us appealed to the majority of Americans for very good reasons: They are jacking us. But it is a big leap to assume that this, alone, is sufficient to get the 99% to take collective action.  

This is not Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Syria, where people have lived under brutal dictatorships for generations. Most Americans still believe in the existing form of government and the prevailing economic system. They still believe that voting can resolve their grievances and that bosses create jobs and consequently financial security for us.

This belief is nowhere more evident than in trade union movement, where organizing has been virtually abandoned in favor of supporting political campaigns. If they were truly organizing their members, educating and mobilizing them, the unions would be able to launch massive strikes quickly and often. Taft-Hartley, which criminalizes General Strikes, would become insignificant because a well-organized and educated rank and file would see the power of a General Strike and would consider participating, even if their union leadership remained silent or oppositional on the matter.  This may explain why there was a 15% increase in absenteeism by Oakland teachers during the attempted General Strike last month (according to the New York Times): Oakland has numerous veteran organizers in their teachers’ union who have been calling for a General Strike since last April (see here for one example).

Organizing is a slow, painstaking process. One cannot simply call for a strike and expect 80-90% of the people to be on board. Yet if you don’t have this level of solidarity, the strike is unlikely to succeed.

Community organizing, which OWS needs to do if they want to get larger numbers of the 99% to join them, is very similar to union organizing. Contrary to popular misconception, organizing is NOT simply getting people to show up to a demonstration or picket. This is more accurately classified as “Mobilizing,” something that is much more effective if preceded by organizing.

A good organizer starts by making connections with individuals, listening to their concerns and grievances, supporting them and building trust. When possible, the organizer helps resolve some of the smaller grievances. A union organizer, for example, might help get a broken tool repaired or replaced. A community organizer might help an evicted tenant access the community resources or a pro bono attorney. This not only builds interpersonal trust, but it also makes the union or whatever the larger organization is seem like it has the organizee’s back, rather than simply wanting something from them.

Once a positive relationship has been developed, the organizer can start educating the organizee, easing them beyond their current comfort zone, encouraging them to take part in low risk collective actions, like wearing a button or t-shirt or joining in a picket. After this, once the organizee trusts the organizer and the organization and feels self-confident participating in low-risk actions, the organizer can educate and agitate further and encourage the organizee to participate in more aggressive and risky tactics like strikes, occupations and civil disobedience.

Obviously, the time required to get an individual ready and willing to participate in the more risky and aggressive actions varies from person to person, but could take months or even years for some people. Add to this the fact that a given organizer can only reach so many people per week and the fact that it is much easier to build trusting relationships through one-on-one meetings rather than by speaking to large groups.  

All this is to say that we have a long way to go before OWS or the trade union movements will be able to mount any sort of effective direct actions against the ruling elite. Of course, it would also help if there were some concrete demands associated with the actions. Protests can be fun, exciting and empowering and sometimes worthwhile for these reasons, alone.  But for all the commitment and risk involved, a lot of people are going to want to feel like there are some attainable goals that can be achieved through their efforts.

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