Occupy Wall Street protestor Lincoln Statler is arrested along with several others in the financial district's Zucotti park, Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Unions, Democrats and Occupy Wall Street

What happens when a movement without leaders meets leaders without a movement? We're about to find out


Joan Walsh
October 5, 2011 5:05PM (UTC)

I'm embarrassed to admit my first reaction to Occupy Wall Street was cynicism. Along with some other folks on Twitter when it began Sept. 17, I wondered aloud why it started on a Saturday, when Wall Street was quiet. I couldn't find a list of its goals. Visiting New York a few days later, I walked along Wall Street in the rain trying to find protesters, but though there were barricades all along that dark canyon, and cops everywhere, nobody was protesting; I later saw a few dozen people among tents at Liberty Plaza, but by that time I was running to catch my plane home.

The next day, the New York Police Department cruelly pepper-sprayed female protesters, and suddenly the movement came alive. Ever since, I've been struck by the good sense the protesters have used in dealing with the police (in contrast with the poor sense of some of the cops): They are not making them the enemy. In fact, as 700 people were being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, they were chanting at the cops: "We're fighting for your pensions!" It didn't keep the protesters from getting arrested, but it kept them on the moral and political high ground.

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The over-reaction of the police, the restraint of the demonstrators and the irresistible enthusiasm of the Occupy Wall Street crowd now has powerful allies streaming to support the movement. On Wednesday evening, major New York unions, including SEIU, the American Federation of Teachers and the Transit Workers Union, will join what is likely to be the biggest protest yet. TWU head John Samuelsen filed a federal injunction to stop the police from using city buses to transport protesters, the way they did on Saturday. "We intend to stop the NYPD from pressing our people into service to transport people who shouldn't have been arrested in the first place," Samuelsen told the New York Daily News.

MoveOn is backing the expanded Oct. 5 Wall Street protest, and national union leaders, including the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka, have endorsed the movement. Trumka's "been publicly supportive and I know a number of local unions are getting directly involved," says AFL-CIO spokesman Josh Goldstein. "As for our direct involvement, we want this to continue in the organic way it has. How we can be supportive and not overshadow it is important." The federation's executive board will vote Wednesday on whether to make a formal endorsement.

Even some politicians are beginning to express support for the demonstration. The co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus, Raul Grijalva and Rep. Keith Ellison, released a statement supporting it on Tuesday. "We have been inspired by the growing grassroots movements on Wall Street and across the country," the pair wrote. "We join the calls for corporate accountability and expanded middle-class opportunity." Asked whether President Obama is following the protests, press secretary Jay Carney said he was sure he was, although they hadn't spoken about it. Then he added, "to the extent that people are frustrated with the economic situation, we understand." Don't expect more from the White House, but it's almost certain other liberal Democrats will begin to speak out to support Occupy Wall Street, unless the Wednesday protest goes awry.

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But what happens when the liberal establishment begins to reach out to this amorphous collection of anarchists, libertarians, Ron Paul fans, sectarian lefties – plus many, many ordinary people turned activists, drawn by the call to protest the power of Wall Street? How will they relate to "a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought," as the Occupy Wall Street folks describe their decision-making process? Can a leaderless movement get along with liberals and Democratic Party poobahs, who are essentially leaders without a movement? It looks like we're going to find out.

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It's hard to watch Occupy Wall Street grow and not think of all the "lessons" of the '60s, mainly the bad ones. When I heard some demonstrators chanting "The whole world is watching," like they did in Chicago's Grant Park during the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention, I hoped they knew what really happened back then: Instead of the whole world watching and being horrified by the cops' brutality, a lot of people watched and cheered the police, standing up against what they saw as spoiled, dangerous kids, who were tearing down the pillars of the stable, affluent society that made their protest possible.

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But direct comparisons are hard to make, and often misleading. Yes, young people are on the front lines of protest again, but this time, they're more intrinsically sympathetic, and emblematic of what's gone wrong in our country. Youth unemployment is the highest in decades. Only 55 percent of Americans aged 16 to 29 are employed today, compared to 67 percent in 2000. A third to a half of African-American youth, depending on the under-30 subgroup examined, is unemployed.  College educated students are leaving with unprecedented levels of debt; about 15 percent of student loans are currently in default. On the movement Tumblr blog, "We are the 99 percent" – the 99 percent of the country left out of the prosperity monopolized by the top 1 percent – the voices and photos of unemployed and underemployed young people are some of the most riveting.

And so far, this leaderless movement is avoiding some obvious mistakes. There's been no violence. As I noted earlier, they're approaching the police as potential allies, not enemies. Even if it hasn't worked yet, it's smart politics. The fact that cops and firefighters joined the union movement in Wisconsin, despite the fact Gov. Scott Walker cynically exempted them from his public worker crackdown, gave that still-growing political force greater reach.

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Right now, the lack of concrete goals is an asset, not a deficit: It allows the broadest possible message to echo with the broadest possible audience. Rather than drawing lines and identifying enemies, as the left typically likes to do, participants have gravitated toward the unifying image of "the 99 percent" – that is, the entire nation, beyond the top 1 percent of America's earners, who now soak up almost a quarter of the nation's income and 40 percent of its wealth. The "We are the 99 percent" blog is like a 21st century, DIY version of Michael Harrington's searing "The Other America," the book that awakened the country to the poverty in the midst of affluence in 1963, and helped motivate the great society.

Today the problem is better depicted as an unjust concentration of affluence, in the midst of declining living standards for most of us and poverty for way too any. A corrosive economic inequality makes a mockery of the social contract that once promised security to those who got an education and worked hard. Both parties share blame for letting the financial sector rig the rules for the last 30 years. They've created a debt machine that charges interest to lend Americans the cash they haven't gotten in raises since wages stagnated in the 1970s, after the Democrats abandoned economic populism. Occupy Wall Street seems to be triggering the recognition of that injustice in a way that longer-term, "better organized" social justice movements did not.

The Nation's Betsy Reed has a great piece explaining why the left should lay off with its demands for clearer demands from the Occupy Wall Street folks. The left has plenty of ideas, and it even has a decent (if inadequate) number of organizations and organizers. It lacks access to the popular imagination that Occupy Wall Street seems to be attaining. A May 12 march on Wall Street drew impressive organizational support, Reed notes (confession: I don't even remember knowing about it), and made a smart list of demands to the city. But the Bloomberg administration ignored it, and so did the media. The year before, the “One Nation Working Together for Jobs, Justice and Education” march, sponsored by 400 liberal groups and turning out an estimated 175,000 people, amounted to little, and the Democrats were routed a month later in the midterm elections.

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Why are we such know-it-alls? Why can't we wait and see what starts to emerge from this 18-day social experiment before we make demands of it?

Organized labor seems desperate enough to do that, seeking an alternative to dependence on a Democratic Party that only half-heartedly supports it, and a way to make itself relevant in a new economy where people have "gigs" and not jobs, where underemployment is becoming a norm, and where old forms of workplace organizing often don't work. I admire the courage of labor leaders to ally with a movement they don't entirely understand.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, desperately needs moral and political ballast against the outsize influence of Wall Street. As I write, Sen. Harry Reid can't bring the president's jobs bill to the Senate floor, because even some Democrats oppose its tax hikes. Talking Points Memo reported, without naming senators, that some Democrats object to the end of tax breaks for oil and gas producers, while others are trying to protect the "carried interest" rule that is part of creating the inequity decried by billionaire Warren Buffett: Wealthy investment bankers and hedge fund managers paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries. These are Democrats, people. (Liberal Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer, Wall Street's senator, was long the protector of the "carried interest" rule.) No wonder many of the Occupy Wall Street folks are hostile to being co-opted into the left wing of the Democratic Party.

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Those of us on "the left wing of the possible," staked out by the late Michael Harrington, can understand that. We have to figure out how to make common cause with folks who want to stay outside the political system, and try to bring them in by modeling the vision of the party we want it to become, rather than hectoring. I hope there's a way to channel this movement into voting, but if I were approaching it, that wouldn't be my first demand. We also have to remember that social justice is never handed to us; the advances of the New Deal followed strikes and marches and desperation in the streets.  Fear of social unrest led to the social support we enjoy today; it wasn't the philanthropy of robber barons or the political genius of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When I read that the CEO of a major Wall Street firm called the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin asking if he should fear for his safety due to Occupy Wall Street, I couldn't help enjoying the idea that a master of the universe might have a frisson of fear that the economic suffering his class helped spread might cause him harm. Of course I don't wish him harm, except maybe psychic harm, in the form of guilt that changes his behavior.

So Democrats and union leaders who join the march Wednesday have to be prepared to see signs and hear speeches they don't agree with. Someone will say something divisive about Israel and Palestine. There may be a Free Mumia sign. People will suggest smashing capitalism, not saving it. Some remnant of the Revolutionary Communist Party will do ... something. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh will define the movement by its most repellent participant, whatever happens. We shouldn't let them. Nonviolence, though, is crucial, and the participants so far show that they know that.

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When I walked around Wall Street 10 days ago, looking for a protest I couldn't find, I thought a lot about all the history wedged in that cramped, labyrinthine corner of the city. It was the week after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and tourists were streaming down to visit the new memorial. The blue-fenced construction site is so vast, it seemed to go on forever, and I realized, all over again, the enormity of what happened that day – and paradoxically, how little most of our lives were changed by it. President Bush squandered international sympathy and our national unity on two wars, and life went back to normal for everyone not directly touched by the tragedy or the military response. What will it take to wake us up?

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Then, seven years later, almost to the day, our economy exploded after Lehman Brothers went belly up, in a catastrophe centered on Wall Street, in that same strange shard of the city. Again, despite the casualties of that crash – the millions who've lost their homes, the millions more unemployed – little has really changed on Wall Street, either. In 2009, on the first anniversary of the Lehman crash, President Obama went to Federal Hall, across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, the site where George Washington gave his first inaugural address, and gave a tough speech, but the titans of Wall Street didn't bother to attend: Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase had other engagements. The very same week two years later, Occupy Wall Street came to Federal Hall. Maybe they'll have more luck than Obama did getting the titans of Wall Street's attention.

As I climbed the steps of Federal Hall, trying to get an overview of the cops and the Wall Street workers, who seemed to be looking around nervously for marchers, I remembered another historic event that occurred there: The Hard Hat Riot of May 1970. That's when flag-wielding building trades workers surged from the under-construction World Trade Center to Federal Hall to break up a memorial for Kent State victims, four antiwar protesters killed by the Ohio National Guard four days earlier. They used their hard hats to beat up antiwar students as well as to smash the remnants of the New Deal coalition, for good. Riots weren't just for kids anymore; they were for the angry white working class, who blamed ungrateful students for the social disorder and economic insecurity they feared. Later that month the head of the New York Building Trades Council, Peter Brennan, presented Richard Nixon with his own hard hat; in 1972 he endorsed Nixon and became his ineffectual labor secretary in 1973. Labor began its steady decline that year, and so did the Democratic Party.

The political fracture represented by the Hard Hat Riot, sundering the old New Deal coalition, helped create the conditions that enabled the top 1 percent to gobble up so much of the country's wealth. Maybe we can begin to reverse that with another meeting of labor and protesters outside Federal Hall. If I were in New York, I'd be there Wednesday night. I'll be watching.

 

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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