The Mayor and the cops’ attack on the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) encampment at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, and the crackdown on similar occupations in cities across the country, mark a turning point in the struggle.
The capitalist media have done their best to discourage working-class support for the occupations by focusing coverage on stories of drum circles, drug use and violence. But working people’s hatred of Wall Street and the rest of the profiteers who rule this country has proven far stronger than any distrust of the protesters. Polls of public opinion confirm that the occupations enjoy popular support.
The OWS protests have tapped into the widespread sense of injustice at the multi-billion dollar bailouts of banks and corporations and the ongoing efforts to make working-class and poor people foot the bill with layoffs and budget cuts. Moreover, they have encouraged workers to think that perhaps it’s time to take action and turn around the ever-worsening war on their jobs and living standards.
By taking the initiative to protest at Wall Street and by courageously standing up to violent police attacks, the OWS protests have changed political consciousness in this country. The idea of mass action against economic injustice has proved itself popular after decades of retreats and defeats for workers.
These achievements should not leave us satisfied, however, if the protests don’t realize their greatest potential. With winter approaching and police attacks escalating, the potential to spark struggles by working-class and poor people is in danger of being extinguished.
It feels great to be a part of a big protest, united with thousands in a common cause. But protests must be used to advance the organization of workers and poor people to struggle for their demands. Otherwise, even big protests like today’s can hide the reality that a precious opportunity to start building a working-class movement of mass action risks being lost.
We in the League for the Revolutionary Party have warned from the outset of the struggle that the OWS protests could not simply grow based on their model of tent-cities composed of mostly better-off, young white people. The Wall Street protests need to be transcended by a movement of mass struggles by and for the prime victims of the economic crisis – working-class and poor people, and especially Blacks, Latinos and immigrants. That means marches, strikes and workplace occupations demanding an end to cutbacks, layoffs and foreclosures, to start with, and calling for a major program of public works to provide jobs for all.
So far, however, the OWS protests have not realized their potential to spark a working-class fightback. The major reason is that the leaders of the unions, practically the only force that workers can turn to for organization against the capitalist attacks, have refused to mobilize their members.
The OWS protests exposed the fact that the unions had not organized a single action against Wall Street since the economic crisis broke over two years ago. To cover up this embarrassing fact, union leaders have made important gestures of solidarity with the occupations, but they have done little to actually organize their members onto the streets. They have donated food to occupiers, but at the same time they have continued to agree to layoffs and cutbacks that take food off their members’ tables. They have donated meeting rooms to Wall Street protest organizers, but they haven’t organized meetings of their own members to discuss how to build a fightback.
Right now in New York the potential for a working-class fightback led by the unions is particularly good. The contract for the city’s subway and bus workers expires soon and their leaders in TWU Local 100 are already in negotiations with the bosses. Transit workers have already shown their ability to bring the city to a crawl by striking and could show the way forward for all the city’s working-class and poor people. The city’s janitors and building workers, drawn primarily from among New York’s most exploited and oppressed immigrant workers are organized in SEIU Union Local 32 B-J; they also have a contract expiring and are negotiating with the commercial real estate bosses — in the same building as the transit negotiations. But transit and janitorial workers can testify that their unions have not so much as circulated a leaflet encouraging worker participation in today’s protest, let alone sent their officials, delegates and shop stewards to bring workers out to protest.
The attitude of the OWS leaders who control the movement’s website and newspaper has also played a part. For example, the occupation’s “Demands Working Group” proposed to call on the government to create jobs for the unemployed through a big public works program. Such demands could have encouraged workers to join the struggle with the knowledge that it is a fight for some of their most essential needs. But that proposal was opposed by the occupation’s secretive, unaccountable leaders, who declared that demands are unnecessary. One reason given was that “we are our demands” – expressing their satisfaction with the movement remaining an act of moral protest by mostly better-off young white people.
To realize the potential for a working-class fightback against the capitalist attacks, the most militant workers and young people will have to pressure the union leaders to act, all the while preparing an alternative political leadership that won’t be a conservative brake on the movement in the future.
The treacherous role of union leaders and their allies in the Democratic Party is best shown by recent events in Oakland, California. The country was shocked by images of the police attack on Oakland occupiers on the night of October 25. Under the orders of Mayor Jean Quan, riot police attacked peaceful protesters with stun grenades, tear gas and other projectiles, almost killing one Iraq war veteran and injuring many others.
The next day, the Oakland occupation’s General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a “general strike” to shut the city down. But sometimes the most radical-sounding proposal is not the most threatening to the ruling class. What at first appeared to be an inspiring call for working-class struggle now looks more like a lost opportunity.
For workers to support a call for a general strike, they must know that to win their demands, such drastic action is necessary. But most of Oakland’s workers had yet to be mobilized in even a protest, so there was no reason to think that they were ready to violate anti-strike laws, risking fines and firing, to make a general strike happen. Furthermore, the Occupy Oakland General Assembly failed to raise the basic demand for the resignation of the mayor and police chief who directed the cop attack.
When the day of action came, while top union bodies had endorsed the strike call in words, and while some workers courageously refused to go to work, no union actually went on strike and none were expected to do so. What did happen was a massive, inspiring protest of tens of thousands that marched on the city’s docks and succeeded in shutting down work there for a shift. But the next day the mayor and police chief were still in office, plotting with their counterparts in other cities to sweep the occupations away. And since then they have succeeded.
Oakland’s protesters have done the working class a positive service by putting the idea of a general strike in the minds of broad numbers of activists and workers – it is a tactic that we in the LRP have always made a point of promoting. But suppose the demand had been made for the unions and all community organizations to mobilize for a massive march to surround City Hall demanding the ouster of the mayor and police chief and an end to all anti-working class budget cuts. Then, either real victories could have been won or the basis for an escalating campaign of mass action, up to a general strike, could have been laid.
If a massive protest in Oakland forced the mayor and police chief to resign, all the country’s mayors would have feared moving on protests in their cities. Proof that mass protests can win demands would have encouraged struggles across the country.
Most importantly, had a massive protest forced the resignation of Oakland’s mayor, a history-making break from electoralism would have been achieved. Struggles against anti-working-class attacks by city and state governments are constantly misdirected into electoral campaigns that end the empowering experience of mass action and most often lead to defeat.
Just consider the recent campaign against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union laws. There, union protests and occupations empowered workers to start making realistic calls for a general strike. But the union leaders effectively ended that struggle in favor of a pro-Democratic Party campaign to recall Republican legislators, which failed miserably.
Oakland could have given militant workers and youth everywhere proof that they need not wait for elections to oust anti-working class politicians. Instead, Oakland’s day of protest served to let off steam rather than pave the way for a growing struggle. The mayor and police chief, their positions unthreatened, quickly regained the upper hand, sweeping the occupation from Oscar Grant Park and paving the way for police attacks on occupations across the country.
The anti-Wall Street protests may exhaust themselves before achieving their potential of sparking a working-class fightback. This highlights the limitations of the political perspective that has dominated the movement so far. Consider the slogan “We are the 99%” which was popularized by Occupy Wall Street and has since been appropriated by sellout leaders of all stripes, from union bureaucrats to Democratic Party politicians. The slogan seems to unite the greatest possible number of people against the super-wealthy minority who sit atop this capitalist society. But the slogan ignores the fundamental structures of power and oppression that divide society and keep the mass of people poor and exploited. Indeed it hides the role of the very forces most responsible for preventing a working-class fightback in the first place.
The fundamental division in capitalist society is between the tiny minority who own and control the economy and direct it for their profit, and the vast majority who must work for them to survive. That is the division between the capitalists and the working class.
But between the capitalists and the working class there is a large middle class of small business people, skilled professionals and other privileged types. As capitalist profiteering drives the working class deeper into poverty and intolerable living conditions, the need for a massive fight to win drastic changes makes itself ever more acutely felt by workers and poor people, and especially by Blacks, Latinos and immigrants are disproportionately in the working class. The middle class, on the other hand, has a stake in the system and can hope that with only a few minor changes at the top, like Obama’s proposal to slightly raise taxes on “the 1%” to maintain some jobs and services, they can get back to living “the American Dream.”
The problem is that for as long as a mass working-class fightback is delayed, capitalism will continue to drive workers deeper into poverty, and will continue to push more and more middle-class people out of their privileged positions and down into the working class and beyond. What’s needed is not just a struggle to lend working-class numbers and power to Occupy Wall Street’s goals. A struggle to defend the working class from the demands of capitalist austerity and profiteering is needed in order to defend the living standards of all. That means not just working-class action but working-class leadership of the struggle.
As long as the populist idea of “99%” of the population united against a greedy “1%” dominates the movement, the specific interests of the working class, poor and oppressed people will be neglected and betrayed. We have seen this in the OWS leadership’s opposition to demands like Jobs for All! And we have seen it in the far worse betrayals by the leaders of the unions. Since the economic crisis broke out, the union bureaucrats have been more concerned with keeping their positions of power and privilege as deal-makers with the capitalists and politicians than with organizing struggles to defend the members’ jobs and living standards.
Indeed, the union bureaucrats’ treacherous role is a sharp example of how the middle class serves as the capitalist ruling class’s force for maintaining social stability, so that exploitation of the masses of workers can continue. Day-to-day, they are even more important than the capitalists’ last line of defense, the courts and cops, who are deadly enemies of the workers and oppressed people – and who are also included as supposed allies in the populist illusion of “the 99%.”
A huge working-class led mass movement would help convince many that the way to ensure a decent life with jobs, health care, and all the other necessities for all people is to take the power to run society out of the hands of the capitalist bosses and their politicians. And working-class and poor people are finally starting to fight back. The revolutionary uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, where workers’ strikes played decisive roles in toppling dictators there, as well as the mass militant workers’ protests in Greece, are significant signs that in response to the bosses’ attacks there will be a surge in uprisings around the world.
The most politically conscious workers and youth will come to see, by way of struggles today as well as the study of Marxism and the history of past struggles, that the working class can stop the capitalist economy and the capitalists’ profiteering. It is workers who make society run. More will begin to see the need to overthrow capitalist rule and seize power ourselves. But workers need a new political leadership – a revolutionary working-class party – that fights for building the best possible defense today while aiming to convince our fellow workers of the need to overthrow the capitalists. That means replacing their rule with a working-class state power dedicated to building a society of abundance, freedom and justice for all.
The League for the Revolutionary Party is a working-class revolutionary socialist organization that includes transit workers, CUNY workers and students and others. We fight for united struggle against the capitalist attacks while working to convince fellow workers and youth of revolutionary goals. We defend and develop Marxist theory as a guide to action: a scientific analysis of this society and its crisis shows that socialist revolution is the only solution to our problems. We believe that to get to that revolution and to lead our struggles today, we need to build a revolutionary party based on the working class. We hope that revolutionary-minded workers and youth will join us in this and look forward to discussing these ideas as we fight for a better life for all.