Co-opt-upy Wall Street?

November 30, 2011

Danny Katch describes what leaders of the labor movement have in mind for the future of Occupy Wall Street--and how union and other activists can respond.

THE OCCUPY movement's November 17 day of action, which followed a week in which protest camps were attacked in nationally coordinated police raids, marked the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). The day of action protests across the country made it clear that police repression will not silence our movement.

But repression has a subtler cousin named co-optation, who also made an unfortunate appearance that day. It's an early sign of what will surely be an increasing trend as we enter an election year, something that I've only rarely heard talked about at Occupy events--but read about incessantly in media reports about them.

New York City activists from OWS spent weeks planning the November 17 day of action alongside organizers from unions and community organizations, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). But when the Occupiers showed up for the day's culminating rally and march over the Brooklyn Bridge, they found a completely different event from the one they had planned.

New York occupiers and supporters march on a mass day of action on November 17
New York occupiers and supporters march on a mass day of action on November 17

Instead of a series of platforms for coordinated "people's mics" that had been agreed to at planning meetings, there was a blaring sound system, an emcee and a series of people pre-selected to tell their stories.

Instead of the plan for a "lightly marshaled event" in which protesters would be led to the pedestrian path of the bridge, but free to go wherever they wanted, there were hundreds of marshals working alongside riot cops to keep the streets clear. Like the sound system and the emcee, these marshals were provided by the SEIU. (Don't be too hard on the marshals, by the way--many of whom are hard-working union organizers who may well have hated their assignment that night.)

According to one OWS activist, a lot of the people running the rally with their headsets and two-way radios tried hard to ignore the gazes of organizers with whom they had spent countless meeting hours not mentioning any of these plans for what actually took place.

For most protesters, the SEIU takeover of the event probably only registered as a series of oddities. Why were people shouting "Mic check!" over a deafening sound system? Why were marshals chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets!" as they worked with police to keep us on the sidewalks?

The effect was like a clueless dad trying to use his daughter's new slang. But the organizers from OWS knew what was taking place.

WHY DID the SEIU take over the march? Let's back up first to consider the context.

It's true, as the OWS website declared after the raid on Zuccotti Park a few days before, that "you can't evict an idea." But you can steal it. You can empty it of its content until all that's left is a slogan that used to mean something.

For example: "We need a leader willing to fight for the needs of the 99 percent." That's SEIU President Mary Kay Henry announcing the union's early endorsement of a presidential candidate in 2012: Barack Obama, the largest recipient of Wall Street campaign contributions in the history of the world.

A few days later, the SEIU announced plans for a rally in Washington, D.C., because "congressional supporters of the 1 percent blocked President Obama's latest job proposals." I support more rallies for jobs, of course, but you know that the SEIU will not be issuing any criticisms of Obama's job proposals as too little and much too late.

And the name of this early campaign rally in D.C.? "Occupy Congress." Glenn Greenwald, America's bullshit detector laureate, wrote:

Having SEIU officials...shape, fund, dictate and decree an anti-GOP, pro-Obama march is about as antithetical as one can imagine to what the Occupy movement has been. And pretending that the ongoing protests are grounded in the belief that the GOP is the party of the rich while the Democrats are the party of the working class is likely to fool just about nobody other than those fooled by that already.

It's not going to be easy for the Democratic Party to take in a movement that was born in response to watching Barack Obama sell his soul to the One Percent. Add to that the difficulty of maintaining support from all the people who defend the Occupy movement even as Democratic (big D, not little d) mayors repress the tens of thousands who are actually occupying.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams went so far as to refer to the police raid he ordered as a chance for Occupy Portland to "evolve in order to reach its full potential"--which conjured up images of a future martial law episode of Portlandia with "fair trade" rubber bullets and organic pepper spray.

With spokespeople of this caliber, it might seem like the Democrats wouldn't have a prayer with the Occupy movement. But there's more than one way to co-opt a movement.

Which brings us back to what the SEIU was doing on the night of November 17.

No matter how disappointing the Democrats have been in defending working people from the budget-cutters and social reactionaries--much less promoting positive measures to make unions stronger--organized labor will be devoted to electing Democrats in 2012. Union leaders may be happy to see the mass mobilizations of the Occupy movement, but they don't want them to get too militant--and they want the movement's enthusiasm benefit their drive to elect Democrats next year.

Thus, the SEIU's marshalling operation to make sure Occupy demonstrators didn't take the streets on November 17 is connected to the union leadership's devoted support of Obama and the Democrats.

WE HAVE reached a new phase of Occupy Wall Street. The movement is no longer skipping from one success to another. The One Percent has regained its footing and carried out a well-designed plan to break up many of our encampments with paramilitary raids in the dead of night, accompanied by media hype about dangerous and unsanitary conditions.

And now we can see that the Democratic Party is fielding its most experienced forces, whose aim is to steer the movement toward the safe terrain of electoral politics.

In the face of these and other challenges, what do we have? Only the most dynamic American protest movement in generations--one that has in the past several months spread across the country and connected with dozens of existing struggles. We can confront the threat of co-optation as surely as we can challenge repression.

The solution is not to turn away from organized labor, whose participation in OWS in New York City has been one of the movement's biggest strengths.

From the beginning, Occupy gave an infusion of energy to various union struggles around New York City. And in turn, the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park and its meetings and protests were infused with increasing numbers of union members who have been waiting years for this movement.

In the process, people who had never come in contact with the labor movement have built up activist relationships with unionists that aren't going away--and union members from different unions formed new networks that can be put to use in the battles ahead, whether they have to do with labor or the right to free speech or any other issue. These relationships built in the struggle will be important in maintaining the vibrancy of the Occupy movement, even if union leaders hope that they can control it and channel it toward the voting booth.

Yes, unions are complicated. Their members have a power to shut down vast chunks of Corporate America--but their leaders are insulated from the class war by their stake in the status quo and their relationship to one of the two major political parties of the One Percent, the Democrats.

What we do know is that OWS has breathed new life into a labor movement that has been in retreat for decades. At the rank-and-file level, the Occupy movement was a lightning rod for many people who have been looking for a way to take action. And even moderate union leaders gave important support to Occupy--for example, the overnight mobilization in October when Mayor Michael Bloomberg first tried to break up the OWS encampment.

Continuing that engagement with labor will be important for the future of the Occupy movement. And within unions, it will serve as a counter-weight against officials who want labor to go back to mobilizing only for the polls--rather than for the protests that have galvanized people around the country in a long overdue struggle against the One Percent.

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