USA: Revolt of the 99 %

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Eric Fretz reports from New York on how the Occupy movement has transformed the mood in the USA.

"We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent." So runs the statement on the werarethe99percent website.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) provided a breath of fresh air in the muddled political discourse of the US. It turned into a lightning rod for many other protests, giving new energy even to longtime labour struggles. By targeting Wall Street and raising the slogan of "the 99%" versus "the 1%" class politics has been reintroduced into the centre of political debate.

The slogan "We are the 99%" is now heard on union rallies, and its popularity has helped cut through ideas spread by the right wing that divide immigrant workers from US-born workers, or the majority of the non-unionised workforce from union members with supposedly "Cadillac health plans" and "excessive benefits". Instead, we are in it together, with only a small and extremely wealthy sliver of the population benefiting. This does not mean racism and other right wing ideas have disappeared from the working class or that most people would name capitalism as the main problem, but the political debate has shifted and for now the Occupy movement has almost completely eclipsed the Tea Party.

And the focus is not just on economic inequality but the enormous influence the rich and corporations have over the political process. How "democratic" can a system that favours the 1% over the 99% be?

It's been just a few months since a demonstration was pushed off Wall Street and 150 people took up residence in nearby Zuccotti Park (again known by its original name of Liberty Plaza). The park was transformed into a bustling hub often packed with over a thousand people in the day, containing numerous working groups, forums, a library, and free kitchen serving demonstrators and homeless alike, and sleeping hundreds in increasingly winterised tents.

Within two weeks the media turned its dial (as satirist Jon Stewart put it) from "blackout" to "circus", fuelled partly by episodes of police violence. The movement spread as hundreds of other occupations of various sizes were established in different cities across the US.

OWS intentionally never agreed to a written set of demands, although discussions continue here in New York and in other cities. However, unofficial demands of the movement are seen in the chants and signs, and more importantly, by the alliances made by OWS.

OWS has publicised and collaborated with other groups in marches from Liberty Plaza that demanded universal health care, or the extension of the New York State "millionaire's tax" (a slight 2 percent surcharge the governor insists will lapse at the end of the year). Similarly, joining with protesters in the Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhoods against "stop and frisk" or joining the picket-line of locked out Teamsters at Sotheby's is effectively agreeing with the demands being made there, without having them become the limits of what OWS wants.

Impact
And the movement is having an impact. An important example is last month's referendum in Ohio over the Republican governor's plan to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees. Unions devoted major resources into working with others, including Occupy Cincinnati, in a huge campaign against the proposed bill. The changed feeling around the Occupy movement helped get the vote out, and the union-busting bill was defeated by an almost 2 to 1 margin.

Similarly when protests in Washington DC against the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline were followed by the Obama administration's surprise decision to postpone the approval decision to 2013, author Naomi Klein said, "The ground has shifted... I don’t think we would have won without Occupy Wall Street...There are already victories happening."

But the most complicated, and potentially earthshaking, influence of the Occupy movement is on the labour unions. While unions played no role in the initial call for a demonstration, or the establishment of a camp at Zuccotti Park, they soon noticed that the movement had struck a chord. The TWU, a public transport union, started the ball rolling when they sued the City to stop their bus drivers from being commandeered by the police during mass arrests, and announced support for OWS.

A community/labour solidarity march on 5 October for OWS was endorsed by a long list of municipal and private sector unions and New York locals (union branches). Instead of the usual contingents, union members came on their own or in small groups throughout the march, appearing jubilant and impressed with the creative militancy. From the platform union heads competed with each other to sound more militant without actually calling their members to action. Bob Masters from Communication Workers of America caught the mood when he said, "Occupy Wall Street has captured the spirit of our time. This is Madison [Wisconsin], this is Cairo, this is Tunisia."

A year before, the AFL-CIO union federation pulled out all the stops to get 100,000 to a rally in Washington for the "One Nation" march (note the difference from "the 99%") in an attempt to counter the Tea Party before last November's mid-term elections. The day disappeared without a trace. But OWS was different.

Further proof of that came in Oakland, California. Early in the morning of 25 October, police attacked Occupy Oakland's camp, shooting Iraq vet Scott Olsen at close range with a tear gas canister and sending him to hospital with a fractured skull. The next day a general assembly of over 2,000 called for a city-wide general strike a week later. While it may not quite have achieved that, enormous crowds on the day were swollen by workers whose unions had urged them to come.

Participation was scheduled for lunchtime and after work. Around 360 teachers (who have a no-strike clause in their contract) skipped work and many downtown businesses were closed. And after crowds of thousands marched to block access to the huge Oakland Port and fraternise with workers, an assessor ruled it was too dangerous for dockers in the ILWU union to be forced to cross the picket line. The entire afternoon shift did not report, shutting down the nation's fourth biggest port. The tradit'on of strike action for political issues among Oakland's port workers may be unusual, but Oakland holds out the promise of what the Occupy/labour relationship could become.

Many of the occupiers are newly radicalised young people without any experience of unions. They must learn how to build relationships with the rank and file, not just cheerleading what the union leaders are doing nor simply repeating Oakland's call for general strikes in their city regardless of the circumstances. The role of pitifully small numbers of socialists and union militants is key in this. But in places like OWS's 100-member Labour Outreach Working Group just such patient preparation has been going on.

Occupy on campus
The Occupy movement is also growing in college campuses. Colleges up and down the hard-hit University of California system have recently been occupied or been the site of demonstrations, including students and staff being arrested in an attempt to set up an encampment on the historic Sproul Plaza at Berkeley, home of the 1960s Free Speech Movement.

The Occupy Boston protest was recently joined by Occupy Harvard and a small encampment on Northeastern University's quad. American student protests have a history of building occupations. Teach-ins and attempts to keep libraries and other services open are a possible next step on campus, rather than automatically repeating the outdoor encampments seen in city centres.

Occupy activists have also organised several successful occupations to save homes from being foreclosed by banks, sometimes combining large groups camping out in front of the home to protect it, with others sitting in at the foreclosing bank. Other groups have disrupted foreclosure auctions, or moved homeless families into vacant homes already owned by banks.

Similar actions were a popular tactic of the US Communist Party during the 1930s Depression. The Occupy movement has brought together large groups of people who could help in these activities, and the growing links with these radical housing groups is another way to expand the movement.

Early next year the media will once again start focusing all their political attention on the US elections, which can act as a wet blanket on other political activities. The pull on many to start backing the least bad candidate will present a challenge for the movement that it needs to prepare for now. But so far the Occupy movement has stayed healthily separate from the two-party system. OWS has cut through the consensus promoted by Democrats and Republicans that there is no alternative to austerity by pointing to the 1%. Whatever happens with the physical occupations, OWS has brought class politics back to centre stage, and excited people across America with examples of creative action and basic solidarity. These people will not disappear.