Insurgent Notes #5, January 2012

Content from issue 5 of this communist journal, mainly themed around the Occupy movement in the United States.

Submitted by Fozzie on February 6, 2024

Globalization of Capital, Globalization of Struggle

Editorial for Insurgent Notes Issue No. 5 on the Occupy Movement.

Submitted by Kadir Ateş on February 5, 2012

"Rise like lions after slumber… Ye are many, They are few."
Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy

It was a long time coming. Governments collapsing in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and perhaps soon in Yemen and Syria; repeated uprisings against austerity in Greece, riots in Britain, 100,000 “incidents” per year in China, month after month of student mobilization in Chile; finally, the worldwide wave of struggle of 2011 came to the United States in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and subsequent occupations in perhaps as many as 1,000 American cities and towns. For the United States, as for many of the countries in the Middle East, decades of the glaciation of struggle melted away in weeks. 2011 may not have had quite the global reach of 1968, but in the United States at least, in some ways, it surpassed 1968 in the months of sustained confrontation in so many places at the same time. As we said last spring about the important Madison forerunner of the fall Occupy movement, the old mole did its work well. Whatever else may happen from now on, a new historical period has opened up, and the decades in which the grinding post-1970s crisis were borne in silence, or sporadic uprisings were defeated in isolation, are over.

Something has escaped the control of the Democrats, the NGOs, the SEIU and the left sects—of official society and those attempting its mere facelift—which will not be easily brought to heel. Hundreds of thousands of people who had never before been in mass mobilizations (or mobilizations of any kind) found themselves confronting the police, facing tear gas and pepper spray, going to jail and learning in the streets what can never be learned any other way, namely the real role of the state’s “special body of armed men” and the fluidity and ebbs and flows of an unfolding practical movement in motion. As Marx once put it, “one concrete step forward of the real movement is worth a hundred programs.” 2012 shows every sign of being the year of further steps, and all the forces of the old world are scrambling for places in spurious hopes of shunting the movement into the Obama re-election campaign and into a kinder, gentler union movement, one which has for so long declined in its parochial, provincial preoccupation with keeping up the dues base long enough for the current generation of bureaucrats to retire with their multiple pensions and “après nous, le deluge.” (For most people, young or old, black or brown or white, the deluge started long ago.)

Insurgent Notes thus devotes the bulk of this issue to the Occupy movement.

Occupy in the United States of course invites inevitable comparison with the 1960s. And though we do not wish to discourage the great majority of participants in OWS and elsewhere too young to have experienced that decade, by invoking the long shadow of the sixties, a few comments are indeed in order to measure the historical distance from that era. The social and economic situation today is obviously far more dire. True, 1968 was exactly the year in which post-1945 trends toward greater income equality (not just in the United States but throughout the “advanced capitalist” world) were reversed, to become more unequal in the United States today than even in 1929. And one theme common to 1968 and 2011 is that of downwardly-mobile college-educated youth; it’s just that in 1968, the great majority of New Leftists did not yet know that most of them were downwardly mobile. No one today, in contrast to then, is talking about the “affluent society” or the “leisure society” or the looming “ten-hour work week,” conjured up by some post-scarcity-futurologists who didn’t understand that technology per se is not capital, and that capital only exists by exploiting living labor.

The 2011 movement, given the more critical situation which gave rise to it, has been on a much faster learning curve than the United States movement of the 1960s. If we view the “sixties” as lasting, in reality, from 1955 (the Montgomery bus boycott, the mass wildcat in auto against the UAW’s much-touted contract of that year) to 1973 (the “oil crisis,” the end of the postwar boom and the end of the wildcat movement) we note that it was not until 1965 that black militants (whatever their other problems) broke with the earlier pacifism of the civil rights movement, that the movement against the Vietnam War needed years to move from marginality to broad support in the population as a whole, and that the white, middle-class New Left student movement needed similar years to evolve from the vague discontent of the 1962 Port Huron statement to anything resembling an anti-capitalist perspective (however warped the largely Stalinist, Maoist and Third Worldist forms of that “anti-capitalism”) by 1968–69.

By contrast, the Occupy movement of 2011, particularly on the west coast, took only weeks (or less[1]) to see the need to link up with broader working class strata, to begin to question (at least by an important minority) the capitalist system per se, to go beyond its early pacifist outreach to the police, to attempt, with some success, to go beyond its initially white middle-class core to ally with blacks and Latinos, and most importantly, to strike an important chord of sympathy with the broader population.

OWS also echoed the early 1960s New Left in its mistrust of leaders[2], ideologies and demands. This reflected a decade or more of experience by some of its core members in actions before and after the 1999 Seattle mobilization against the WTO, with the consensus meeting format (sometimes diluted to 90 percent or 80 percent agreement) and the “people’s mic.” These methods were developed for many reasons, among them the negative counter-model of older left faction fights and left sect attempts to infiltrate and manipulate meetings in search of recruits. Many “stars,” Hollywood and others, who visited occupied sites in sympathy or support duly accepted the same rules. The consensus format may not survive when more strictly working-class strata go into motion and more divisive questions confront the movement (the latter having already surfaced in Occupy in a number of cities over the question of the police, the presence of Ron Paul sympathizers, the splits between the liberal/social-democratic majority at the origins and the emerging radical currents, etc.), but it did have the merits of forcing speakers to talk succinctly and to the point, to avoid ideological diversions and to keep attentions focused.

Nor should it be forgotten that the early 1960s New Left also began with a distrust of “ideology,” only to wind up in the late 1960s mired in the worst “first time tragedy, second time farce” regurgitation of 1930s variants of Stalinist ideology. “Ideology” is by definition a falsification of reality, to which we counter-pose theory. “Consciousness is something the world must acquire, even if it does not want to,” as someone once wrote.[3] Like all young movements emerging from deep social processes, Occupy will have to confront more clearly where it stands on questions of program, its relationship to the millions of working people who sympathized from afar but went about their daily routines often a block away from the occupations, the dynamic of race and class in American society, not to mention to the capitalist mode of production and its abolition. It was refreshing indeed, in contrast to the 1960s, that the participants in Occupy were clearly struggling for themselves, and not in a vague solidarity with little-understood peasant guerrillas or bureaucratic statist regimes on the other side of the planet. That reality, by itself, turns the page on an era.

OWS and its nationwide offshoots did, however, have a diffuse ideology, and that ideology was populism, a current with deep roots in American history. While the idea of the “99 percent” did serve to capture the popular imagination by highlighting the unprecedented amassing of wealth by the “1 percent” (or the 0.1 percent, or the 0.01 percent) in recent decades, it equally fostered many illusions, beginning with the pacifist outreach to the police. But equally if not more problematic were a series of mystifications, above all the excessive focus on financial institutions as the heart of the crisis, as opposed to a global crisis in the spheres of material production and reproduction underway for decades,[4] of which “financialization,” however defined and however important, is merely a symptom and a response to deeper trends. Amidst the myriad of targets of the occupation movements, “capitalism” was merely one more item on a laundry list, with generally little understanding of what capitalism, or its actual abolition, entails, thus leaving the door wide open to populist slogans from “Abolish the Federal Reserve” to “tax the rich” and “make the rich pay their fair share.” Some significant part of Occupy still remains vulnerable to the Keynesian siren songs of a Joseph Stiglitz or a Jeffrey Sachs.

One of the movement’s strengths was its resistance to the pressure from various outside forces, starting with the media, for “concrete demands,” not to mention for leaders able to negotiate such demands[5] and thus become targets for repression and co-optation. As someone put it, even OWS activists who wanted demands did not know what those demands were. CLR James remarked long ago that the realities of capitalism in its statist phase[6] educate people directly and prepare the point of departure of revolt with an inchoate sense of what is necessary. However diverse and scattered the specific consciousness of participants, the lack or refusal of demands expressed the deep reality of the movement as one of a blocked society, which implied total transformation, however poorly articulated. What were the “demands” in France in May 1968 or in Argentina in 2001/2002, or other situations where “power lay in the streets”? What are the “demands” in Greece today? The total transformation required—we call it revolution—is not something one “demands,” but something one does.

The movement also expresses in its concrete existence what may be its most important practical discovery: after decades of the (mainly) failures of workplace struggle, of the dispersion of the working population in further suburbanization and ex-urbanization, of whole de-industrialized regions, of casualization and the decline of stable, long-term employment in one workplace, the Occupy movement discovered the remaining central public space as the one place of visibility capable of reaching large numbers of people. “Making shame more shameful still by making it public” (Marx[7]) was an important part of what OWS and its spinoffs were about, after decades in which so much degradation and rollback had been suffered in atomized silence, buried by the trashy feel-good media and the enforced anonymity of people who suffered increasing job insecurity, the reality or threat of homelessness, ever-more expensive health care or no health care at all, useless diplomas and “retraining” from dubious fly-by-night educational scams, downsizing, lengthening work weeks and declining real income with two and three precarious jobs, disappearing pensions, skyrocketing school tuitions, arbitrary week-to-week shift changes and scheduling (designed for no other reason than to tire, and demoralize, and fragment any potential workplace solidarity), electronic surveillance, and “just in time” production methods. Like the Argentine piqueteros who realized the increasing limits of struggle focused on the factory, and expanded it instead to the supermarket, the hospital, the police station and the freeway blockage, OWS discovered a form of militant organization in which a thousand different grievances could be aired and made visible, not least through its often skillful use of new electronic media.

Insurgent Notes thus presents in this issue several accounts of the occupation movement in New York City as well as in Baltimore, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and, perhaps most importantly, in Oakland and Seattle, where the radicalization was arguably (along with Portland) the deepest and where the linkup with workers the most direct. These accounts show, in some important instances, an evolution away from pacifist dreams about the police, the growing participation of working people and working people of color, the different local relations between Occupy, the official labor movement and the rank-and-file (as in Oakland and in Seattle), how the movement (as in Seattle) confronted the problems of violence within the occupation, and how, through experience, a radical current emerged in relation to the liberal/social-democratic forces that were dominant at the outset and, in other instances, where little of that happened.

We would like to acknowledge the reprinting of an Insurgent Notes leaflet, distributed on November 17th at Union Square and Foley Square, in Hella Occupy, a pamphlet distributed across the country on December 12th. We appreciate the additional distribution of our perspective.

We also continue our chronicling of the decomposition of the United States economy and society with an article on US infrastructure; with a letter from Paris on the background of Olivier Besancenot, who made a furtive appearance in New York promoting his disintegrating “New Anti-Capitalist Party,” and finally an update on the “indignados” movement in Barcelona.


[1] It should not be forgotten that Occupy Portland and Occupy Seattle had before them from the beginning the reality of the (still far from resolved) August confrontation between longshoremen and police in Longview, Washington, which is treated in several contributions to this issue of Insurgent Notes.

[2] OWS and other occupations were not quite as free of “leaders” as was widely touted by both the movement and the media; cf. John Heilemann’s article in the December 2011 issue of New York Magazine or the Oakland “insurrectionist anarchists” mentioned in Jack Gerson’s article in this issue of IN. Over time, these “non-leader leaders” became known as the “1 percent of the 99 percent.”

[3] Karl Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge, 1843.

[4] For more on this, see The Remaking of the American Working Class: The Restructuring of Global Capital and the Recomposition of Class Terrain.

[5] Here again, OWS, or parts of it, recalled the success of the 1960s media in setting up spectacular “leaders” who then in one way or another distorted the reality, bringing them their fifteen minutes of fame, and smaller numbers even remembered the battle cry of the I.W.W. from a hundred years ago “We are all leaders.”

[6] CLR James, Facing Reality, Bewick Publications, 1958. James was talking about “state capitalism” as a world phenomenon of the 1950s, but his remark can equally be applied to the arguably more pervasive, quasi-totalitarian expansion of commodity relationships since then.

[7] A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.


OWS and the working class

How has the Occupy Movement impacted the lives of the "traditional" wage-earning working class and how do they see the Occupy? Brief notes from NYC and NJ.

Submitted by Kadir Ateş on February 5, 2012

The two most common refrains I’ve heard from people at my job on the Occupy Wall Street movement is that:

1) It is nothing more than a media spectacle, or
2) An ephemeral protest that will die out soon enough.

I have even been told that workers at a Burger King close to Zucotti Park were lamenting their low wages all the while facing signs which demanded an end to wage slavery. As frustrating as this may sound to the left, who are justifiably excited over a revival of radical politics, many workers cannot see the movement’s relevancy to their own lives, yet still feel the pangs of the crisis perhaps more painfully than most. This apparent disconnect, however, is not due to ignorance of the message of OWS or its distortion by the media—as if a precondition of revolutionary consciousness requires taking stock of every shred of information available. Neither can it be explained as a phenomenon related to an urban environment as such. Rather, this gap rests on the mistaken assumption by the Occupiers that their struggle is the common struggle for all of the working class, as exemplified in such opaque terminology as “the 99 percent.” This conflation lays the groundwork for a variety of other problems which reinforce a certain type of radical politics that on one hand “demands nothing/everything,” while at the same time locates crisis in finance and banking. Thus discussions of political pluralism or “diversity of tactics,” which seeks to be as inclusive as possible to all participants, the Occupiers’ support of and commiseration with unions as institutional victims of the crisis as well as attempts to block foreclosures, all provide an ambiguous yet complex picture of a movement grappling with the issue of class and its representation in 21st century America.

One continuing feature of OWS has been the notion of “no demands” and the political heterogeneity of the occupations and movement in general. The occupations officially started on September 17th and were aimed at the “financial heart” of capitalism, namely Wall Street, as it was perceived to be the primary location of where capital reproduces itself and by default, where the core of the crisis emanated. Tents pitched, the Occupiers ended up in Zuccotti Park where they were able to obtain food and other items for living without cost based on donations from supporters who had access to such means.[1] This first stage grew immensely not just across the country, but globally within weeks. The very idea of occupying a public space allowed the movement to become open to all who felt the pangs of the crisis to come and bring their own concerns. This open space was able to absorb all ideas which seemed to be politically marginalized by the media and by politics proper, that is, those of the state. This plurality convinces many that due to the far-ranging political beliefs, all could be accommodated under a broad message no matter what their position or situation was. Fringe right-wing libertarians could stand next to bourgeois environmentalists while both participated in a session of “the People’s Mic” from a socialist lecturing on Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation. They may bitterly disagree with one another on an individual basis, but that is not what OWS is about; it is not personal politics but a united politics based on general outrage due to the crisis.

As September turned into October, much of the old guard of the labor movement expressed a mixture of glee and caution to the Occupiers, who they saw as potentially manipulative. However, with the weakened position of unions both due to decades of neoliberal victories and also of the immanent bureaucratic tendencies of union themselves, they were soon joined by thousands of students in a march from Foley Square near City Hall to symbolically join the Occupiers in Zuccotti Park. On October 5th, approximately 20,000 rank and file workers, union leaders, community organizers and students marched in unison. Reactions from onlookers, particularly the working class, were largely positive, with truckers honking their horns, construction workers clapping and restaurant and bar workers throwing fists in the air. The atmosphere seemed to be one of genuine unity from all who felt the pangs of the crisis. One banner which had been unfurled at a fountain at the center of Foley Square announced the “American Autumn.” The unions thus seized upon precisely this opportunity in order to reinvigorate public sympathy and associate their struggle as those of the workers, especially those of the public sector. Rather than taking actions which could indefinitely paralyze the city from working and therefore really put the question of labor’s involvement in OWS in a more pointed and concrete manner, the unions opted to marshal their own on November 17th in order to make sure there would be no confrontation with the NYPD. No general strike, no nothing. The Occupiers, caught up in the left populist rhetoric of understanding the unions as defenders of the working class, have offered no substantial critique of the role of unions, in spite of many opportunities which could have been taken but were missed. Certain socialist elements within OWS have often voiced their complaint about the faint-hearted role of the unions in radicalizing the movement, but were either continually ignored or shouted down for the sake of mass appeal and plurality.

Other strategies which have been somewhat less frequent yet perhaps appeal in a more direct manner to the working class such as walking the picket line and preventing the foreclosure of homes. In Brooklyn, hundreds of Occupiers prevented several families from eviction and the police, whose normally abusive behavior towards OWS seemed to out of character as no mass arrests or acts of violence were committed. These events are ongoing, yet have thus far not materialized into an expansion of the Occupation.

Elsewhere in America…

Since the official start of the crisis in 2008, the working class in New Jersey has also engaged in its fair share of strikes and protests. Public sector workers in New Jersey have been on the defensive since the right-wing Republican governor Chris Christie stepped into office in 2010, first attacking the NJEA, the teachers’ union. Small protests had broken out, but nothing to the extent of what happened in Madison, Wisconsin last winter of 2011. The aggressive campaign against state workers has been justified as to correct New Jersey’s spiraling debt which had reached a peak under the former liberal Democratic governor Jon Corzine.[2]

In September of 2010, longshoremen launched a wildcat strike on the docks of Port Elizabeth in solidarity with their comrades in Camden and in Philadelphia who were being squeezed by Del Monte Fruit Company. Del Monte was attempting to save on shipping costs by moving its operations to a non-unionized (ILA) dock in Camden. The strike spread to Newark, Staten Island and Brooklyn. Hopes were high that it would become national, but ended within a few days that same month. Actions have occurred with or without the unions in New Jersey and elsewhere in America, and rather than opposing financiers, striking workers have come up directly against their own bosses who are in the business of providing “productive” services.[3] Such occurrences, due to their short-lived nature, receive some coverage before being subsumed by sports news and interest pieces on gardening, etc. Few media commentators would ridicule such actions, but in so many empathetic gestures, stress the danger if it were to spread further.

The general opinion of OWS among workers I’ve spoken with has been a combination of dismissal, pride and ridicule—often by the same worker. Dismissal, because they don’t see how the occupation of public spaces like parks and city-owned land could possibly halt the crisis in its tracks. One worker reacted with surprise when he heard that there was outrage on the part of the Occupiers after the OWS Library had been torn down—“It’s not even a real structure, so what do you expect?” At face value, this may seem callous, reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s indignant poet who scolds the illiterate arsonist for burning the Tuileries Library in Paris. Speaking with this worker and others, who have likewise called the initiative of setting up tents in Manhattan as food for the media, have also praised it—“finally, somebody in this country is standing up for something”—and even recognizing that “protests [like OWS] take time.” These contradictory perspectives point to a tendency that in fact wants to see the occupation go beyond their current state to something more militant, and see this as their opportunity to do so. For these workers, however, their critiques also suggest that it is not their fight. In the midst of union revitalization, their fight is to combat the reformist tendencies, the poison pill contracts of the TWU, ILU and SEIU if any progress is to be made in improving their own lives.

“Into the Wild”

Almost two hours south of Zuccotti Park, less than a hundred or so men, women and children have set up tents in the woods outside of Lakewood, New Jersey. They are unemployed chefs, construction workers and retired pensioners—all of whom are looking for jobs. They subsist off of church charity and the site is built like a small town, complete with road signs and visible pathways. Their involuntary displacement in the woods is not symbolic. More and more, the working class finds itself outside in tents, or in other cases, cars. Not just in New Jersey, but also in Florida more of these tent communes have cropped up over the past year. Yet their demands have not been voiced as an attack on greedy bankers and their ideology is one of self-blame. They have already proven months before September 17th that occupying public and private space is feasible, that pulling together without the use of money is possible and that tying one’s belt tighter are all tendencies of survival in the midst of crisis.

Capital can tolerate people leaving their apartments at will to sleep outside, to march, to demonstrate, to occasionally fight and provoke fights with the police. It cannot tolerate when these same people decide to organize their workplaces against the dictates of profit, or to cease working at an NGO and in any of the FIRE industries.[4] It cannot tolerate when they refuse to leave their apartments because of an eviction notice. It cannot tolerate when these same actions multiply en masse and demand further participation that may lead to confrontation with the police and military, not out of ideological rage, but out of necessity. No longer will it then be a question of representation of the working class or preservation of its classic forms of organization, but the total abolition of waged labor by the working class themselves.


[1] Later a “Finance Committee” was established, having receiving approximately $500,000 in donations.

[2] Corzine has been subpoenaed by a House committee for financial malfeasance in MF Global, a futures broker.

[3] A slogan which both Occupiers as well as their conservative detractors have used to describe any individual who produces something, regardless of their relation to their tools, equipment, the shop-in short, to their relationship to the means of production. Workers, those who have nothing but their capacity to perform work for a wage, find themselves being abstractly lumped together with small business owners and the self-employed. Such a term like “productive class” promotes an identity (like “the 99 percent”) over a social relation, the working class or proletariat.

[4] FIRE = Finance, Insurance and Real Estate.


Reports From the Occupy Wall Street Events of Mid-November

Just getting started or funeral march? RS takes a look at the events of November 17 ("N17") in New York City and ponders the fate of OWS.

Submitted by Kadir Ateş on February 5, 2012

November 15–Dawn of the Dead

By now the story is well known: In the early morning hours of November 15, organized forces of the NYPD stormed the Occupy Wall Street encampment, evicting those who remained in Zuccotti Park by force. Those in the park had been “temporarily” ordered out a few hours earlier under the pretense of allowing access to sanitation crews.

In the lead up to the eviction, social media, email, and phones of those with any connection or interest in the ongoing occupation lit up with calls to come to the defense of the encampment. A similar attempt to clear the park under the rubric of “sanitation” had earlier been abandoned in the face of mass opposition, and there were hopes that this attack too could be turned back.

I had visited the park a few times before since Occupy began, and quite honestly wasn’t impressed. The potential of the movement, revealing itself in short bursts and in various actions, was visible from the beginning; but the actual camp in Zuccotti was quite limited. But although I had no desire to spend my nights in the encampment, I felt a real need to help defend it, driven largely by a deep-seated opposition to the egregious acts of the state.

I arrived just as the shit hit the fan, but was too far away to be hit by the splatter. The police kept onlookers, supporters, those who had fled the encampment, and even members of the media far away from the park—or at least far enough way to prevent them from seeing what was going on.

Most of those involved in the encampment beat a hasty retreat when it became clear that the cops were going to move in. A common theme heard amongst the crowd was that people should avoid arrest so that they could participate in the planned “Day of Action” on November 17. Still, others were adamant that their “new home” in the park had to be defended. For them, simply maintaining the encampment signified victory. In the end, a few dozen stalwarts remained as the police pushed forward, locking themselves together and preparing for what was to come.

Tensions ran high. A few scuffles broke out on the periphery as the baton-wielding police cleared Zuccotti and pushed hard against the wall of humanity that surrounded it.

During all of this and throughout the day, I argued to anyone would listen that it was a mistake to make a fetish out of the physical occupation of the park. I did my best to explain that attempting to maintain the encampment at all costs would in all likelihood lead to an undue expenditure of time, energy and resources (fighting matches, arrests, bail, etc.). I argued that it was necessary at all times to remain flexible, weigh our options, and not get bogged down.

The biggest advance marked by the emergence of the occupation is that it has brought thousands throughout the city, state, and even the world, into contact with each other, opening regular discussions and debates up among people from different ages, regions and industries. Though proponents can come under attack, this state of affairs cannot be arrested, beaten or evicted.

In the early morning, there was little support to be found for my arguments. That would change as the day went on.

In a short period, the eviction was completed, with everyone besides the police and clean up crew forced out and away from the park. Different proposals were raised, though none won over the crowd. There was a feeling of mass confusion. Finally, a group broke off and headed north, through the heavily fortified corridor, to Foley Square.

As the group marched toward its destination it was met by numerous police who apparently were stationed at their posts in advance, in anticipation of just such a turn of events. At every intersection, these cops would come out into the street with each red light, holding back a section and dividing the ragtag group into smaller and smaller pieces. As someone at the head of the pack later explained: “We were marching, then some of us turned around and realized there was no one behind us anymore!” One member of the media described it as “a very professional way of breaking the group up.” By all accounts, the slicing and dicing would have made a butcher proud.

Not everyone was a part of the Foley-bound group. In fact, the only sure thing at that time was that nothing was sure. Different people made different claims and proposals, throwing out the names of numerous locations to serve as the new center.

The biggest development came when a large number headed to Duarte Square, a small public space that borders a fenced-in, undeveloped park-like property owned by a church. By the time I arrived at the area, there were a few hundred people in and around the square, with a few dozen straddling the top of an easy-to-climb wooden fence that lines up one side of the church property. A makeshift encampment was starting to come together inside, and occupy banners hung from the chain link fence that made up the other three sides.

The majority of people were either standing in the public section of Duarte Square or on the sidewalks around the church property. The familiar drum circle appeared. There were very few cops visible.

As I circulated through the group, I argued that the location left a lot to be desired. It was obvious to me that locking yourself into a cage is not a good idea. For the most part I was waved off or ignored, though a few individuals did voice agreement.

The new focus for most became the enclosure. I continued to move around outside, looking for people I recognized and talking to many of those I didn’t. I wound up at the back end of the enclosure, where a number of onlookers had gathered. Suddenly, I saw it: a line of armored police emerged from a side street in military formation. Then another. And another. One by one the groups marched slowly around the square and boxing it in. Most inside the square seemed oblivious. Some of us tried to make others aware of what was materializing, but our warnings largely fell on deaf ears.

Those of us not willing to wait around for the inevitable advance made our way outside of the police line while it was still possible. We joined a growing crowd on the side of the park, watching everything unfold through the links of the fence.

A new square police formation then appeared outside of the other. This one, which faced outward, was meant to keep the small but growing crowd away from the “clean up squad” as it moved in. When the inside formation began its advance, any remaining doubt of what was about to happen was removed. Some fled the enclosure. Others set up shoddy barricades at the gate which appeared to amuse the waiting police more than anything.

Finally a group of armored cops busted in, easily hurdling the knee-high barricade and chasing down those inside the fenced area. Onlookers gasped and yelled as officers hit those trying to retreat with nightsticks from behind. One who managed to wrest a stick free from his would-be-assaulter received the worst of it, coming under the attack of several well armed officers. After receiving his summary beating, he was drug out of the square horizontally.

It was at this time that I began to yell out, over and against the apologia of one particularly unsavory toady among us. Unable to hold back my fury, I raised my voice loud enough to be heard by all, including the line of police standing only a few feet away. What started out as an outburst meshed with the feelings of the crowd, disgusted as they were by what they had just witnessed. To my surprise, despite making the sort of confrontational, openly communist arguments that would usually bring disdain, the crowd became electrified, audibly voicing its approval.

“The police are nothing more than the defenders of capital,” I yelled. “They defend the interests of corporations and banks against the people who actually do all the work, who create all the wealth that they lock in their fucking vaults.” The support grew louder!

To be clear, this is not to say we were on the verge of Another October. But it was certainly the best hearing I’d ever received for such arguments; and it was taking place on a sidewalk in downtown Manhattan.

Many individuals in the crowd, which was largely made up of people who had not had any exposure to Occupy before then, shouted out things like “right on,” “exactly,” etc. I continued on, saying something like: “The police will never defend us, never join us, never be on our side. If you’re raped or have your car stolen you’re out of luck. But if you’re a bank or corporation, you have this massive armed apparatus at your disposal, to enforce your interests at the expense of everyone else.” Cheers broke out. The police line that confronted us menacingly only moments earlier grew visibly uncomfortable.

As the raid wound down, members of various media began to approach me, attracted no doubt by my furious pronouncements. I was quite happy to utilize my madness to gain access to a wider audience.

I was asked to state my arguments by an interviewer from an independent news outlet and another from a French radio station. I restated my previous arguments regarding the fetish of the park occupation, the advance the widespread discussions and debates represented, and the need to move forward.

I argued for the need to connect the struggle to active labor. To paraphrase: “Imagine most of the students and even a huge number of office workers came out and started supporting this. Great, right? Now imagine the transit workers that drive the buses and subways joined this. Imagine the truckers that bring everything in and out of the city joined us. That would shut down the entire city. Imagine a replay of the 2005 transit strike that brought the city to a screeching halt, then add in mass support and participation by large numbers of unemployed people, people in other industries, etc.” The crowd, which had by then focused on the question and answer session going on, was nearly unanimous in their agreement. I heard more than a few say that such an action would be a great way forward.

The interviewer from the French radio outlet, who was clearly more familiar with such mass actions than his American counterpart, asked if I was calling for a general strike. I answered that at the present time a general strike in the traditional sense could be problematic due to the existence of a huge number of isolated, desperate, unemployed workers that would almost certainly guarantee a plentiful supply of replacement workers, and the desire of many capitalists to get out from under the workplaces they own. I pointed to examples of factories like the Stella D’Oro cookie plant in the Bronx being shut down following strike action. (The ground under the Stella D’Oro factory was recently sold at a huge profit to make way for yet another set of retail shops). I said that workers shouldn’t, and in all likelihood wouldn’t, take action that would effectively amount to firing themselves.

Instead, I argued that mass strikes in combination with workplace occupations would be the best way forward. I said that workers occupying a factory or other workplace could actually utilize the army of unemployed people by inviting them to come and take part, participate, and share in anything produced. Additionally, I said such occupations would have to move beyond basic demands and raise their sights on worker control of all of society. I was astonished to find these arguments again met with widespread approval by many of those around me. These high points were brief. Soon the square was empty. The line of police remained, but the crowd began to dissolve.

A smaller group of those most interested in what I was saying started to congeal. We started to discuss these questions and more. Most introductions began with a common refrain: I’m in debt, I have no money, I have no job. Most were interested in the occupation since it first made headlines, but only one had actually participated in it before that day.

Eventually, our small group made it back to Zuccotti Park. Not much was happening. A crowd was gathered around. The double ring of barricades was back in place. The park was now occupied by a combination of NYPD officers and private security guards, with everyone else on the outside looking in.

The exterior ring of the barricades was eventually penetrated; first by one, then another, then the whole crowd. Soon we could walk freely between the two sections. Only a portable metal fence and a few dozen cops separated us from the park.

In the hours that followed our little group joined up with a friend of Insurgent Notes and a few others. Some great discussions followed, sometimes bringing in interested parties who overheard our conversation. People came in and out. A large number agreed with my arguments, and a number of contacts were exchanged.

The police presence was large, but the atmosphere seemed incredibly free. From time to time, people would outright defy police orders, the crowd would turn its attention to the conflict, and the police would back down. Even more often, individuals would berate the police stationed in and around the park—calling them the sorts of things that would usually get your arrested, beat down, or both—and then went on about their business. The crowd was quite varied. The left sects were notable only in their absence.

Eventually, a police captain announced over a bullhorn that people would be allowed back inside the park, but would be searched upon entry. Expressly forbidden were the things like tents and sleeping bags that make camping out possible. A small opening was made in the barricade, and people began to file in. At this point, our group had greatly thinned out. I had been out for several hours and decided to depart.

Of course, despite the tensions and conflicts encountered throughout the day, things continued to function normally in most of the city. I was brought back to that reality after leaving the area around Zuccotti. Business as usual… tourists, workers and Wall Street parasites jostled for space on the crowded sidewalk leading back to the subway.

The real isolation of Occupy Wall Street—even on this day, with all its increased visibility, involvement, attention and support—was obvious. This was clearly demonstrated a few hours earlier at a Burger King restaurant across the street from Zuccotti Park. Inside, I overheard workers complaining about management and talking about their plight working for little pay in such a dehumanizing environment. Despite being able to see the encampment through the window of the restaurant, they made no connection between their conditions and what was going on. This is indicative of the situation more generally.

November 17–Day of the Dead

The events of the long-promoted “Day of Action” have been recorded by a large number of observers and participants. Walls of words, photos and video abound, accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a little bit of free time. What follows then is more of a reflection on the day’s events than a play-by-play account.

1. In the early morning there was a rally of more than a 1,000 people near Zuccotti Park, which was the starting ground for an announced attempt to disrupt “business as usual” in the Financial District.From the gathering, groups broke off toward Wall Street. Routes were marked by participants carrying flags that signified the perceived threat of arrest.The New York Stock Exchange was approached from several different directions, with groups emerging in various intersections at different times. All streets leading in were barricaded, with more barricades beyond them.

Where I ended up, the crowd forced the police to move a barricade back. The same happened elsewhere. Eventually, the circle had closed in from several sides and we were all closer to the stock exchange. At that point, it wasn’t clear what would happen.

The kinds of scuffles broke out that can be expected. Here and there the police would do in some poor soul, claim they did this or that, and then carry them off to a van headed for jail. In general though, the NYPD seemed more restrained than usual. It appeared they wanted to hold off the crowd rather than deal with mass arrests. Some barricade movements were clearly strategic.

A few small groups penetrated the barricades on their own, but they were all quickly found out and dealt with. Other such incidents found a similar end. Eventually, despite physical advances, the whole thing sort of petered out.

The motto of the action was “Shut Down Wall Street.” That certainly didn’t happen. But the street activity around it was surely disrupted.

The police set up checkpoints in the area, only letting people with suits and/or “proper identification” that indicated they worked in the area through. The rest were kept away.

Plans for “subway occupations” received a lot of attention. Train stations near Wall Street were filled with police and their specially-trained dogs, and officers also rode on the trains themselves. In the end, not much actually materialized in the way of protest activity on the subways. In a handful of stations, exits were reportedly chained open to let passengers board the trains for free.

2. Around noon I headed back to Zuccotti. It was the usual scene, though there was notably less pro-police sentiment than in weeks past. It seemed the events of the 15th had changed a lot of minds, and also drew out more who knew better than to think the cops were our friends or protectors.Illusions in capitalism remained, with more than a few arguing that all that is needed is to get “money out of politics” and “let capitalism work.” Any mention of class politics was for the most part unpopular—after all, “we are all the 99%.” But conversely, there was some rudimentary communist sentiment. At the very least, participants were questioning things, and most were very much open to discussion.There was word of student strikes around. Since the park was more stagnation than standoff at this point, I headed off, eventually stopping at two separate universities. Each had public student meetings that drew no more than a few dozen participants.

3. In the afternoon, there was a student rally in Union Square. Around 1,000 people showed up, mostly from a student march that had originated uptown. It was the typical rally for the most part, though the chant “students and workers, shut the city down” is not one often heard these days in the U.S.Noticeable in the crowd were a number of professionally-made campaign signs typical of the “full-time activist” crowd. This was an indication of what was to come.

4. In the evening I traveled to Foley Square, where the “big rally” was scheduled to happen. When I passed by earlier in the day, I noticed that the area had been cleared out, with police signs announcing a “planned parade.” I had asked many who it was that secured the permits for this rally, but no one in Zuccotti or the morning actions near Wall Street seemed to know.I arrived early on, with the first few handfuls of people. A stage was set up. In front of it, peace marshals signed in and received their instructions.As people began to file in from the subway station in small groups, they snapped up copies of the Insurgent Notes statement. Quite a few expressed their agreement with its calls for moving toward workplace occupations.

Then, there was a shift. Organized contingents suddenly arrived from all sides. In a matter of minutes, the square was full with thousands of people. Banners of most of the unions, joined by the distinct signs of pressure and front groups, flew high above the heads of the various groups who appeared seemingly from nowhere. And the processional activists joined them, with their ready-made signs, sound systems, stages, etc.

The left sects showed up too. There were all there; enough acronyms to fill up a bowl of alphabet soup, though it’d be as hard to swallow as any of their various claims to the mantle of “proletarian vanguard.”

The transformation was as obvious as it was speedy. Despite all attempts at co-option, the Occupy movement had remained well outside of the narrow confines of “acceptable politics.” This event became something else: another good old reformist funeral march.

The militancy that remained, seething under the surface, was drowned out in a sea of mediocre pressure politics.

Many familiar faces of the park occupation and subsequent struggles were sidelined. I saw quite a few sitting dejected in the grassy field at the back of the square, while the deafening tone of screeching “organizers” bellowing hackneyed old phrases blared out from the oversized speakers. One of the contacts I had made on the 15th who was there called it “a fucking circus” and announced her intention to get the hell out of there. Cold and tired, I decided to follow suit. The “regularly scheduled” march, brought to you by the SEIU & Co., was forced to go on without me.

After the parade ended, all but a few packed up their things and went home.


Reflections on the New School occupation - Arya Zahedi

Arya Zahedi takes analyzes the All-City Student Occupation at The New School in NYC.

Submitted by Kadir Ateş on February 5, 2012

His extreme alienation can be contested only through a contestation of the entire society. This critique can in no way be carried out on the student terrain: the student who defines himself as such identifies himself with a pseudovalue that prevents him from becoming aware of his real dispossession, and he thus remains at the height of false consciousness. But everywhere where modern society is beginning to be contested, young people are taking part in that contestation; and this revolt represents the most direct and through critique of student behavior.

–On the poverty of student life

On November 17th, 2011, the Study Center at 90 Fifth Avenue, an office building leased by the New School University, was occupied by participants in the all-city student assembly in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The building was taken during a march from a student rally at Union Square to Foley Square in downtown Manhattan—where the march was supposed to converge with a trade union march on the Brooklyn Bridge. For eight days the study center was occupied and almost from the very beginning conflicts of political nature began to rise within the occupation.

The occupation was not a specific New School occupation, in the sense that it was not conceived and planned by just New School students, revolving around campus issues. It was planned and organized by the city-wide student assembly and had, from the very beginning, been seen as part of the city-wide movement. The reason for taking the building at the New School was logistical and based on the possibility of its success. The occupation, regardless of outcome, was an incredible learning experience. Most importantly it revealed the many different political tendencies at work, as well as where to move forward. It started in a very euphoric mood. Almost immediately, events were set up and coordination among the various student general assemblies was established. The space was quickly transformed into a educational social space for the entire city’s radical movement. Pushing it further than even making it open to all students, one of the struggles for the occupation from the beginning was to make it open to all people regardless of student status.

General assemblies were conducted immediately. Within the space there were daily general assemblies for the occupation, as well as the weekly all-city general assembly. The people’s university, which was previously held in Washington Square Park, was held there. Teach-ins were organized on a variety of topics, mostly dealing with the global capitalist crisis.

Overnight, the space was transformed from a space where the regular everyday life of student-hood was reproduced. A space where automatons sat staring directly, never talking. It was transformed from this to a space where discussions were taking place, on a variety of topics, not just explicitly political ones. But it became a social space where people could come together to work on projects, discuss topics of the day, organize other activities. The space was transformed into something different. People, who had never said a word to each other, from all over the city, were coming together and working and organizing, as well as organizing the day-to-day necessities of the occupation. A radical cinema was set up, with films running constantly, a station was set-up for silk screening and the making of banners and shirts.

The building was leased by the New School from a front company for one of the major banks. The landlord was unsurprisingly hostile, but his main concern was the fire codes. The president of the university, in contrast to his draconian predecessor, attempted to, take a very liberal handed approach to the occupation.

The occupation was never at any point total. Only the second floor was occupied. The security at the front of the building still had control of the main door. There should be no illusion that it was a total occupation with the freedom to completely recreate the space. It was, from the beginning, a negotiated space—whose existence and survival depended on negotiations with the administration. But that should not take anything away from the achievements of the occupation. Even in its limited form the occupation was an experiment; a temporary attempt at a different form of education, a different form of coming together and learning.

A few days into the occupation, the president proposed to resolve the issue by offering a gallery at the Parsons School of Design. The said gallery is open to view from the street and would make an excellent space for such an exhibit at the New School. The irony of it was lost on many of the students. The New School is an institution that uses some myth of radicalism in order to better sell its commodity. For an occupation to be taken and put into an art gallery said more than people were willing to admit. The offer also came with conditions. Most importantly that non–New School students would have to be signed in and that non-students would not be allowed entry, being the real point that changes the relation. The other was that it would only be open till the end of that semester. With all its limitations, the occupation at the original space was miles ahead of whatever could be done at this gallery. Now, there should have been no illusions that the occupation could have lasted forever, but to validate this new space was another matter all together. What was valuable about the occupation would have been completely missing from the new space. Even the educational activities would have been of a different nature. The new space would effectively turn it into another university event space no different from any other. They even put paper up on the walls so students could write graffiti without damaging the walls, as well as big letters on the window stating [“-uck capital.”] with the F removed. This said more than anything the nature of what was happening. This division brought out the real fractions within the existing student component of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

On the sixth day of the occupation, the president of the university called a “town hall” meeting to discuss the issue with the wider student body. Here was when the dissatisfaction of the student body became clear. This was used as an opportunity by the university administration and certain faculty to use the dissatisfaction of these students against the occupation. They were invited by some students present to attend the general assembly at the occupation that evening where the proposal would be discussed. The general assemblies being open to all, this was a vehicle through which an amazing display of bureaucratic manipulation and political opportunism was performed. It was during this general assembly that all the conflicts came to the fore. Students who had been hostile to the occupation from the beginning flooded the general assembly. Most of the people present, including many faculty members, were there only to vote out the occupation and leave. “For many of us the large attendance was a success, but very soon it became clear that the sole goal of the majority of participants present was not discussion, but a yes vote for the destruction of the occupation. The intention was to disrupt any possibility of dialogue and to frame the voting of the assembly in the manner of representational politics and parliamentary theater.”

The assembly turned quite aggressive and inflammatory. Emotions ran high and differences were expressed. Certain differences were apparent. But what were essentially political differences were once again obscured beneath the veil of identity politics. It was during this assembly that this was manifested in its most blatant and vulgar form. A number of students, from the management and business school, began to scream vitriol at the occupiers. These few students, who happened to also be people of color and women, were accusing the occupiers of being children of wealth (one even screamed that the occupiers were from the Hamptons.) Soon the debate was framed in terms of the space being occupied by spoilt rich white male anarchists. Never mind that the real debate was over students that wanted to be given a privileged place according to how much money they spent and those that wanted to make the space open to everybody. It was two different visions of the space. One of these students even stated that “Why should I pay $40,000 a year to let just anyone come and use this space?” Views such as this were held to somehow be more authentic and less bourgeois than the position that the space should be open to all in society and that the relationship between education and private property should be questioned and rearranged and, in so doing, provide a critique of capitalism as a whole. Once again instead of talking politics, the discussion became one of identity and background. The even remotest answer of any of these challenges only feeds into an already dead end. It legitimizes it by its very discussion. By this time an important factor in the occupation had been altered. By having the main discussion not be around the university president’s proposal, as well as the dissatisfaction of New School students, the occupation was effectively reincorporated into a New School issue and dealing with campus politics.

Something that was shocking about the occupation was how identity politics was used in such a reactionary way. The discourse of race and colonialism was used to defend private property. It revealed the worst excesses of the attempt to talk about these issues abstracted from the critique of capitalism. Although there was a great diversity to those who were participating in the occupation, it was always portrayed as something of a white man’s club. There was an illusion that everything was being run by straight white men. This completely ignored all the various women, people of color, queer people, etc., who were participating and making sure that their voices were heard. It was these comrades that made it a point to organize discussions and workshops such as the “safe spaces” workshop. For these people, it was difficult because while they were struggling to make sure the occupation was cognizant of their interests, they had to struggle with being made invisible and having their voices silenced. “Most who have had problems in the space have consistently returned, recognizing that the politics surrounding the occupation are not solidified, but are instead immanent to the space itself.”

Those who were opposed from the beginning to the occupation used this as a means to disrupt any support from the larger student body. A complaint that was often expressed by students who had some up and seen their study space transformed was “You’ve disrupted my routine.” This complaint expresses something deeper than what may be taken at face value. These people missed the point. For some of the student radicals in the occupation, alienating these voices was a source of anxiety. They could not see that one of the objectives of a strike or occupation is precisely the disruption of the flow of everyday life. It is a critique of this everyday life in practical material form. That is exactly the point that the routine was disrupted. This comes from the typical activist mentality that the goal is to gather numbers into some coherent umbrella and organization, and channel it into a form of struggle which does not cause the disruption and in turn the critique of capitalism at its daily experience. It fears that this approach which causes this disruption will be of some detriment to the “student movement,” which they hope they can build for some day, which never seems to come. Instead they could not realize that in a world of total alienation, it is important for people to become conscious of their alienation, and this does not come with the affirmation of that same alienated existence.

A cry that had become quite an important point was that of “alienating the student body.” While the writing of graffiti in many ways may rightly be seen as infantile, the obsession over it with regards to how it would appear to the outside, especially the wider student body, was revealing of many underlying fears and limitations on the part of many who were obsessed with this point. What many of these people failed to understand that the objective was not to have the space be a space for New School students, but for the larger radical community in NYC to have a space to organize. A radical social center in the heart of NYC was something that the city lacked. It was also an occupied space, that makes its own rules, and more importantly is confrontational by nature. As in most occupations, which are illegal and thereby confrontational, it is a reclaiming of space. Not only is the space transformed, but the people participating in this reclamation are also transformed along with the relations between these people. In this process, the space and the people within are in a constant state of becoming and transformation. Unlike the established society, in these moments the rules are not laid out. There is no blueprint, so there are certain excesses and contradictions. If anything, it reveals how ingrained the ideology of the established society is, that this became so incomprehensible to many. The horror at even the most benign acts of illegality, such as writing on the walls, or drinking alcohol in the space, were obsessed over and used by those with a fear of anything outside their control as a scare tactic. And this caused much confusion within the occupation.

The issue of safety within an occupation, especially within a space claiming radicalism, is of utmost importance. But this, in line with the conflict on graffiti, became a point that was used against the occupation. Discussions of people feeling accepted and safe were used to reaffirm a normalcy that just reconstituted what was struggled to overcome.

The plans of the administration worked. They were successful in using the larger student body against the occupation by manipulating their discontent as well as the divisions within the occupation. A vote was taken and the majority decided to move to the new space. A number of occupants decided to stay in the original space and not move to the new one, recognizing that the general assembly had been manipulated and used against the occupation. This threw many of the occupants who had voted to leave into a panic. Their biggest fear was that they would lose the student body’s support forever. But this was not an issue any more. For the struggle was now beyond the confines of the New School. In fear of their political opportunity being sacrificed, many of these elements who are either close to or members of some of the various left parties began a campaign of demonization of the students who had denounced the general assembly and remained. Accusations of vanguardism, ultra-leftism, and conspiritorialism were thrown at this faction of the occupation. This was clearly a process of red-baiting in order to save their own places in the future administration. But it succeeded it revealing political differences. It revealed their confused position. They profess revolution and radical thought, but in the face of something which they cannot control or predict, they retreat into the arms of the stability that they know. They chose to be closer to the administration and present themselves as the good and rational radicals as opposed to the unpredictable anarchists with their disdain for decency and private property.

These students include those who hope to gain future prospects as academics writing about their student radical days and hoping that events like the occupation will make for good publishing material. Then there are those that hope to become the leaders of the “student movement,” which will then give them good political clout in the future. Often these students are involved with one of the various left-political parties and toe their line. They carry hopes of resurrecting a dead form, which was decrepit even in its heyday. They hope to create the student movements of Europe and Latin America and in so doing wrest demands. They hope that in this process they can position themselves as being representative of “the political will of the student movement.” Their hope rests with the idea that this student movement can then attach itself to labor and follow the trade-unions into the sunset.

The experience of the occupation with all its shortcomings and contradictions was an incredibly positive experience. It is in the aftermath of this that we can better see our position in the struggle and where the fractures lay. For eight days a radical social space existed where a new type of learning was taking place. Where even if angry and shouting, people were having discussions that allowed them to think about the world they live in in a different way. It also brought people together, and even in the aftermath it pushed people together who saw that they had political commonalities that they may not have known before. People who had previously not known each other became comrades.

The manipulation from outside by the administration as well as the opportunism of many of the student “radicals” inside the occupation helped clear some of the illusions with regards to student politics. It presents with regards to the movement on the campuses the limits of certain activity, and the way foreword to move beyond into something else. The central division that has now arisen on the university campuses in the aftermath of the occupation is one tendency that wants to affirm a student identity in the hopes of building a “student movement,” and another, which sees its future only in the supersession of this identity, and advancing the struggle to a higher phase.

All these events have now laid out a clearer situation on university campuses throughout New York. The influence of the various student unions, as well as the various left organizations invariably are the main obstacle towards radicalizing the situation on the campuses. By constantly channeling the struggle towards appropriate means they invariably slow down the momentum of struggle that attaches it to the struggle outside of the campuses. The fascination with building a student movement is the hope of expressing its “political will.” This embodying of the representation of the student body is a hope to be in the position of mediator that can provide this representation. Like the trade unions in the work place as well as the left parties this role must be critiqued as well as the administration and the bosses. This activist mentality is what invariably points towards restoration before things have even gotten rolling.

At the New School, perhaps because of the pretensions towards critical thinking, the role of the left organizations is not as direct, but the same role of mediation which is held up for struggle exists through the various student unions and well organized assemblies. Some of these people are members of left organizations, but they don’t do open recruiting on campuses. Yet, many of those that still fall into this line ideologically (for this obsession with democracy and form is nothing if not ideology) have a presence. On the campuses of the City University of New York, the situation is slightly different, if not more serious.

This attack should not be confused with organizing on university campuses. The university is a major place where various forms of social reproduction and capital accumulation take place. So to organize at the university is as important as organizing at the workplace or in the community. But these forces build an obstacle to any meaningful organizing on the campuses, and turn it into a waste of time content with playing the same game, one that will hopefully teach the proper skills and lessons for a career in administration and management. At a time when the role of trade unions is becoming more and more apparent to workers, these students hope to build at best a large scale “revolutionary” student movement, invariably reproducing a form which has long been shown to be superseded.

The “poverty” of organizing around the student identity was realized long ago; to attempt to resurrect an archaic form is to attempt to play catch up with history. It is an attempt to get to a point that the working class seems to need to go beyond. The attempt to build an official student movement, with official representatives, places an obstacle before the real movement of history. The objective of the critique on campuses is to expose the manipulations and maneuverings of petty bureaucrats and would-be professional activists. To expose at all points the limits to our movements both outside and within the movement itself. The attempt to build a movement with a political will that can be clearly articulated, with demands that can be clearly realized, is to fail to understand the necessary flux of history, particularly in high times of struggle. Its results almost always amount to decapitating the real movement, in favor of an orchestrated one. “This method of organizing is one that they are unable to and refuse to transform when confronted with a movement that is against of any form of leadership or representation.”

They know that the struggle today is not in the affirmation of a student identity. Not in the struggle to liberate her student-hood, but to struggle against the existence of student-as-student, as much as worker-as-worker. There needs to be carried out a struggle that does not point to a self-managed democratic alienation. Where the alienation that affects students is not pointed to the increase of a few more tables to study at, or for private school students to struggle for what public school students have lost long ago. To do so is also to misunderstand where we are at historically. Alienation cannot be overcome through alienated modes of struggle.

The organizational question is one of central concern, the shortcoming of the militant is the belief that this question has already been resolved, one has only to realize it. It is quite an historical irony that those who choose to be the standard-bearers of a tradition obsessed with overcoming “trade-union consciousness” seem to do nothing but reify this consciousness and create an obstacle to going beyond it.


NYC Transit Workers’ Fare Strike 2012: Can Occupy Open Horizons for a Frustrated Labor Movement?

Jon Harvey takes a look at the MTA union bureaucrats and the NYC transit workers

Submitted by Kadir Ateş on February 5, 2012

In Cleveland, in 1944, streetcar workers threatened to refuse to collect fares in order to win a pay increase–the City Council gave in before they actually used the tactic…This type of action would in most cases have to be taken outside the union, since few union bureaucrats would use such a clearly class-directed tactic, and thus of necessity the workers would have to organize this themselves.

–Root & Branch[1]

Wall Street and Beyond

For some, Occupy is a long awaited popular resistance to global capital triggered by its most recent crisis and aftermath. Considering the fall in the living conditions of the working class since the largely diverted crisis of the early ’70s, a mass movement against capital (though only a particular form) such as Occupy has been anticipated by many on the Left—since at least the end of the anti-globalization protests. For those of the pro-revolutionary milieu, the exact positive content, trajectory and significance of Occupy is a key question. Despite its varying forms, self-descriptions, promulgations and demands (or lack thereof), one thing is fairly certain: Occupy, with its rhetoric and peculiar actions, has not spread deep enough—into the ghettoes, the ruined towns and cities, among the marginalized, and directly into the sphere of circulation or the point of production.

The bureaucrats at the helm of the labor unions have paid a great deal of lip service towards Occupy. Despite the suspicious motives of these managers of a different stripe, the U.S. labor union movement as a whole has been notably self-critical over the past decade and has been awaiting a burst of energy the likes of Occupy for some time. It can be assumed that the slow decay of the unions and their influence leaves all strata of labor hoping for a resurgence from below, setting aside worries about its direction, cynical or otherwise, for a later time. Still, the working class, unionized or not, employed, underemployed, laid off, or informal have yet to find a galvanizing way of taking Occupy to their workplace or their communities, which is to say, they have yet to risk militant activity against austerity and the general assault against workers.[2]

Occupy has, if at a minimum, made the statement that the proletarian masses (i.e. the global 99 percent or some odd amount) have a profound connection against the power of the few. This statement has a great significance following four decades of fragmentation, culture wars, identity politics, and flight from workers’ identity. Again, at a minimum, Occupy has tried to transcend stale ideological, bureaucratic, institutional or structural forms with its general assemblies, “people’s mic,” abstention from electoral politics and lack of demands. The allusion of this latter ingenuity is those needs that the masses require cannot be demanded but must be commanded or simply implemented. So then, in line with this, the kitchen, library, medics and councils of Zucotti Park are executed by the grassroots of the movement. This core logic (as blemished as it may be in practice) and its attraction have substantial implications for those who look to the self-organization and direct action of the proletariat as the harbinger of revolution. Unfortunately, neither the working class nor the Occupy activists and participants have yet to make full use of this logic, let alone the rank and file, to their own detriment.

The Subway Connection

Transit workers belonging to New York City’s Transport Workers Union Local 100 exhibit a familiar sight in the 21st century U.S. labor movement: broke, angry, slandered, disillusioned, directionless and top heavy. Following the often perceived failure of the 2005 strike, which momentarily realized the transit workers’ power of threatening the symbolic citadel of global financial capital, transit workers’ participation and dues contribution in their union is at an all time low.[3]

What’s more, though once a hard hitting rank and file with untamable militancy, New York’s transit workers lack the organization they once had, the hope they once exhibited and the public support they deserve. In the midst of the current NYC budget crisis, an opportunity presents itself to the rank and file. Talk and agitation of a “fare strike” arises from the interface between the transit workers and Occupy Wall Street. That is, transit worker members of the labor committee of Occupy Wall Street have taken up pamphleteering with this new threat, as contract negotiations loom large.

This inspiration points to the burgeoning possibility of rank and file workers, in a particularly disruptive sector, following the latent logic (or perhaps an interpretation) of Occupy. The extent to which the TWU follows through with it may yield insight into the potential readily available in harnessing the same sentiment and logic that yielded such widespread support in the Occupy movement.

The history of the TWU is something of a tragic story, one of patience, rank and file militance and hope betrayed. The possibility of a fare strike tactic is historically adequate to the needs and capacities of rank and file transit workers today, especially in the present moment, as a result of their past experiences and betrayals after elevating the most radical rhetoric to power inside their union. The current frustrated state of the TWU members derives most immediately from the 2005 strike and its aftermath. However, for a more robust understanding of the weight of this frustration and disillusionment, and how tactics like the fare strike help contemplate moving beyond it, we must detail the sequence of experiences and the impressions they have left.

Brief History of TWU

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Transit Authority (TA) put forth changes to train operator and conductor scheduling that threatened seniority privileges. A slowdown spread—an easily implemented and effective tool as it reduces revenue while at the same time disrupting the leviathan internal economy of New York City. The slowdown was supported by the burgeoning reform group New Directions (ND). The illegal action lasted over a week and was finally successful, the scheduling threat was rescinded.

In early 1992, a long delayed contract agreement was announced which surrendered a great deal of previous gains. A foreshadowing of automation ruled the tone for the contract, offering cuts to wages and benefits for new hires in exchange for “productivity” bonuses for those senior workers. This pandering to seniority fell on deaf ears as the workers, to their credit, refused to help entrench a two tier contract. A “Vote No” campaign ensued; massive demonstrations, large marches across the Brooklyn Bridge, slowdowns and extensive communication resulted in the first ever contract rejection in Local 100. Through an arbitration threat and paternalistic second call vote, enacted by reigning president Sonny Hall, the contract was finally ratified. Nonetheless, autonomous rank and file activity, dissention and communication networks were set up for the future.

In 1996, the Transit Authority threatened to lay off 2,000 cleaners due to a proclaimed budget deficit. In exchange for a guarantee of their positions, “unorganizable” workfare workers were to be employed in a Clinton-era deal. 1999 seemed to promise good tidings as the contract was set to expire during the December 15th holiday season, giving bargaining power to the workers that allow shoppers to explore the island of Manhattan. With the MTA claiming a surplus in their budgets, the outlook for negotiations looked promising. The insults of the ’90s were building up to strong expectations and a loss of patience. Slowdowns and service disruptions led up to the termination date of the old contract, hinting at the workers’ power to shut the city down.

A mass membership meeting was called on the last day before the end of the contract. Thousands were in attendance lauding calls for a strike. At this meeting, the union local’s own Vice President read an injunction that the then-mayor Rudy Giuliani arrogantly contrived, claiming that Local 100 members were forbidden to strike or even discuss striking![5] Despite the warning, workers were livid and continued to support a strike call. After the meeting members marched to the union hall to hear contract negotiation updates. This powerful display signaled that the rank and file were teeming with anger and confidence. Despite all this, the president of the local negotiated a contract that sacrificed seniority rights and did nothing to deal with the Health Benefit Trust which was very obviously running out of resources. Due to a large wage increase and the passing of the prime strike season, members approved the contract.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Roger Toussaint, a member of the dissenting New Directions caucus, was elected in 2001. This election signaled that workers were fed up with contract concessions and givebacks. Workers voted in the caucus that had the most radical program. At this moment, the Health Benefit Trust was almost completely out of resources and the union was lacking organization. Toussaint initiated a set of paternalistic top-down initiatives with superficial rank and file gestures. For example, he set up mass steward trainings, but in the end their training was simply to make them better union literature distributers. Also, Toussaint ruled motions calling for rank and file organizing committees out of order. According to Steve Downs, the “strategic choice behind these decisions had lasting effects on the local and limited how much would actually be accomplished.”[6] These actions would prove to be gravely prophetic.

Equally foretelling was Toussaint’s intervention in the strike of Local 100 members against a private bus company regarding their lack of a contract. Liberty Lines workers struck for a contract, but the strike was supported, then called off by Toussaint after only a day. Later, in the summer of 2002, Local 100 bus drivers struck in Queens. These workers were without a contract for over a year at this point. Some of their demands included greater employer contributions to benefits and job security in the face of privatization. Workers struck for five weeks but were betrayed by Toussaint who negotiated a contract behind closed doors that caved in on the job security question. The Vice President of this division led a walkout from an executive board meeting after he denounced Toussaint for hijacking the strike and caving in.

In the face of a budget deficit, the wake of 9/11, and a persistent health benefits funding crisis, New Directions captured some of the rage within the rank and file with the 2002 contract negotiation slogan of “Second Class No More!”[7] This slogan alluded to the fact that TA employees made less wages, had smaller benefits and were disciplined more than the other two transit workers of the MTA: the Long Island Railroad and the Metro North Railroad. The latter two rails were operated by predominantly white workers while TA workers were predominantly black and latino. Toussaint however, merely feigned a strike in 2002 while pushing forward a paltry contract. The sloganeering was sufficient to tap into the complexity of rank and file anger; the talk of a strike gave workers the impression of a militant leadership and the slogans quelled their distrust.

If the tension had reached a boiling point with the misfirings of the 2000s, the pot began to overflow surrounding the 2005 contract. Despite the obvious pressures, no mass mobilizations were organized, no strike preparations were developed, and no connection with “social struggles” were declared. On the MTA’s part, however, there was rabid warmongering. It stated that, despite its $1 billion surplus for the year, none would be set aside for improved wages. In addition, pension contributions would arbitrarily increase for first year workers. This outright disrespect was too much to manage; the executive board was forced to swiftly declare a strike. No clear goals were put forward by the leadership, nothing was rallied around; the union bureaucrats stood on the sidelines, half-hearted and disassociated.[8]

Solidarity existed across divisions as, although no picket trainings occurred, pickets went up around the city. The workers stood out on the cold picket lines with perfectly unified effectiveness; New York City ground to an immediate halt. The workers from different divisions joined together and discussed their grievances. Their goals were clear and obvious: they stood against disrespect, harassment, and “second class” treatment. They stood for healthcare, better working conditions, and a better life. Yet their goals and desires must have been evolving as they met and sensed their incredible power.

Blistering public relations attacks were made by the mayor, the governor, and the MTA; the public was left with a poor perception of the strike and an unclear set of demands; the leadership of other NYC unions and their own International turned their backs. Other unions found the strike too polarizing to give support, while the International directly betrayed Local 100 and stood opposed to the strike.

The executive board, with Toussaint’s helping hand, finally voted, after a mere three days, to end the strike without an agreement or any concessions-even though the power and effectiveness (i.e., in terms of participation) of the strike was brutally successful. Quickly following this, Toussaint agreed to worker contributions for healthcare and allowed wages to be eroded by inflation in a cowardly set of contract givebacks. Defiantly, the contract was rejected by the membership and only ratified later under “binding arbitration.” To add injury to insult, the local was fined, each worker was docked a days’ pay (on top of their lost strike wages), and the local lost the right to automatically deduct dues. Finally, Toussaint was jailed for ten days for presiding over the strike. The politicians and lawmakers would end the local’s militancy the hard way.

Toussaint’s involvement in the two private lines strikes showed that, besides him riding a populist radicalism to presidency, he was more interested in managing struggles in cooperation with employers than leading a powerful and aggressive rank and file-and an influential fraction of NYC (and therefore U.S.) labor. Toussaint led a current of the reform movement leadership that focused on taking power above all else, a strategy that time and again has lead to an upward drifting separation from the grassroots. For Toussaint, this drift led to his ascent to a bureacratic position as Vice President of Strategic Planning with the International, the same body that condemned Local 100′s strike.

Aftermath of Strike

Union participation and rank and file militant activity is currently at an all time low in terms of attendance at membership meetings and talk of striking. A majority of workers don’t pay union dues. This disillusioned majority of a once vibrant and militant union has had enough of the leadership’s chicanery following the called off strike of 2005. Slowdowns however, still occur with a low profile, striking at management without official consent.

Attacks continue, now harder than ever with the overwhelming spread of automation in New York City’s subway system. According to one rank and file bulletin: “In 2010, the MTA hypocrites laid-off 460 Station Agents (SAs), ‘saving’ the MTA about $50 million. Over 900 transit workers were laid-off system-wide last year, about 250 SAs on Mother’s Day weekend alone. Today, 147 remain out of work. Returning them to work is now a contract demand.”[9]

As the footsoldiers of nation/continent-wide austerity programs, municipal governments and economies all over the world are in a fragile state—no less with New York City’s economy—making the stakes now higher than ever for NYC transit workers. Further, anger at the MTA among the citizenry of New York City has reached an apex. Riders find themselves with drastically less service and a transit system that can’t handle a relatively small amount of disruption (as winter 2010 revealed). As for workers, the siege is on all sides as the MTA openly states that “any wage increases during the first three years of a new agreement will be offset by savings from union concessions and that wages will increase at only inflation rate.”[10]

Debt in Service

The heavy reliance on financing has, to many, put the MTA at the behest of Wall Street instead of being funded by tax dollars. Put best by the MTA itself:

The MTA has also proposed borrowing $14.8 billion—the largest amount in its history. Such a heavy reliance on debt would further stress the operating budget. Debt service would reach $3.3 billion annually by 2018, or 64 percent more than in 2011, and would remain at that level through 2031. These estimates do not even consider the cost of the next capital program, which begins in 2015.[11]

The accelerated financialization of the MTA drives transit worker frustration and system-wide instability. In December 2010, the MTA tripled its number of top Wall Street “senior” investment advisors, salesmen, and bond insurers. Bloomberg News estimated that Wall Street firms will collectively earn about $31 million in extra fees for their role in the MTA.[12]

Cuts in funding for the MTA have been a steady pattern amongst politicians, pushing the MTA to turn out bonds to private buyers to fund capital projects. Instead of publically funded services, the MTA can claim that its revenues are not adequate and turn to Wall Street for help. Further, this perpetual indebtedness allows the MTA to cut into labor costs and raise fares in the name of the mere interest collecting on its debts. Today the largest and fastest growing expense of the MTA is its $2 billion annual debt service. In addition, their current policy is to service this debt before all costs, including wages and the very operating expenses of the transit system of one of the world’s largest cities. The downward spiral of indebtedness (and full privatization) is accelerating: “the MTA has a funding gap of $9.9 billion in construction and renovation funding (capital funding) over the next 10 years. To plug the hole over the next 3 years, the MTA will sell a whopping $8 billion in MTA bonds.”[13]

The crux of the budget balancing and bond dividends falls on workers and riders alike. The MTA plans on increasing fares in 2013 and 2015 to help make up for their budget gaps. Pink slips, service cuts, and overtime restriction amount to savings towards another portion. They are counting on TWU givebacks and effective wage freezes (in relation to inflation) to make up the rest.

Fare Strike

Here, the novelty and timeliness of the Occupy inspired fare strike shines through. A fare strike is when a rider or worker physically jars open emergency exits or opens up turnstiles to make commuting free—all the while denying revenues to the MTA like a traditional strike. The connection between transit worker and rider here is a profound one. While, the station agent was previously forced into the role of cashier and security personnel, now the station agent acts in direct solidarity with the rider. In addition to the obvious cosmetic advantages of this maneuver—especially in contrast to the 2005 strike in which transit workers had poor public support and were seen as selfish—these workers are making a class connection in the statement: “We are both being screwed here!”

A fare strike would also be a slap in the face of NYC’s bloated police force. Ever since Giuliani’s heavy handed “Broken Windows” tactic in the late ’90s-early ’00s, “jumping the turnstile,” or getting a free ride on the train, has been comprehensively attacked. It’s not uncommon for police to haul people off to the “tombs” (i.e., central processing jail) for a night for this offense. Cameras and guards are always on the lookout. Often the station agent is seen as an extension of this policing.[14] In this activity, transit workers will be making connections with some of the most devastated and desperate working class communities.


With a history of misplaced trust and betrayals by self-proclaimed radical leaders, New York’s transit workers have had enough of the TWU bureaucracy and their empty promises. The slowdown has been and is an example of rank and file activity that rejects management and unions’ mediation alike. Most recently, transit workers have refused to haul Occupy prisoners, they have been seen stopping their vehicles while holding out union cards when they interact with Occupy rallies and they are participants in working groups of OWS. On November 17th, the anniversary of Occupy, scattered subway stations across NYC were chained open by anonymous activists. The current organizing and agitating for a fare strike by OWS involved transit workers stems from the fusion of rank and file militancy with the autonomist struggle and confidence born of Occupy Wall Street. The possibility of workers taking direct action with the “99 percent” has class-wide implications, however confused the sloganeering may be. Already these connections have been forged and are being built upon by the grassroots interface of the OWS labor committee and transit workers in the pamphleteering, whisper campaigns, and strategizing done around the fare strike idea.[15]

This exciting usage of a strike, in its form and content, drives together class interests—riders and transit workers alike—against the capitalist owners of the MTA and their political minions. Further, it channels anger at ubiquitous and amorphous financial capital towards a specific target, instead of an irrational hysteria towards reclaiming a “Main Street”–driven capitalism. Perhaps most significantly, it decommodifies transportation in the process. Whether or not a fare strike leads up to the coming mid-January contract negotiations, the tactic, along with slowdowns, will be a part of rank and file transit workers’—and riders’—arsenal against the MTA if it is accepted.


[1] Root & Branch, eds., preface to “The Seattle General Strike,” Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers Movements, as quoted in Fare Strike! San Fransisco 2005, by Insane Dialectal Posse.

[2] Outside the posturing of November 17th, etc.

[3] Notably, dues are not automatically deducted from TWU members as a result of a punitive injunction following the 2006 strike.

[4] The following section draws from Steve Downs’s Hell on Wheels: The Success and Failure of Reform in Transport Workers Union Local 100, amongst other narratives. Downs’s work is an account of the failed reform movement within Local 100 which raised the strike-quelling Roger Toussaint to his presidency. As Downs was himself a founder and leading organizer of this reform movement, his short history does a great job of summarizing key contract negotiations, rank and file sentiment, and internal political machination despite its often obvious bias and political bent (i.e., he is a member of the left Trotskyist group, Solidarity).

[5] This was just to emphasize the already illegal act of transit strikes as outlined in New York’s Taylor Law, incidentally enacted following a powerful transit strike in 1967.

[6] Steve Downs, page 26.

[7] “NYC transit workers reject givebacks” by Harry Harrington for the Industrial Worker.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Supplement to “Contract Bulletin #22” by Marty Goodman.

[10] “Financial Outlook for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority,” New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Marty Goodman.

[13] ibid.

[14] Unlike in France or Germany, for example, where station agents, conductors and bus drivers often look the other way when someone does not pay, leaving this job to the municipal security or police.

[15] This article is intentionally discreet regarding specific references to people, parties, actions, and dates involved in the aforementioned organizing.



12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on February 5, 2012

Hey, thanks for posting, but what's up with the footnotes?

Kadir Ateş

12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Kadir Ateş on February 6, 2012

Sure, I was actually waiting for the addition of the footnotes to go through, I guess they haven't been approved yet.

Notes on the Fly

SS's notes on N17 and the relationship between the left and other protesters.

Submitted by Kadir Ateş on February 5, 2012

November 17th was an amazing day. A few things happened in NYC which my eyes could hardly behold. Hopefully, more of that will happen in the upcoming years of struggle.

I went to the attempt to occupy the Stock Exchange. The numbers were big: several thousand people at 7am-ish. The marches got divided into 3 or 4 smaller ones. The one I was at blocked traffic on Broadway and Pine, I believe. There was a mic-check style debate with 50 people or so on the merits of being in solidarity with the NYPD. While the debates went along usual lines of differences, I want to say it was productive and that there were many more people who wanted to have a clear difference with the NYPD. This has not been my experience in the past. Hopefully, this shows that political lessons are being learned. It seems that at least a 1/3 out of this 50 was against seeing the NYPD as part of the 99 percent—a good development. At the same time many sang the national anthem. I did a mic-check and said, “What would Iraqis have to say about the national anthem with lines like ‘Bombs bursting in the air’?” The crowd had no response. Contradictions; contradictions!

Eventually, we headed back to Liberty Park. What is amazing is that the crowd tore down one entire side of the barricades. Even more interesting for me is that when the police tried to push us back into the park, the crowd rallied and pushed the police back to the edge of the street. I have not seen anything like that in NYC before. My sense is that more and more people are getting confident about their ability to enforce their collective power. I would guess it is fragile and all that, but a different feel in the crowd. I certainly was slightly “high” off the last several days of struggle as well and feeling solidarity with the crowd.

Next, I went to the Graduate Center of CUNY which is in mid-town/business/tourist central. It was attended by 30–40 people. I was a little surprised by the turnout. I rushed over to CUNY-Hunter to see what was up with the strike. It was about 1:30ish when I got there and about 20 students inside Hunter were protesting. I was very surprised by the small turnout. Soon after, I went to Union Square. Very quickly, thousands of students gathered. I was pretty surprised considering how small the other events were. I passed out a bunch of Insurgent Notes literature. I was not able to get into conversations with people, cuz I was just in mass flyering mode, but pretty much everyone took the literature.

What happened next blew my mind away. By the time the march left it was huge. People just took the streets and blocked traffic. We marched through stopped cars, trucks and taxis. The trucks and taxis were in solidarity with us—rolling down their windows, waving, and raising their fists, and honking their horns. It was very powerful. One truck driver of color got out and giving everyone high fives. People rejoiced to see that happen. It was unbelievable to walk through all the various avenues and streets and literally stop traffic. The cops were nowhere to be seen. Eventually on one of the intersections they brought a semi-truck to block the entire road and some cops stood their ground to force us onto the side walk. People just walked around them and back onto the street. I could not believe it.

It was a powerful lesson. I have really had to think about what I think about militancy and I think I have misunderstood it at times. I saw that when people want to do something, they will just do it. I am also wondering what the NYPD higher ups were thinking. Maybe they knew rich Columbia and NYU students were attending and did not want to bust their heads so took a more hands off approach. Not sure. I definitely am against the idea that doing radical shit means you are a superhero—which sometimes the activities of anarchists and others reinforce. What happened yesterday was that many first time protestors did something pretty illegal, but it was in mass numbers.

Eventually we got to the Foley Square. Nothing too exciting! It was evening and I was exhausted. I went home.


As many of you know, Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan was cleared. This is part report back and part reflection/analysis. You can check the OWS websites for a more play by play account so I will not get into all that.

I first want to say how inspiring this movement continues to be even with all its contradictions. My fundamental urge, no matter how many disagreements I have with OWS, is that it is on the right side of things, I still feel connected to it, and it has changed this country for the better. I am also being challenged by this movement politically and organizationally. I am seeing many folks with probably less radical politics make the right decisions time after time. And seeing folks with the “correct political” perspective become more and more marginal—including myself, cuz we have little to offer.

I arrived at Occupy Wall Street by 2 am after receiving a text message. The NYPD had closed down Brooklyn Bridge and all subway lines from Brooklyn into Manhattan except the R. I took a cab. I came from a meeting of Anarchists and Marxists on next steps for concrete organizing. The NYPD had created a 2–4 block perimeter around Liberty Square Park. No one was allowed to get in. I gathered with a crowd of 200–300 people. We were not sure what to do until we got text messages from communications of Liberty Square Park that we should meet up at Foley Square. At Foley Square, a debate took place over what to do next.

Take Back Occupy or Survive Till Thursday

I don’t know how many, but some people were very pissed that we had left the Liberty Square folks to get arrested. As the crowed and police gathered, I got up on a platform and argued we should go back and challenge the police. (Later, I found out 1,000 NYPD were at Liberty Square). I believe Sharon Smith from the ISO said no, we should live to survive another day and build for a general strike. While at the specific moment I disagreed with her strongly, looking back I think it was a fair and principled position she argued.

This discussion would happen again and again as we ran through the streets of Manhattan, being chased by lots of NYPD. One by one, protestors would get arrested by the NYPD. I saw maybe 20 arrests happen this way. Some of us would argue for staying around the protestors, but one OWS-er said it well, if we are not going to de-arrest right now, then we need to keep moving. What settled in for me was kind of a guerilla insurgent strategy. If we cannot hold the ground, and are going to be decimated by the police, then we need to keep moving and make ourselves a hard target to pin down. I get it.

I agree with the de-arresting. But it also seems the crowd was not prepared to de-arrest and for all the militant rhetoric of revolutionaries like me, neither was I. So practically that meant evading the police all night—humbling experience of rhetoric versus reality, very humbling. In that way many of the more probably liberal OWS-ers have a better grasp on realty and praxis than I did and probably many other revolutionaries. I would be cool for a militant minority of radical-minded people de-arresting, but there appears to be no such formation. The revolutionary left in NYC at this moment does not exist in any organized form. What it seems to be is a bunch of isolated individuals who have radical critiques of OWS, but no practical alternative or organizational form to demonstrate what something more radical looks like. In NYC there are definitely enough individual revolutionaries to form something, but it has not happened. I also am aware that there are tons of differences in such a broad term as revolutionary.

Lack of militancy

We got in a confrontation with the police around 6 am. About 500 people gathered a couple blocks away from Liberty Square Park. Eventually, the police said we needed to get off the streets. A crowd of 100–200 people gathered to stop the police from breaking through. We locked arms and tried to hold our ground. It was amazing how quickly the police broke through. It was also amazing how peaceful the entire thing was.

It really left some us wondering why the crowd was not more militant. It also left us wondering what the role of revolutionaries should be in escalating militancy. Some of the objective problems are definitely everyone is worried about the police cameras everywhere and the general seriousness of the NYPD. There is also the subjective problem that revolutionaries have no organizational framework through which to operate. Then there are the problems that the feeling of the crowd I get is definitely more of a liberal/nonviolence scene.

I saw some Black Nationalists argue against throwing garbage in the streets. I am not sure what angle they were coming from. Whether it is from a conservative place or whether it was a sensible assessment of reality. I talked with some Anarchists/Marxists about this question. If folks were really serious about violence, what kind of preparation was needed? Frankly, no one came prepared, but we are all talking about it rhetorically. I can agree then with the Black Nationalists about not being violent. If we are gonna be violent, where is our preparation? This is the NYPD, not something to be fucked around with. Look at the crowd. People will just get an ass-whooping and look like fools. It is a more complicated debate than liberal = nonviolent and revolutionary = violent. The reality is that in NYC, the revolutionaries talk about militancy and their militancy is throwing garbage in the streets: Fanon, the Panthers, and IWW’s legacy indeed! (Sarcastic, if it is not obvious.)

As an aside, and to be clear that I am not some bureaucratic fool about this stuff, I went to an anti-Nazi demonstration in Toledo. I don’t know if anyone was prepared other than the Anarchists who came. But a large crowd of Black youth showed up and threw tons of rocks at the Nazis and cops. I don’t know if they had a plan, probably not. It was a good victory against the Nazis that day.

We talked about Robert F. Williams and the Deacons for Defense and Justice. I focused on how it took a long time for the Civil Rights Movement to move from a position of nonviolence to something more militant; how that was a historical development being forced by the situation to develop that, and the difference between the heroic militant like Robert F. Williams and the mass involvement of people on more Pantherish terms.

Throwing Kleenex Around

Probably the most comical thing which occurred during the night was the sight of Anarchists, Marxists and other folks dressed in Black throwing garbage in the streets. Many OWS-ers got very pissed. It was the usual nonviolent and keep-it-civil arguments. While I thought the policing of the Anarchists was off, I have to say this was not very productive as far as I can tell. The only sensible argument I heard from Anarchists why throwing garbage in the street made sense was to slow down cop cars behind us. Although at times, it seemed throwing garbage bags and cans in the street was more of a political statement for some people.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear I am not against violence. I am for attacking police cars, looting Nike stores, Macy’s, and attacking banks. I see a political point to these things. I can see layers of the lumpen and working class agreeing with it and participating. I have no idea who in society will relate to garbage being thrown in the streets. Again, I really don’t care about garbage in the streets. But the Anarchists make it a political point. I frankly think it makes the whole concept of violence and militancy look rather stupid. Militancy and violence should revolve around the sanctity of private property or the cops, etc. I do not know in what way throwing garbage in the street clarifies those things. It only reinforces what many liberals claim it to be: juvenile, pointless, etc. I also think that when normal people see stuff like garbage thrown in the streets, it only reminds them that this is young white kids playing revolutionary. My point is it raises no debate worth discussing.

I saw very nasty debates inside the movement. I guess my point is, if we are gonna have the debate, do it around something which has real content like the things I mentioned. But I just wonder what this says of the Anarchist/Marxist left at this point. That our militancy is reduced to throwing garbage in the streets—really?

What Has Happened

Regardless of what the New York Times and other media outlets say, it looks like the movement has been galvanized. While the numbers at night were much smaller than I thought. I think maybe 1,000–1,500 people came out to defend the park. By 6 pm in NYC, 3,000–5,000 people were at Liberty Square Park. I will say, I don’t think the rank and file of labor is heavily involved. People kept saying labor is coming and I did not see many workers. Most of the people I saw looked like students, former students, unemployed people who used to be students, etc. I mean workers were there at the park, but in much smaller numbers than the rhetoric about unions supporting the movement. I would say at tops 15 percent of the people were people of color, with Asian-Americans being the largest component of that 15 percent.

Also, and amazingly enough, although serious infrastructure is no longer allowed at Liberty Square Park, many churches and other groups have donated space in the area where Occupy will be running out of. It is an amazing logistical operation in that sense. There is talk of occupying buildings in the winter. I don’t know which buildings and the rest of the details.

There is a lot of excitement about November 17th. Rumor has it unions are bussing in people from out of state so the labor march is gonna be huge. It seems the November 17th stuff has reenergized lots of people.

Guess that is all for now.


Occupy Oakland: The port shutdown and beyond - All eyes on Longview!

Jack Gerson discusses the lessons of the Occupy movement and it's future.

Submitted by Django on January 10, 2012

On Monday December 12, the Occupy movement shut down the major west coast ports of Oakland, Portland, Longview (Washington), and Seattle. There were partial shutdowns or support actions at the ports of San Diego, Vancouver, and Long Beach, as well as in Hawaii and Japan. Wal-Mart distribution centers were blockaded in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque. Other actions occurred in New York, Houston, Tacoma, and Anchorage. The Seattle, Long Beach, San Diego, and Houston protests were met with police violence.

These coordinated actions showed that the Occupy movement is still very much alive, the various rants to the contrary by the bosses, the mass media, and assorted leftists notwithstanding. This is certainly true in Oakland, where I live. The nearly 10,000 protesters who shut down the port showed that Occupy Oakland’s November 2 Strike and Day of Action was no fluke. The December 12 actions rattled the entire Oakland establishment – corporate Oakland and the liberal politicians and labor bureaucrats who for years have carried their water while cultivating a “progressive” image. And the port shutdowns up and down the coast have delivered a strong message to the world maritime conglomerates: the Occupy movement will rally mass support to defend the longshoremen in Longview WA against a vicious union-busting attack from a multinational conglomerate.


The Longview longshoremen, ILWU Local 21, are locked in a life-and-death struggle with the Export Grain Terminal corporation (EGT). EGT is a joint venture between three conglomerates: U.S.-based Bunge North America, Japan-based Tochu Corporation, and South Korean-based STX Pan Ocean. EGT just spent $200 million to construct a highly automated grain elevator at the Port of Longview. Although EGT signed a lease agreement with the Port promising that all cargo work would be done with ILWU labor, it won’t honor that agreement. EGT tried to hire non-union labor and, when that failed, contracted with another union, Operating Engineers Local 701, that is willing to raid ILWU 21 and to cross their picket lines.

EGT is using tactics straight out of the coal field labor wars of the 1920s. They hired private “security” (Pinkerton-like goons). They’ve enlisted the local cops to stalk, harass, and assault ILWU members – tailing them around town and even dragging them out of their homes in the middle of the night.

Local 21 has fought back. In the course of the battle in Longview, ILWU members and their supporters have blocked trains from bringing grain to the terminal and organized mass pickets to disrupt its operations. 220 of the local’s 226 members have been arrested. Both the Washington and Oregon state labor federations have passed resolutions supporting the Longview ILWU and condemning the Operating Engineers for raiding and for crossing ILWU 21′s picket lines.

This ought to be a central priority for the AFL-CIO, because if EGT succeeds in locking out ILWU 21, it will set a precedent for union-busting up and down the coast. The AFL-CIO ought to provide material support to ILWU 21. It ought to tell the Operating Engineers to either end their raid or face censure and expulsion. And it ought to build towards a general strike against the union-busting. But none of this will happen. AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka won’t take sides and he won’t act. Trumka calls it a “jurisdictional dispute”. Indeed, the AFL-CIO leadership – and not just the top leaders, but most local officials and staffers as well – have for decades bought into the “team concept” of collaboration with management. Fundamentally, they believe that there is no alternative to capitalism. Thus, when the system is in crisis, they try to coerce workers to passively accept austerity (cuts to jobs, compensation, pensions and social security, and public services). So instead of leading mass organizing drives, they raid each other’s unions as union membership dwindles to barely one in ten workers.

A confrontation is imminent. EGT plans to bring in its first ship in mid-January. So with Trumka and the AFL-CIO sitting on their hands, what can be done? Here is where the Occupy movement can play a role. On December 17, Occupy Longview, which has close ties to ILWU 21, called for a mass convergence on Longview in January to block the loading of the EGT ship. On December 21, Occupy Oakland voted overwhelmingly (123 – 2) to respond to Occupy Longview’s call by organizing a caravan to Longview. Occupy organizers are projecting well over 10,000 – perhaps as many as 25,000 – occupiers descending on Longview from around the West. And unlike ILWU International President McEllrath (who opposed the December 12 port shutdown by an “outside group trying to advance a broader agenda”), ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman welcomes support from the Occupy movement. This from Coffman: “On behalf of Local 21, we want to thank the Occupy movement for shedding light on the practices of EGT and for the inspiration of our members”.

In addition to the convergence on Longview, Occupy can support and help propagate the call from ILWU rank and file militants who are urging the International to strike the entire West Coast when the EGT ship arrives – and, if McEllrath won’t issue the call, then the locals and the rank and file need to organize a coast-wide wildcat. Let’s recall that in significant – although admittedly infrequent – cases, ILWU locals (and, in still rarer instances, the entire West Coast ILWU) have acted in defiance of the contract and the law to shut down the ports, even without the spur of community (“outside”) picketers. (To name such instances: the 11-day boycott of South African cargo famously saluted by Nelson Mandela; a one-shift West Coast shutdown to support Mumia; a one-day strike against the war; a shutdown in Los Angeles in solidarity with Australian longshoremen; and a Puget Sound ferry strike in defiance of injunctions.) Shutting down the big ports of Oakland, Portland, and Seattle got the attention of the world maritime industry. Shutting down the twin megaport of Long Beach / Los Angeles would deliver a heavy blow: Long Beach / Los Angeles handles 40% of this country’s shipping, nearly ten times as much as the Port of Oakland.

So we believe that the ILWU can win this immediate battle. But it will take far more to win the long-term war. First of all, it will take identifying the true nature of that war. Today longshore is highly automated and longshoremen are the highest paid but one of the numerically smallest group of workers at the port. Meanwhile, the most numerous workers at the port – the port truckers – are by far the lowest paid, the most exploited, and are completely unorganized (forced to work as independent contractors). There cannot be a long-term victory for labor on the longshore without organizing the unorganized port truckers. But more than forty years ago, the ILWU agreed to deals around containerization / automation that guaranteed high pay, benefits, and job security in exchange for allowing gross attrition of jobs as workers retired. The ILWU has been far too content to rely on this arrangement, rather than reaching out aggressively to support and help organize the port truckers. So although Longview Local 21 is fighting militantly against EGT and is reaching out to Occupy for support, the ILWU International shows zero interest in organizing or otherwise fighting for the truckers. Such organizing remains essential. We ought not to look to the ILWU International to do it.

Our enemies try to play on this weakness to exacerbate the divisions. Thus, from Oakland Mayor Jean Quan:

The people who are planning to stay at the port—do they have families who have trucks that because of the shutdown in the economy may lose those trucks? A day’s pay – $600, $700—could be the difference as to whether they can keep that truck or not.

Quan is disingenuous: most truckers clear less than $100 / day for a long day’s haul – often as little as $50. But she is poking at a weakness, and it’s one that we can ill afford to ignore.

Let’s be clear. Occupy has not ignored the port workers. Indeed, port truckers in Los Angeles’s Latino community were the first to call for a December 12 port action, when they voted to withhold their labor on this day, which is a cultural holiday in the Latino community. In solidarity with them, Occupy LA voted to blockade ports servicing the SSA shipping company, partly owned by Goldman Sachs. Occupy Oakland then joined their call and broadened it, calling for a west coast port shutdown in solidarity with the truckers and with the locked-out longshoremen of ILWU Local 21 in Longview, and to disrupt the profit chain of Goldman Sachs and “Wall Street on the Water”.

In the event, the LA port truckers were unable to repeat their successful wildcat of May 1, 2006, when they effectively organized a significant number of the more than 15,000 southern California port truckers to shut down LA / Long Beach longshore operations. Nevertheless, the successful port shutdowns in Oakland and the Washington and Oregon ports have fully focused attention on the desperate struggle in Longview.

But organized labor has ignored the port workers. And the Occupy movement itself has steered clear of direct labor organizing. It does not educate about the need to organize the unorganized, and Occupy leaders have discouraged efforts to educate internally and organize externally around a set of concrete demands that could speak to the needs of the unorganized and ensure that organized jobs are decent jobs. This leaves such organizing at the mercy of the labor bureaucracy. Can Occupy sustain and deepen a mass movement on this basis? Without at least discussing this question and developing strategy, the Occupy movement is bound to act as a large “solidarity” movement: engaging in episodic disruptive mass actions followed by weeks of lull where organizing slows to a crawl while waiting for new struggles to support and/or new occasions for disruptive direct action; supporting others’ struggles and demands from the outside. This leaves Occupy vulnerable to the nature of those struggles and the content of those demands. To be clear: I am not proposing that the Occupy movement as a whole adopt a set of detailed demands and set out to organize the unorganized. (I think that Occupy derives much strength by remaining essentially a broad united front under the general umbrella sentiment of economic justice and anti-capitalism.) But I do believe that groupings inside of the Occupy movement should do so – and that this should be a priority for Occupy labor outreach groups.

Lesson to the Left: Occupy Oakland Has Not Capitulated to the Democrats

The Occupy movement – and especially Occupy Oakland – has demonstrated remarkable resilience and an almost unprecedented ability to repeatedly mobilize mass actions against economic injustice and police brutality. Many of us have underestimated this movement. Leftist blogs are filled with statements like “Occupy Oakland is dead” and warnings that Occupy is capitulating to the liberals, capitulating to the Democrats, capitulating to the labor bureaucracy — and that unless this or that formula is followed failure is certain. If we are to be taken seriously by this movement – and, perhaps more to the point, if we are to understand it and help it to move forward – we need to first acknowledge that the movement hasn’t corresponded to the preconceived notions of veteran socialists. Moreover, it has far exceeded our expectations. And, despite problems, it continues to act independently of the Democrats and the bureaucrats. Indeed, its deep-seated, if inchoate, anti-capitalist message and its remarkable ability to mobilize mass disruptive protests have left the Oakland establishment dazed and disoriented.

In the weeks preceding the west coast port shutdown, the Oakland establishment engaged in perhaps the most concerted effort to defeat labor solidarity since the campaign to bust the Professional Air Controllers union in 1981. Perhaps the clearest signal of the importance of the port shutdown to world maritime interests was the decision of the Port of Oakland to place an ad in the New York Times (3000 miles away, but the home of Wall Street). The ex-radical, left-liberal politicians who run Oakland city government and their long-time friends and political allies in the local union bureaucracy rallied to the defense of the shipping and financial corporations. Recriminations were hurled by ex-Maoist Mayor Jean Quan (who ranted about “economic violence … a small group of people are going to hold this port, this city, this economy hostage”). Port Commissioner and prominent local labor official Victor Uno, together with his wife Josie Camacho (secretary-treasurer of the local central labor council), argued that a port shutdown would inflict hardship on longshoremen, port truckers, and other workers. ILWU International President Bob McEllrath, under a not-so-veiled threat of a lawsuit by Goldman Sachs (part-owner of shipping conglomerate SSA and a target of the Occupy movement), sent a letter to ILWU members warning, “Support is one thing. Outside groups trying to advance a broader agenda is quite another and one that is destructive to our democratic process.”

But their campaign failed, and its failure took them by surprise. The cops had estimated that at most 300 protesters would try to shut down the port. But more than 1,000 picketers showed up at the Port of Oakland to shut down the morning shift, and nearly 10,000 shut down the afternoon shift. Now, Occupy Oakland has organized the largest mass militant demonstrations in at least forty years, targeting corporate Oakland and suspending business as usual. And it has done it on multiple occasions.

This has dragged into the open the true role of the ex-radical politicians who run Oakland city government and their long-time friends and allies in the local union bureaucracy. All of these “progressives” operate on the assumption that Oakland’s well-being depends upon the well-being of Oakland business – especially the port, the developers, and the banks. So to them, anything that gets in the way of business hurts the people of Oakland. Thus, Quan argues that shutting down the port is “economic violence” that “holds the city hostage”, and City Council members echo the same refrain. Of course, in the context of the current, deepening global economic crisis, there will be no end to corporate demands for cuts, layoffs, and handouts from the city. The Occupy movement has challenged this assumption, and the politicians are ducking for cover. Their election has been based on their “left” image, but for years they have been pawns of the corporate bosses. Occupy is forcing them to choose: which side are you on? The labor bureaucrats, who have for decades embraced the “team concept” of collaboration with management, are caught in the same bind.

Consequently, cracks are developing in the “progressive” cabal, as long-time Quan allies hedge their bets. Thus, Quan’s long-time comrade Dan Siegel resigned as her legal adviser to distance himself from her authorization of cop violence in October. Oakland Education Association President Betty Olson-Jones, another ally and personal friend, supported the port shutdown (OEA was the only union to support the December 12 action). The local labor council condemned Quan’s authorization of cop violence against Occupy and declared that she is “on the wrong side of history”. Sharon Cornu, a mover and shaker in the local Democratic Party and the former head of the local labor council, resigned as Deputy Mayor. To be sure, they continue to hedge their bets: thus, within days of the port shutdown Olson-Jones was a featured speaker at a mass meeting organized to try to salvage Quan’s career; a few days later the local labor council leadership held a press conference to urge workers to “give the Mayor a chance” so that “she can bring jobs to Oakland”; Cornu continues to praise Quan’s handling of Occupy Oakland.

So Occupy has not capitulated to the liberal politicians. But neither does it pose a political alternative to this leadership. Occupy remains a powerful force, but its power lies exclusively in its ability to mobilize massive but episodic direct actions. It consciously eschews political action. Left unchanged, this will cede political leadership to one set or another of representatives of the bosses. Whether or not the Occupy movement as a whole adopts a specific course of political action, it is important that the movement at least understands the importance of combining mass political action with mass direct action, and creates space and opportunity for its participants to pursue this.

Lesson to the Left: Occupy Oakland Has Not Capitulated to the Bureaucrats

Just as Occupy has not capitulated to the liberal politicians, neither has it capitulated to the labor bureaucracy. It is, however, a fact that much of Occupy Oakland’s labor outreach committee consists of the old “labor left”, including several who have made a career of carrying water for and currying favor with the local labor bureaucrats and the “progressive” politicians. This is one of the factors that have caused many, myself included, to conclude, mistakenly, that the “progressives” had taken charge – or, at a minimum, that capitulation to them was well under way. To be sure, there are problems here – most importantly, perhaps, has been the tendency to overly orient to the labor bureaucrats. This came out most sharply when the Occupy Oakland leaders insisted on treating the local bureaucrats as equal partners in organizing an “Occupy / Labor” rally and march on November 19. They used the terms “labor”, “organized labor”, and “labor leadership” synonymously, and did not seem aware that except in rare instances the bureaucrats can’t or won’t mobilize their members. Thus, although a few thousand marched on November 19 – and although several labor officials spoke at the rally, it was not a “labor march” at all – there were only two or three labor contingents on the march, each of fewer than 10 people. This helped local labor officials strengthen the image they present to their rank and file, without mobilizing the rank and file and without in any way changing their long-term collaboration with management.

Nevertheless, Occupy has not capitulated to the labor bureaucracy. If one does not appreciate this, one cannot really understand the December 12 port shutdowns, when only one union (OEA) supported the action and the full power of corporate Oakland and much of the labor bureaucracy was arrayed against Occupy. Instead, the direction of Occupy Oakland’s labor work continues to be largely determined by the “insurrectionist anarchist” core that has been the power behind the scenes for all of Occupy Oakland since its inception in early October. That direction remains to organize mass disruptive direct action protests, and there is little evidence that they have altered their approach to accommodate labor officials or politicians. The insurrectionists are not about to capitulate to the progressives – at least not in the near future.

But while there has not been a capitulation to the labor bureaucracy, much of Occupy’s labor orientation has been to attempt to engage unions through the union leadership. The interests and actions of workers are not synonymous with the elected leadership of their unions, particularly at the International level. The Internationals, and many locals, are integrated into the Democratic Party machine and act as agents for labor-management collaboration, government ideology and policy in administering concessions and opposing militant action. Thus, as we discussed earlier, the labor movement cannot move forward without an aggressive campaign to organize the unorganized and to provide jobs with adequate pay and decent working conditions. This simply will not happen at the initiative of the labor bureaucracy – indeed, they will squash it and / or try to channel it into a campaign to organize some of the unorganized into rotten sweetheart contracts. It is very important to be clear about this, because without such clarity Occupy will inevitably “leave to Caesar what is Caesar’s” – i.e., to treat the elected labor leadership as though it represents the interests of the organized workers, rather than those of the Democrats, the state, and – at bottom – the bosses.

Originally published by Insurgent Notes



12 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by Hieronymous on January 10, 2012

Jack Gerson was a former leader of the RSL and still has residue from that for approaching class struggle from a Trotskyist perspective. But he's an honest trade union activist who recently retired, but who keeps his union membership status active by substitute teaching. He regularly joins other rank-and-filers to carry the Oakland Education Association banner at marches and rallies, with the rather unpoetic official union slogan: BAILOUT SCHOOLS AND SERVICES NOT BANKS! STOP FORECLOSURES!" He served on the OEA executive board, bargaining team, and was regularly quoted in the press as a union spokesperson. Although he's critical of the present union president, Betty Olson-Jones, he and his caucus campaigned for her slate. And Gerson brings some of that Old/New Left orthodoxy by resisting the lack of demands of the Occupy Movement. His proposal, which is fortunately unsuccessful, is for demands like "JOBS FOR ALL!." And again, he brings the Old Left to mind with slogans like "Organize the unorganized." Which begs the question: does he mean into the AFL-CIO or Change to Win? If Gerson's position is "close to... but not identical" with Insurgent Notes, that means that neither are very far from their common roots in the International Socialists (the Shachtmanites around Hal Draper).

Will Barnes

I think Gerson is correct in his assessment: Neither the Democratic Party apparatus nor union officialdom has captured Occupy Oakland, and for the reason Gerson gives, namely, the insurrectionary anarchists have more or less established political hegemony in the various committees and groups that are most deeply involved in Occupy Oakland.

At the same time, I think there is an element of substitutionalism in these activities, at least in relation to the port workers; or, to utilize Gerson's rather solicitous phrase, Occupy Oakland runs the danger of acting only as a solidarity movement. Here, I think it is important to be specific: I said “an element of substitutionalism” because I do not think it is cut and dried question of activism versus agency. Permit me to explain.

For the most part I think insurrectionary anarchism is a phenomenon of youth. For the most part. [just like freedom. old people only like responsibility, obligation, and routine. Oh, and Maalox.]

Far more important it is the experience of youthful casualization, emphasis on casualization, that is at issue here.

Casualization is a worldwide phenomenon, and we need only to cite a few figures and instantiate specific situations to grasp how pervasive it is: A full 40% of the workforce in Japan and 60% in Korea are casualized, and by my own rough estimate based on Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 82,000,000 casualized workers in the United States (an estimate made some months prior to that moment from which we mark the onset of an open crisis of capital, the collapse of Lehman's in September 2008); or, as a specific example, since the same moment the savage and crushing casualization that has been imposed in Greece where youth unemployment is 40%; or for that matter, in Bosnia and Herzegovina were it is 58%, Macedonia were it is 52.5% and Serbia where it is in excess of 49%. Similar situations obtain across the Maghreb and in Egypt, as well as in coastal China to mention just two further regions where various forms of proletarian resistance to capitalist responses to the crisis have forcibly emerged.

I pointedly mention unemployment in the same sequence as casualization because the two are directly related phenomena. What connects them is not merely the obvious precarity, but the entire historical development from which they sprang... the history of workers defeats in the last two decades of the twentieth century, and the class recomposition created by vastly accelerated technological innovation that employers were able to impose following those defeats... and on this basis their contrast with nature of work in the high era of the big factory (Fordism), i.e., the contrast with full-time, far better if not always high waged, benefited work.

Where or not it is a thematic concern, it is the novel situation the collapse of the big factory created that is the point of departure for insurrectionary anarchists: They, and the largely youthful anti-authoritarian milieu as a whole from which they have risen, have no personal connection to the labor movements across the capitalist world (such that they are), more importantly they and that milieu have no personal experience of the history of defeats organized labor has undergone, they and that milieu have few expectations of ever exacting any benefits constituting the social wage (e.g., in the United States, Social Security, Medicare, etc.), and, to boot, they and that milieu confront with various degrees of understanding a Earth as the foundations of human existence subject to relentless plundered by capital and the crisis most associated with it, climate change. While to be sure there are any number of young people involved in the Occupy movement who are not fully proletarianized (say, reproducing themselves socially with the assistance of parents), the insurrectionary anarchists are, with respects to this situation in its entirety, the politically conscious layer of by far and away the most massive largest working class stratum in the world today, the casualized and, as part of it, its largest layer, casualized youth.

In this specific sense, to the extent the Occupy movement is taking its lead from the insurrectionary anarchists its actions are not simply substitutionalist; rather, between two very different layers of a global working class with qualitatively different social and historical experiences, it is a question of elaborating a common project. But in Oakland its elaboration is flawed.

There are two points here. First, in Oakland the insurrectionary anarchists have themselves become bureaucratized. Committees memberships are fixed (i.e., they admit of no new members), decisions are made in closed meetings, and the decisions are non-revocable. Second, Jack Gerson has tacitly suggested a direction in this regard, one I do not accept, that merely yokes the energies of Occupy to a reinvigoration of the labor movement... I shall return to this, momentarily.

Above I stated that insurrectionary anarchists start from the entire historical situation of which collapse of the big factory was, for us, perhaps the most visible aspect. While I suspect there are those who read this who will not wish to follow me here, I think unpacking the meaning and significance of the “entire historical situation” involves an aspect of formation: There is no need to develop this at any length for it is a phenomenon that is highly visible, an aspect of the subjectivity for which the experience of total cultural fact of Fordism is not part of their experience while casualization is. It has everything to do with the manner in which capital has shaped subjectivity: As a matter of practice and political orientation, there is an immediacy that appears absence a long-term analysis and strategic perspective. It finds its most forceful and depoliticized expression in the activity of black bloc anarchists. More than anything else, in Oakland it is this immediatism that internally works to push Occupy down the road of a solidarity movement and drives it into substitutionalist activity...

The second broad issue I shall address concerns unions.

Gerson thinks the crucial issue for the ports is the truckers, or organizing them. He's right about the truckers. In fact, after the 2014 ILWU-PMA contract is negotiated, they may be ever more crucial since without a winning fight at and around Longview longshoremen's numbers may become so marginal due to contractually accepted attrition and full-scale automation of the docks that they will go the way of nineteenth century steamboat engine mechanic.

While Gerson's perspective is that of an honest trade union militant, his prescription for organizing them belongs to another time, specifically to the Fordist era of the big factory. He thinks Occupy is leaving organization to the union bureaucracy (in which case, he appears to suggest it will not get done), but he chastises Occupy “leaders” for discouraging educative efforts “internally” and for not putting forth a “set of concrete demands” that would articulate the needs of the “unorganized,” providing them with “organized,” “decent jobs.” Gerson, in other words, sees the central problem in terms of vastly expanding the existing labor movement, presumably overturning the labor bureaucracy in the process. I suspect Gerson further sees all this in terms of a mass upsurge on the model of the CIO campaigns of the thirties of the last century. But he'll have to speak for himself here (or, since his perspective is close to Insurgent Notes, perhaps Loren could ask him). Similarly, he thinks that in Longview the rank and file in the ILWU will have to do for themselves what labor officials refuse to do. Maybe, but not likely.

Organizing the unorganized, and building rank and file movements in the unions, are perspectives that belong to an era on which the crisis has once and all finally foreclosed on. And while I think unions remain the first line of defense for organized workers, and that we are obligated to defend unionized workers in struggles against employers and against their state in whatever manner we can, the reason that Gerson's perspectives are no longer adequate to our situation today is the crisis of capital has foreclosed on unions as such.

Gerson does not understand this situation in this manner, and he certainly does not grasp the centrality of casualization to this situation. Thus, he thinks of the truckers as disguised proletarians, as independent contractors that are being crushed under the weight of debt (truck payments), maintenance and high fuel costs (a perspective with dovetails with that of the more regressive elements in Occupy who see the world in terms of the 99% in a struggle against greed and the banks and who pursue efforts to leap over the historical present, backwards, to return to an era which is now part of the past). In point of fact, this is a situation that obtains neither in Oakland nor the LA-Long Beach port. About one in twelve truckers in Oakland are waged and the Sikhs, blacks and Spanish speakers who form a large majority of truckers there do not “own” their trucks in the first place but lease them through a broker and are payed a piece rate. Nor do most them get anything like regular, full-time work, hours vary some weeks more than forty others much less. A similar situation characterizes troqueros at LA-Long Beach. All these people are casualized proletarians, and there status as such is fairly obvious... It is highly dubious that the unions can address their situation... I won't elaborate on the ethnic-racial tensions that overlay the differences between the Anglo independent contractors so-called and the nonAnglo truckers in the port in Oakland... and, I would also note the troqueros have already shown a well-developed capacity for self organization. At any rate, the approach to these workers as casualized will and cannot be made along the lines that built the CIO. But this besides the point.

The upsurges that we confront now and into the future will not have the features that characterized the mass production industries during nineteen thirties.

Under today's conditions, the objectives of big factory organizing have also become obsolete. Perhaps the only effective aim of organizing under conditions of extensive casualization of the proletariat entails activity that seeks to achieve provisional agreements not bound by legal contracts, instead of institutionalized collective bargaining, a legalized contract extended over a set duration of time; enforcement of the agreements by irregular (frequency undetermined) or quickie strikes that relies solely on the initiative and self-activity of workers themselves, on their participation and direct confrontation, different in nature from and counterposed to the lengthy, potentially demoralizing strikes of attrition that are infrequently waged by unions. And all of this is aimed at more or less negotiating the terms of non-work, of a time distinct from work as a mediated expression of an intense desire to suppress it altogether.

But these too are merely subordinate considerations because the overriding aim here is to insure that the bond between casualized workers and employers, tenuous among large layers of the casualized, never develops; that, in those upsurges as they more and more openly counterpose capital to workers, the visceral orientation of workers will be altogether to the overthrow of capital on the basis of our organizations as we create them in the context of a revolutionary situation which this activity itself defines.


[misspelled names corrected]

The sky is always darkest just before the dawn: class struggle in the US from the 2008 crash to the eve of the occupations movement - Loren Goldner

Loren Goldner discusses working class and capitalist responses to the crisis since 2008.

Submitted by Django on February 29, 2012

Since July of 2011, the mainstream media have been increasingly talking about a “double dip” “recession” in the United States But we can safely assert that for most working people, the “recession” has never ended, and is about to get worse.


To understand the class struggle in the United States since the financial meltdown of 2007–2008, we must briefly consider the history of the previous four decades, since the end of the wildcat insurgency of the late 1960s/early 1970s. The history of the American working class since ca. 1973 (as is well known), has been an almost uninterrupted wave of defeats and rollback. This has been described as a “class war in which only one side was fighting.” Real wages have fallen in those decades by a conservative estimate of 15 percent, and starting as early as 1960, the one-paycheck blue-collar family began to disappear. Today, in a typical working-class family, two to three paychecks are necessary, and at least one is required to cover housing costs (typically 50 percent of household income) alone. The average work week has increased at least 10 percent for those holding full-time jobs; in reality, the work force increasingly resembles the “hourglass society” with “professional strata” working 70-hour weeks, and a majority of the population casualized into irregular part-time work. The top 10 percent of the population has claimed roughly 70 percent of all increases in income over the same period. Large parts of the old industrial Northeast, it is once again well known, have been turned into the “rust bowl,” with low-paying, dead end “service” jobs (e.g. Wal-mart) replacing the old, moderately paid and relatively secure blue-collar jobs. The United States competes with South Korea for having the most dangerous workplaces in the “advanced” capitalist world, with 14 workers killed on the job every day. 2 percent of the population (seven million people),1 largely black and Latino, are awaiting trial, in prison or on parole, in large part the result of the “war on drugs.” With hundreds of thousands of people losing homes and apartments after losing their jobs, homelessness has soared, intensifying the “war on the poor” in police harassment, herding people into fetid shelters that are little more than prisons, and the criminalization of street people.

This, then, is a snapshot of social reality in the “richest country in the world.”

Decline of Strike Activity

In the face of this capitalist offensive since the 1970s, the classical strike, not to mention the wildcat strike, declined to near-invisibility. 20 percent of American workers were involved in strikes or lockouts each year in the 1970s, and only 0.05 percent in 2009. The old industrial unions were seriously weakened by de-industrialization and capital-intensive innovation requiring fewer workers; they fell from 35 percent of the work force in 1955 to 12 percent today, and the majority of those remaining are in public sector unions.2 In order not to be misunderstood: most of the major unions, up to 1973, were fighting the rank-and-file wildcat insurgency, not the capitalists. Nevertheless, their loss of membership reflects in part their inability to even continue the “business unionism” they practiced into the 1970s.) Those workers who retain regular jobs with decent wages and benefits, when they do strike, have almost without exception remained within the bounds of legality and narrowly-defined “bargaining units” that guarantee defeat before the struggle begins.

Pyramiding of Consumer Debt

The American working class and “middle class” (an ideologically-loaded term tied up with the nearly-extinct “American dream” of a steady job, home ownership and a decent retirement) partially compensated for the declining real wages after the 1970s with ever-deepening consumer debt. Beginning in the 1990s, this was complemented by the housing bubble, propagated by the media-touted myth that “housing prices never go down,” and fed in the 2000s by the “sub-prime” bubble, when virtually anyone could get a mortgage and buy a home, or get a second mortgage, and use these imaginary “assets” as a basis for further credit. A large part of the “recovery” from the 2000–2003 meltdown of the bubble was related to housing construction and the industries feeding into it, such as appliances and furniture. This piling up of consumer debt by working people, blue or white collar, paralleled the unprecedented increase of state (Federal, state and municipal) debt, and the external debt of the United States (total net dollars held abroad, minus U.S. assets abroad) of at least $10 trillion.

Thus the actual eruption of the crisis with the 2007 bursting of the real estate bubble, followed by the spasms set off in 2008 in the banking sector, was merely the culmination of a long process of buying time with debt pyramiding since the 1970s, reflecting an underlying crisis of profit (and ultimately of value in Marx’s sense) in the “real” economy. But that is, for the purposes of this article, another story.

The Political Dynamic

One must not overlook the weight of the November 2008 election of Barack Obama (elected in all probability by the outbreak of the crisis in October, weeks before) in the overall social climate. As in 1929–1934, the great majority of the US population has initially reacted to the crash with stunned silence. Obama, denounced by the “right” (the Republican Party, and in the past two years the radical right Tea Party faction of the Republicans) as a “socialist” (not to mention a “Muslim,” and even a “Marxist”), in fact has carried out policies to the right of his predecessor George W. Bush in almost every area. But the response to them has been muted because his liberal base has given his government every benefit of the doubt. Obama has intensified the “war on terror,” which increasingly is extended to domestic opposition3 ; he has deepened the US involvement in its losing wars in the Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan) and drone bombings in Pakistan. His “economic team” included well-known hatchet men such as Lawrence Summers (who as Undersecretary of the Treasury had supervised the pummeling of South Korea in the 1997–98 Asia crisis), Paul Volcker (who as head of the Federal Reserve Bank had administered the deep recession of 1979–1982) and Tim Geithner (former head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank). This team has engineered huge bail-outs of the collapsing banks and real estate institutions, guaranteeing trillions of dollars of bad loans at 100 percent, while doing little or nothing for the blue and white-collar workforce, not to mention the ever-growing marginal and homeless population. Obama’s Orwellian health care “reform” (also denounced as “socialist”) was virtually written by the big private health insurance companies, which dominate the retrograde U.S. health care system. In December 2010 Obama extended unemployment benefits in a “deal” with Congress that also extended Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, which had cost the Federal government $200 billion a year in lost revenue every year since 2001, while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost $1.5 trillion, if not more. His administration has overseen more deportations of illegal immigrants than in all the Bush years, falling most heavily on the marginal Latin Americans who came into the country during the pre-2007 housing boom to work in construction, and who lost those jobs when the boom collapsed. In the June–July Washington charade over the US Federal deficit, the radical right (Tea Party) minority, with huge leverage over the lower house of Congress, gave Obama cover to shift even further to the right, preparing for big cuts in “entitlements”—another ideologically-loaded term referring to medical care for the poor and elderly and for the Social Security system for retired people. These cuts will emerge from the “bipartisan” super-committee, composed of six Democrats and six Republicans, due to enumerate in November the cuts that no one wanted to specify in the resolution of the summer standoff. All these developments illustrate the historical role of the Democratic Party, namely to enact policies which would arouse serious opposition if carried out by Republicans.

Good cop – bad cop

The American political system has been described as consisting of a right-wing party and a far right-wing party; since at least the 1880s, the two dominant parties have been engaged in a “good cop/bad cop” routine. The poorer 50 percent of the population does not vote, and official politics has receded into a shadow play that feeds a general passivity and cynicism. This is one of the contexts that explain strange phenomena such as the current Tea Party; when people do mobilize, right-wing and (less in evidence today) left-wing populisms (the revolt of the “little guy”) are the first safety valves of the system.

The Tea Party emerged as a force on the right wing of the Republican Party starting in 2009, expressing better than other organized political groupings the right-wing populist rage which has been part of the American political landscape, off and on, since the late 1970s. It represents a “declining demographic” of older, white, “middle” and “upper middle” class people who imagine that America’s problems can be solved by a strict balanced budget at every level of government and therefore a “minimal state” overseeing an unfettered “free market.” Such an economy never existed, even in the pre-1914 era when the state was a much smaller part of “GDP” but still played a central role in tariff policy, Indian removal for the expansion of the southern slave economy, and land seizures for railroads and canals. The real content of this Tea Party mirage would of course be a great strengthening of state repression, and the military maintenance of the (declining) U.S. empire, while gutting all remaining “social” dimensions of the state that the US radical right associates with the “socialist” New Deal of the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” of the 1960s. Its overwhelmingly white social base points to a (largely) unspoken but very real racial agenda of people frightened by demographic trends pointing to a white minority in the population by 2050, and by a black president. The Tea Party’s real function in U.S. politics is to allow the “center” (Obama et al.) to move farther to the right, permitting the “center” to appear as a rational, sane alternative to the “market fundamentalists.”

It is important to note that a near-universal belief that the crisis was “caused” by some elite, whether bankers or government regulators, drowns out any serious analysis of the underlying “crisis of value,” of which banks, consumer credit, real estate bubbles or government regulation are mere epiphenomena.

In November 2010, right-wing populist rage at Obama’s “socialist” measures (the bailout of the banks, health care “reform,” watered-down and mainly symbolic attempts at government regulation of finance) led to massive Republican gains in both houses of the US Congress, wiping out a Democratic majority in the (lower) House of Representatives and almost capturing the Senate. Much of Obama’s 2008 base, disappointed (or disgusted) with his virtually open rule in the interests of big capital, simply stayed home. (One should not overlook the right-wing populist rage, rarely articulated openly, at Obama’s black skin.)

The “Recession” and Muted Resistance

Since fall 2008, the official unemployment rate in the United States has reached 9.1 percent, and is in all likelihood closer to 15 percent, with figures endlessly “revised,” including anyone who works one hour a month as “employed” and not including millions of people who have given up looking for work altogether. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes after losing their jobs, especially in the previous “boom” areas such as California’s Central Valley, Las Vegas, or Florida; millions more are holding mortgages that are “under water” (higher than the actual value of their homes). There are years of backlog of empty houses and real estate prices continue to fall. At this writing—late September 2011—world stock markets have been gyrating wildly, which may outdate these figures within days.

One striking phenomenon connected to the housing collapse is the near-absence of collective resistance to foreclosures and evictions. This is an important contrast to the early 1930s, when in New York City (for example) thousands of people gathered to protect neighbors threatened with evictions,4 or in rural areas where farmers (often armed) attempted to protect farm land from seizure by banks. One comrade in one of the most economically-devastated cities (Baltimore, Maryland), which has rivaled Detroit in decline since the 1970s, reports that the great majority of evicted or foreclosed people there are simply “ashamed” of their situation, conceal it from neighbors, and leave quietly in the night.

Attacks on Health Care and Pensions

Since 2007–2008, overt class struggle has shifted to an important extent from the work place to the confrontation with the bankrupt state, at every level (Federal, state and municipal). But this shift was prepared by the earlier defeat of workers in virtually every blue-collar industrial sector, headed by the auto workers. Public sector workers and their services, after decades of propaganda about the superiority of privatization, can be demonized as privileged, overpaid parasites because they are the last workers still benefiting from relatively secure jobs and benefits. Since blacks are disproportionately represented among public sector workers, this demonization in some quarters also flows from a muted racial agenda.

A near-omnipresent dimension of this confrontation is over health care costs, given America’s retrograde private health care “system.”

The United States is the only “advanced” capitalist country having no universal health care. In 2009, 50 million people had no health insurance. Health care costs amount to 15 percent of “GDP,” and are projected to rise to 20 percent by 2020. Canada, with a universal health system, spends 10 percent. It is estimated that the elimination of private health insurers (HMOs, or Health Management Organizations) and their “administrative costs” would eliminate 20–30 percent of health care costs. Further costs are added by the close relationship between the major pharmaceutical companies (“Big Pharma”) and the political class. (Federal law, for example, forbids states to buy cheaper generic drugs from Canada.) A majority of Americans favor a “single payer” (universal) health system, but the mainstream political parties and the media have imposed a virtual blackout on discussion of that alternative.

Even before the full eruption of the crisis, many of the strikes that did occur were focused on health care.5 (For many people, particularly those with families, the private job-related health plan is as important, sometimes more important, than the wage itself.) As the crisis greatly reduced tax income of states and cities, they were increasingly unable to pay health care and pensions for retired public employees. At every level, politicians, demagogues and think tanks bemoan “spiraling health care costs” but silence any serious discussion of their true sources in the control of health care by private insurance companies and the bloated prices charged by the big pharmaceutical companies.

Starting in 2014, anyone of the 50 million people currently without health insurance will be liable to a considerable fine if they do not sign up with a private health insurer; current rates for an individual are on the order of $500 per month; for a family more than $1000 per month. (While this article was being written, a Federal court ruled this aspect of “health care reform” unconstitutional, but the Obama government will appeal the decision in a higher court.)

The health care crisis goes together with the crisis of pensions in both the private and public sector. Starting in the 1990s, more and more employers shifted from paying for full “defined benefit” pensions to paying into “40lks” where employer and employee both pay into a fund that is then invested…in the stock market, naturally with fees for the stock brokerage. Studies have shown that 40lks leave retirees with only 10 to 33 percent of what the older defined benefit pensions paid (and which only covered one-third of the work force at their peak). This trend, combined with the coming Congressional attacks on Medicare and Social Security, points to accelerating impoverishment of the elderly. The crisis depletes the budgets of state and local governments, leaving them unable to pay the pensions of retired public employees. (In November 2009, for example, Philadelphia transit workers struck for six days to win increased pension benefits.)

The Last Industrial “Worker Fortress”: Collapse of the United Auto Workers

A key victory in the decades-long attack on the US working class—in some sense the end of an era—was the acceptance in 2007 of a two-tier contract at the “Big Three” auto makers (GM, Ford, Chrysler) by the United Auto Workers (UAW), a contract that was rushed through to approval despite wide opposition from rank-and-file workers. Henceforth, new hires at the Big Three started at $14 per hour, compared to $27 per hour for older workers. The UAW contract since World War II had been a “flagship” agreement for many other industrial sectors, and in the next three years the number of two-tier union contracts in the United States increased from 2 percent to 12 percent.

In 2009, in the midst of the financial meltdown, GM and Chrysler both declared bankruptcy and were taken over by the US government. The bankruptcy was merely a strategy to restructure their debt obligations, first of all to retired auto workers. When the two companies emerged from bankruptcy weeks later, the UAW became a major shareholder in both of them. Through the bankruptcy proceedings, the companies had freed themselves of $50 billion owed to the health care fund for retired workers. A new fund, called VEBA (Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association), will be administered by the UAW and will be based exclusively on the market value of GM and Chrysler stocks. A collapse of the stocks, or another bankruptcy by either company, will leave two million UAW retirees and their dependents with no health care, and their pensions would be cut or assumed by the US government at some discount.

Attacks on Public Employees; Wisconsin

Having knocked out the union that had been the model for wage agreements in U.S. industry for sixty years (total employment at the Big Three’s U.S. plants had been declining for decades although foreign auto firms have invested heavily in non-union plants in the South), capital intensified its offensive in 2011 by attacking public employees and public services, best illustrated in the state of Wisconsin but with similar developments in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York (state) and New York City. In Wisconsin, a newly-elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, attempted to abolish collective bargaining, leading to the biggest (and most sustained) post-2008 working-class mobilization to date.

In the November 2010 elections, Scott Walker and the Republican Party took over the Wisconsin state government in the general Republican landslide. (It later emerged that Walker had close ties to the far-right billionaire Koch brothers, who clearly saw Wisconsin as an experiment for strategy and tactics to be used elsewhere.) Once in power, they gave major tax breaks to the wealthy and to corporations, and then announced a state budget deficit, made far worse by those breaks. Walker proposed legislation for massive cuts in social services, enabling the state government to privatize at whim, and abolishing collective bargaining rights for public employees.6

The basic problem illustrated in the Wisconsin movement was the ability of the Democratic Party and the trade unions to control it and to defuse some real sentiment for a statewide general strike. This pattern was repeated again and again in other states, although nowhere has resistance to similar cuts achieved the depth of what happened in Wisconsin. The Democrats and the unions are closely linked because the latter are the major contributors to party campaign funds, which come from union membership dues. Thus in California, New York state, Minnesota and Connecticut, Democratic governors elected with strong union financial support pushed through cuts for public employees similar to Walker’s, but preserved the appearances of collective bargaining. In other Republican-controlled states, the results were mixed, and in some cases the governments backed off from full confrontation under the impact of the Wisconsin mobilization.

In Wisconsin itself, after the mass mobilization peaked in March, the Democrats and the unions pushed the movement into electoral channels, attempting to recall various Republican politicians and elect Democrats, entirely obscuring the fact that the Democrats who lost power in November 2010 had already imposed serious austerity, and had been planning more.7 Even these meek efforts, as the supposedly safe alternative to mass strike action, failed.

In short, the social controls on resistance to these attacks, the Democrats and the unions, did their work well throughout the country.

Smaller Struggles, Defeats and One Wildcat

Smaller struggles in the United States have also ended in partial or total defeat. In November 2008, workers at the Republic Doors and Windows factory in Chicago started to notice machinery disappearing from the plant during the night, a sure sign of an imminent closing. On December 2, 2008, company management announced that the plant would close in three days. On the scheduled closing day, Dec. 5, the 240 mainly black and Latino workers (members of the United Electrical Workers (UE), a union with a slightly more militant reputation than most) occupied the plant, demanding severance pay and health care benefits, and on Dec. 10 the workers accepted a severance package averaging $7,000 per worker and two months of health care. Management blamed the Bank of America for cutting off credit, but had recently bought a non-union window factory in the nearby state of Iowa. Workers picketed the bank, and workers from elsewhere brought food, blankets and sleeping bags during the occupation.

While the Republic workers had indeed won something, they did lose their jobs, a small fact overlooked in much of the “progressive” labor and left milieu’s hoopla about the struggle.

Another struggle with an even worse outcome for workers was the strike at the Stella d’Oro biscuit company in New York City. On Aug. 13, 2008, 135 workers in the Bakers Union walked out of contract negotiations. Originally a family business, with many workers having decades on the job, Stella d’Oro was taken over by a hedge fund that was demanding a 28 percent pay cut, an end to overtime pay for Saturdays and a 20 percent employee contribution to the health care plan. The union insisted on a legalistic strategy, doing nothing to prevent scabs from entering the plant, truckers from delivering flour, or to expand the strike to other bakeries. In May 2009, the workers offered to return to work without a contract, and were turned down. The union also convinced workers to rely on a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the US government “mediation” body. The strike continued until the end of June 2009, when the government National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) did rule that the hedge fund was engaging in “unfair labor practices” by refusing to bargain with the union. In early July, on the day when the Stella d’Oro workers returned to their jobs, management announced it was closing the plant, and proceeded to do so.

In Boron, California, in late January 2010, five hundred miners working for Rio Tinto (the third largest mining company in the world) were locked out after rejecting a contract which would have eliminated pensions, reduced wages, and introduced labor “flexibility”—justified by “global competition.”

In mid-May, ILWU (International Longshore Workers Union) Local 30 accepted a new contract, approved by the workers by a 3-to-1 margin. The new contract included a 2.5 percent-a-year pay increase; for new hires, company-paid pensions will (as discussed above) be replaced with employee-funded 401(k) plans with a 4 percent company contribution. Paid sick days were reduced from 14 to 10 a year.

The ILWU had, once again, conducted the strike on a completely legalistic and localist basis. Scabs and managers, protected by a large-scale police effort, worked throughout the strike despite efforts by the Boron workers to stop them. Widespread support in the area and in nearby Los Angeles was never mobilized. Instead, the union made impotent appeals to Rio Tinto’s shareholder meetings and held American nationalist rallies at the British consulate.

As in the Republic case, the union and the “progressive” left milieu proclaimed victory.

In August of this year, 45,000 telephone workers in the northeastern U.S. went on strike against Verizon, organized in the CWA (Communication Workers of America) and the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). Verizon wanted to “adjust” the contract to cut pensions, change work rules and make employees pay more for health care, citing the steady decline in landline service and the shift to cell phones and the Internet. Once again, health care was the single most important issue. The strike was “suspended” after two weeks, with workers returning to the job with no contract and bargaining continuing with no job action; the CWA claims that the strike showed its “seriousness.”

Finally, to end this survey of strikes on a more positive note, perhaps the most significant wildcat strike in years took place in the Pacific Northwest on Sept. 8. EGT, a Portland-based company, had built a state-of-the-art grain export terminal at the Longview, Washington port, as part of a global supply chain for shipping grain from the US to growing Asian food and bio-fuel markets. EGT is owned by Japan-based Itochu Corp, South Korea’s STX Pan Ocean and St. Louis–based Bunge North America. Itochu ranks 201 on Fortune’s Global 500 list of the world’s largest corporations, and Bunge is number 182. These companies want to operate the grain terminal without workers from the ILWU (International Longshore Workers Union) breaking the 75-year agreement established for the west coast by the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. In response, union members have been blockading train tracks and holding pickets, which led to confrontations earlier this summer with cops, and a Federal injunction banning all picketing. The union broke this injunction and on the night of September 8th, hundreds of longshore workers broke into the terminal, detained the security guards, and sabotaged the equipment, dumping all the grain on the railroad tracks so the trains would not be able to run. This amounted to millions of dollars of damage, and the companies will have to hire scabs to clean up the mess. There was quite a standoff with the police, and reports of workers essentially intimidating and backing down the cops with baseball bats from which they made their picket signs. In support of this action, the Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett ports had a one-day wildcat shutdown the following day.

ILWU officials claim they don’t know what’s going on, as if it were a spontaneous rank and file upsurge, but it seems there was actually a union meeting called during the day to gather the ranks and discuss further steps after the Longview sabotage action. The ILWU has control of hiring out of their halls (which is exactly what they’re fighting to defend now), and therefore they can call a meeting at anytime where workers won’t work but will go to the meeting instead. This may just be the first step, and there will be more actions to come. So far everything has been done inside the union and has been kept relatively secret, so there was no general call for solidarity actions in Seattle. It remains unclear if the companies will fight hard to set a precedent breaking the ILWU’s 75-year jurisdiction over the ports, starting with Longview, or if they will try the same tactic in other West Coast ports. This could just one local company picking a fight, and they could back down and settle for a compromise in the face of this militancy.

One interpretation of the situation is the ILWU, like the rest of US unions, is up against the ropes and is throwing some punches before it falls to the ground. But another interpretation is that they’ are feeling their strategic position in the current economic conjuncture and are standing up for themselves because they can.

These actions had an instantly electrifying effect among militants in the Seattle area. After a year of struggles against police brutality in Seattle, it was inspiring to many people to see a cop admit he was intimidated when workers confronted him with baseball bats. Some younger unemployed people who often question the relevance of labor struggles are now showing interest because these workers are showing some real backbone against their common enemy.8

Attacks on Public Education and Student Mobilization

Education is another dimension of social reproduction in which state austerity has led to mass mobilization. We can set aside for a moment the nature of education at every level as a vast credentialing machine designed to maintain class distinctions and hierarchy, and to prepare people to accept workplace and social discipline in the tens of millions of jobs that exist (such as the FIRE—finance, insurance, real estate—sector) only because society is capitalist. A communist society will revolutionize education, and “work,” beyond recognition. Be that as it may, beneath the elite (mainly private) schools (which now typically cost $40,000 a year to attend), the “cinder block” state and community colleges, in the aftermath of de-industrialization, remain the main path for working-class youth to jobs above the McDonalds level.

In California, where public education, as late as the 1970s was almost free, tuition at every level (university, state college, community college) has risen to thousands of dollars a year, and most students have to work at least part time to stay in school, as well as accumulate debts from student loans that can total $100,000 upon graduation. Due to cutbacks in elementary and high schools, resulting in part from the right-wing populist “tax revolt” of 1978 and since, the quality of California’s public schools (elementary and high school) dropped over several decades from 1st in the country to almost last, on a level with Mississippi and Louisiana. Schools deal with ever- increasing class size, inadequate materials (textbooks, etc.), attacks on teachers’ unions and the lowest funding per student in the United States. Combined with the soaring rates of incarceration (among the highest in the United States) it became notorious in the 1990s that the state of California had more black men in prison than in college. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have attempted to deal with this long-term crisis by imposing ever-greater regimentation of curriculum, reducing teachers to preparing students at every level for standardized achievement tests. (U.S. students notoriously score at the bottom in comparative international tests of high school students.)

Thus in the fall of 2009, students at the Los Angeles and Berkeley campuses of the University of California (UC) mobilized against further tuition increases, and in Berkeley thousands confronted the police. This was a prelude to a national mobilization on Mar. 4 2010, in which California was again at the cutting edge. This time, the movement extended well beyond the relatively elite UC system to the state colleges and high schools—where teachers and students walked out. In Oakland, California, hundreds of students shut down a major freeway for several hours.9

The California actions were the largest of similar mobilizations in more than 20 states on March 4, none of which succeeded in reversing the cuts.

Strikes in the Georgia, California Prisons

All the trends of contracted social reproduction, from mass unemployment to public unions of police and prison guards10 to the warehousing of black and Latino youth in the prison system, came to a head in the Georgia prison strike of December 2010 and a major prison revolt in California in July of this year.11 The Georgia strike began on Dec. 9 with thousands of prisoners, black, white and Latino, participating in seven prisons around the state. The strikes were coordinated by cell phone. The main demand was a wage for prison labor. Other demands were for more education, better living conditions including better food, access to medical care, and rights to family visits and telephones.

The strike was initially planned for one day, but prisoners decided to continue after guards responded with violence and beatings. Guards destroyed personal property of prisoners, shut off heat and hot water, and put prisoners into solitary confinement. State authorities attempted to play down the extent of the strike, and news coverage disappeared from mainstream media in a few days. The strike ended after six days, with no apparent resolution, except a state promise to “investigate.” In January, seven guards were suspended without pay for violence against prisoners.

For years, California has been in the “vanguard” of maximum security “supermax” prison construction in the United States. One of the most notorious of these installations is in Pelican Bay. For the first three weeks of July, prisoners in the solitary concrete isolation chambers of the “Security Housing Unit” (SHU) at Pelican Bay went on a hunger strike, demanding an end to group punishment and snitching enforced by prison authorities, and demanding educational programs, human contact, weekly phone calls, and access to sunlight and better food. The strike spread to thirteen prisons ultimately involving 6,600 prisoners. SHU prisoners are locked in cells without windows 22 ½ hours per day under permanent fluorescent lights.

The strike ended on July 21 when prison authorities agreed to permit SHU inmates to have wall calendars, woolen caps for the winter time (the cells are unheated) and to “review” the enforced snitching.

Conditions in California prisons (with overcrowding at 200 percent capacity) are so outrageous that the reactionary U.S. Supreme Court found them to be in violation of the US constitutional amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment.”


The post–2007/2008 official response to the crisis has been nothing but an attempt to restore the status quo ante for capital, propping up trillions in bank and real estate debt. U.S. companies have stockpiled trillions more but do not invest them; at the same time, they have launched a full-blown attack on the total wage, in terms of pay, health care, pensions, housing foreclosures, and education. Crumbling U.S. infrastructure is estimated by the American Society of Civil Engineers to need $2.3 trillion in repairs and replacement costs. The “social indicators”12 of the “richest country in the world” show it to be a society more polarized than it was prior to the world depression of the 1930s. Since the 1966–1973 working-class strike wave, American workers have undergone decades of rollback, losing one defensive struggle after another. In this “slow crash landing,” and especially since the meltdown of 2007–2008, the whole structure of post-1945 American society has come unraveled. In the midst of this, working-class anger is widespread, with as yet no coherent form of struggle emerging, which moreover stands in rather sharp contrast to recent upsurges in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain, France, Britain and Chile. How and when this process will be reversed remains a totally open question.

  • 1The increase in the prison population since 1970 almost exactly maps the number of industrial jobs lost in the same period. The United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
  • 2A significant percentage of public union membership also consists of anti-working class police and prison guards.
  • 3In September 2010, members of the (Marxist-Leninist) Freedom Road Organization, who had been active in the American antiwar movement, were raided by the FBI in several cities, and much of their electronic equipment was seized. They are charged with contacts with “terrorist” groups such as the FARC (Columbia), the PFLP (Palestine), and Hezbollah (Lebanon). It has become within the realm of possibility that writing a favorable article about one of these “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTO’s) can constitute “support for terrorism” under the US Homeland Security Law.
  • 4On the early 1930s see this very interesting article: Unemployed Councils, Eviction Riots, and the New Deal.
  • 5David Himmelstein et al. in Bleeding the Patient. The Consequences of Corporate Health Care gives a good overview of the situation as of 2000; the situation has only worsened in the past decade.
  • 6 For details on the struggle, in February–March of this year, see my article on Madison in Insurgent Notes No. 3 and the letter “More on Madison” in Insurgent Notes No. 4 (August 2011). The immediate response was a series of walkouts from schools around the state and a “sick-in” by teachers that amounted to a wildcat strike. The state capitol building in Madison was occupied for weeks by thousands of people, and mass demonstrations built every weekend up to March 12, when 125,000 workers massed for a rally. (Signs and slogans of the movement explicitly echoed the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, but unlike in Egypt, the Wisconsin movement failed to overthrow Walker.)
  • 7In early August, these recall campaigns failed to end the Republican majority in the Wisconsin upper house, after massive expenditure and mobilization.
  • 8I thank a Seattle comrade on the scene for most of these details.
  • 9See the article of John Garvey, “California is not Dreaming” in Insurgent Notes No. 1.
  • 10On the relationship between education, prison guards and public employees unions, cf. John Garvey “From Iron Mines to Iron Bars,” in Insurgent Notes No. 1.
  • 11The following information about the hunger strike and California prison conditions is from the Trotskyist newspaper Workers Vanguard, Aug. 5 2011. For a general overview of prisons and law enforcement in the United States since the 1970s, see the book of Christian Parenti, Lockdown America (1999).
  • 12The United States, for example, is 42nd in the world in life expectancy, behind a number of developing countries, and has the highest infant mortality rate of any “advanced capitalist” country.



12 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Oenomaus on February 29, 2012

At this writing—late September 2011—...

It looks like this was written by Loren Goldner about five months ago. Did he just now add this to his website or something? It is, by the way, highly insightful, as with much of his writing. Thanks for posting this!


12 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Choccy on February 29, 2012

title made me think of this [youtube]qDT7YSbvShM[/youtube]


12 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Marx-Trek on March 1, 2012

Thank you for posting it, can't wait to read it tomorrow after work!


12 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Marx-Trek on March 1, 2012

So, I didn't wait until after work and went ahead read the article.

I think it's a pretty good review of the current class battles being had here in the US during the 2000s. The UE and some longshoremen are stepping up and with the solidarity that came out of it in the northwest is pretty interesting.

Did the UE strike at the Republic plant not win the workers some form of "victory" and a renewed contract, which came up again just a couple of days ago?

I am personally interested in gathering more information regarding neoliberal attacks on pension funds and the continuing allowed collapse of the social security/retirement system through 401k's and other "life insurance" policies being hyped at people's job sites. It beginning to look quite obvious now that Capital has been waging a slow war against our class ever since the social security act and the Great Society policies were enacted, and we have bore the brunt of it. For example, with the insurance and pension fund business, they give us other options, other extra perks, and then before we know it those private options are the only ones left. Though social security funds seem to also be used as revenue within the market there are stronger guarantees but with 401k's and the lot, well they are more volatile and depend on the market, and returns are not as strong. Correct me if I am wrong.

Overall strategy? Well, that's the trick ain't it. It seems that economic and political attacks against our class happen have been slow and very widespread which weaken us over time and then comes the open attacks in times of crisis. Its the same with this crisis, capital succeeded in aquiring 100s of billions of dollars, highway robbery, but it didn't really affect us, until now.

S. Artesian

12 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by S. Artesian on March 6, 2012

Not a bad article, although the bit about US infrastructure "crumbling" is just so much horseshit and panic mongering.... if you look at the total value of fixed assets and infrastructure in the US, "$2.3 trillion in repairs" amounts to nothing.... but let's get our references right: the correct phrase is "the darkest hour is just before dawn..." from the Shirelles, "This is Dedicated to the One I Love.." a song to, or from, a soldier in Vietnam.


11 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by Nate on June 2, 2012


Did the UE strike at the Republic plant not win the workers some form of "victory" and a renewed contract, which came up again just a couple of days ago?

No. It wasn't a strike, it was a plant occupation. The company was closing the plant. In Illinois there's a law requiring some payout to workers in the event of plant closure. The company wasn't paying that. The workers occupied the plant to get their severance pay, which they got. Another company later bought the plant and said it would rehire all the workers. It didn't, it only hired some of them, then it announced it was closing the facility again. Now the UE are talking about running it as a worker co-op, which might work but two plant closures in a row makes me wonder if they can run a profitable enough co-op business. We'll see. But anyway, no, Republic occupation did not win any contract.