Next Step for the Occupy Movement: Uniting Labor and the Dispossessed

The first months of the Occupy Wall Street movement have been filled with growing pains — many caused by the rough chafing of plastic zip-tie handcuffs.

The camps are important free-speech centers, a long overdue mass protest of the capitalist austerity program. Hopefully, the movement will be able to turn the tide against the police crackdown.

But, looking beyond the haze of tear gas, occupiers are starting to ask, “What’s next?” How can the Occupy movement create desperately needed change?

The movement’s amazing potential will be squandered if it does not develop past existence as a network of utopian, process-obsessed symbolic encampments. Or “victory” is reduced to settling for a few surface reforms — higher taxes on stock transactions or slaps on the wrist for Wall Street crooks.

To avert this, the mobilization needs to consciously evolve beyond its current orientation, “We are the 99 percent.” That’s a slogan anyone can embrace, from the CEO of Men’s Wearhouse to tea partiers and head-busting police.

Race and sex matter

For the mobilization to make a deep and lasting impression, the survival issues of the bottom of the 99 percent have to move to the top of the agenda. Putting the focus there will raise the movement’s sights, because the needs of those who are most oppressed challenge the very foundations of capitalism — a system dependent on their unequal status.

For this to happen, the leadership of women, immigrants, and people of color, especially women of color, is critical.

These are people disproportionately hurt by the Great Recession, experiencing far higher rates of joblessness, home foreclosures, and poverty. Whether it’s cancer rates or incarceration, they suffer more.

In giving their concerns priority, the movement of “the 99 percent” will actually unify greater numbers of people. The survival needs of people who have the least — like a living wage job, health care, retirement security — are also basic to everyone’s survival, and capitalism is putting them out of reach for more and more people.

Placing a political focus on women and people of color means developing a program and demands that can bridge the multiple divisions that capitalism is so expert at creating. In turn, embracing the leadership of women and people of color will help the Occupy movement evolve into a fighting force for real change. And the good news is that this leadership already exists.

When Occupy Wall Street was two weeks out of the gate, the New York People of Color working group formed. Asian American tenant organizers are involving occupiers in protesting greedy landlords in Chinatown. Occupy Harlem is fighting police policies that target Blacks and Latinos.

In Occupy Philly, Black women are campaigning against a racist youth curfew law and connecting it to Pennsylvania’s penchant for funding prisons over schools and community programs. And in Colorado, the American Indian Movement’s platform for indigenous rights was adopted by Occupy Denver.

Across the U.S., people of color are forming Occupy the Hoods and caucuses that enable them to intervene on issues such as police violence — issues often new to white occupiers. Women, queer, and transgendered activists are likewise pushing their concerns forward through caucuses and teach-ins.

These working groups and actions amplify perspectives that are routinely brushed under the rug by the 1 percent. A next step is to bring this leadership front and center.

The power of labor

Just as issues of women and people of color too often get lost in the shuffle without conscious leadership, the movement risks co-optation without the grass roots of organized labor centrally involved.

This doesn’t mean letting union officials take over, as some young protesters fear. For rank-and-file unionists it does mean bringing labor’s struggles to the Occupy movement, while pushing unions and labor leaders to defend it.

For unionists, Occupy Wall Street offers a historic opportunity to build the independent and radical working-class movement that organized labor must develop to remain alive.

The November 2 general strike in Oakland, Calif., is the clearest example yet of the power of a movement uniting workers and the disenfranchised.

Spurred by the violent dispersal of Occupy Oakland, including the police assault against an Iraq War veteran, and by the corporate attack against longshore workers in Longview, Wash., labor activists agitated for a general strike. The idea caught fire, and the Occupy Oakland general assembly approved it.

The action drew up to 30,000 people and shut Oakland’s port. Occupy Oakland adopted compelling demands for the strike put forward by leftists and unionists, including “end police attacks on our communities” and “defend Oakland schools and libraries.” The strike indicted “an economic system built on inequality and corporate power that perpetuates racism, sexism and the destruction of the environment.”

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, with seasoned Black and radical leadership in the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area, helped pave the way for this. In the past, Local 10 has shut the port to protest the Iraq War and police murder of Oscar Grant. Occupy Oakland built on this legacy.

A strong next step for the Occupy movement would be to start new occupations at state Capitols to fight budget cuts — to confront the government enabler of Wall Street. Joining with the organized, collective power of labor could make this happen.

Moving forward with a united front

To build for sustained actions, the best vehicle is the united front. This is a powerful alliance of different political tendencies with a working-class program and leadership.

The united front is the direction to go for Occupy activists who are rightfully worried their movement will be co-opted by the Democratic Party or Madison Avenue. With labor and the disenfranchised united, it is highly unlikely that the agenda will be confined to cosmetic reforms or cheerleading Democrats who “feel our pain.”

As the 2012 election season nears, movement opportunists will zero in on the Occupy movement to funnel it into status-quo election campaigns. If the occupations orient to the needs of the most oppressed and fuse with the power of labor, 2012 can be a year where fed-up people in the U.S. did more than just occupy — they started to fight back and win.

• This article first appeared in the Freedom Socialist newspaper.

Elias Holtz, an early occupier at Zuccotti Park in New York, can be reached at Read other articles by Elias.