A union organizer’s perspective on the Occupy Wall Street project: Is it too early to define the movement?
By **Patrick Young**
Photograph via Flickr by listentomyvoice.
Yesterday, several prominent unions joined Occupy Wall Street protesters as they marched from Foley Square to their encampment at Zuccoti Park in lower Manhattan. The unexpected success of the ragtag group of protesters on Wall Street have stirred some soul-searching amongst numerous labor leaders.
The question now is, how do the unions respond to the protesters? Do they latch onto the movement and risk alienating the Occupy Wall Street movement? And how will the far-left protesters who denounce the U.S. government react?
There are no clear answers, but so far A.F.L.-C.I.O. has expressed unanimous support for the protest. Below, Patrick Young, a union organizer for the United Steelworkers, provides his perspective on the Occupy Wall Street protests.
When I first heard about the #OccupyWallstreet actions a few months ago, I laughed. The whole idea sounded naïve. Without any real organizational support, a group of people were going to try to occupy the most heavily policed space in the world. The group didn’t have a clear message; any sort of tactical or strategic unity; and the demands weren’t even defined.
I wasn’t alone in scoffing at the idea of Occupy Wall Street. Most of the experienced organizers I talked to dismissed the idea both privately and publicly. Matt Smucker from Beyond the Choir even published an article blasting the action, “Occupy Wall Street: Small Convergence of a Radical Fringe.” Smucker asked a lot of the questions that many of us were asking privately. If Occupy Wall Street organizers were looking for a mass mobilization, why weren’t they reaching out to organized labor or other major progressive organizations?
The events started in much the way that I and others predicted. A few hundred people came together in the first couple days. Turnout was a fraction of the 20,000 that Adbusters and other event organizers were predicting. And when organizers put out a call for reinforcements, nothing really happened.
But then, sometime over the next two weeks. Things changed. The “occupation” didn’t dwindle down like we had anticipated. In fact more and more people started coming. Even though the action failed to gain coverage in the mainstream media, social, movement, and independent media carefully covered the events as they unfolded. And people came—seemingly out of nowhere—to join the actions. Some came out for a few hours, others joined the camp for days or even weeks.
It’s still too early to define the Occupy Wall Street project—largely because it hasn’t defined itself.
By the third weekend of the mobilization thousands of people were turning out to marches, taking bolder and bolder action like blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. Calls for similar actions in Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Seattle were spreading across the country. The project also gained organizational support. Major labor unions in the New York area have endorsed the protests and some even joined the “occupiers” in the streets.
Despite the surprising success of the action, many organizers remain dismissive of the project. The criticisms are all over the board—“it’s unclear who is ‘behind’ the actions,” “the messaging is too murky,” or “the demands aren’t clear.” Some of these criticism are probably accurate, others seem more like backlash against Occupy Wall Street organizers for having the audacity to try to put on a mobilization without going through the proper channels of working established organizations and networks. One thing that is clear—the Occupy Wall Street project has resonated with and captured the imagination of tens of thousands of people from around the country.
Perhaps the success of Occupy Wall Street can provide a lesson to us “experienced” organizers: Maybe we don’t have all the answers. Maybe it’s possible that this group can go about it all the “wrong” way and still have success in pulling off something really big. And maybe we don’t really have our finger on the pulse of what’s going to resonate with our neighbors, our coworkers and our classmates.
So, yes, the Occupy Wall Street project is creating a significant historical moment. Folks are starting to talk about “the other 99 percent” in a way that we haven’t really seen at any other time throughout the financial crisis, and we are already seeing that there is enormous potential for mass mobilization and mass resistance. But the fact that people are interested doesn’t necessarily mean that Occupy Wall Street actually has answers worth supporting. Over the past century we’ve seen dozens of movements shrouded in similar populist rhetoric that have turned into reactionary and oppressive movements.
It’s still too early to define the Occupy Wall Street project—largely because it hasn’t defined itself. At its best, it could spark a mass movement of organizing and collective action working towards a more fair and just society. At its worst, Occupy Wall Street will fail to sufficiently define its politics and vision for the future or address internal issues of privilege and oppression and collapse on its own weight.
I’m optimistic that this project is going to help us build up relationships in our communities and start to re-build a culture of resistance, but I’m still skeptical that this is going to spark any real revolutionary potential. But hey, I’ve been wrong before.
See you on the streets!
Patrick Young is a Pittsburgh-based union organizer for the United Steelworkers. A veteran organizer, Young has had his fair share of rubber bullets launched in his direction.