A Constituent Power Greater Than its Parts: Occupy and Workers from the Port Shutdown to the Primaries

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From its beginnings in New York City to the recent West Coast Port Shutdown, the Occupy movement has consistently confronted the issue of co-optation. About a month and a half or so ago, many participants voiced worries about being co-opted by MoveOn, the Democrats, unions (to a lesser extent, since they had shown up as allies without seeming to try to monopolize the definition of actions and events), and other groups affiliated with the political parties.

I think we can safely say that co-optation in the classic sense, which happened when the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan in 1896 to outmaneuver the Populists, is off the table. Democratic mayors have joined with Mayor Bloomberg in NY and others to simply use police repression against the Occupy movement. The message sent by the occupiers was clear: we are not for sale, not affiliated with any existing party, certainly not with the Democrats or Republicans, and not here to support Obama for re-election, nor to push an only marginally more progressive legislative agenda than the Democrats currently propose. Once it was clear that co-optation was not going to happen, and that substituting Democratic groups like Reclaim the Dream and MoveOn for Occupy itself was an absurdity, out came the pepper spray and the midnight raids on tents and public squares nationwide. The largest demonstration that MoveOn and Van Jones have been able to put together has been around 700 people, which is pretty sad for groups with large budgets and access to national media.

Occupy has been able to mobilize hundreds of thousands in over a thousand cities for hundreds of different actions, and has shut down the Brooklyn Bridge, several West Coast ports and a significant part of the city of Oakland in a general strike. So, my point is this: there has always been an alternative to co-optation. It is called radicalization. It happens when in the course of struggle people acting within prescribed limits see those limits as too confining or self-defeating, and see that there is an alternative approach already in existence that is more effective and attractive.

The relationship between Occupy and workers, union and non-union, who are not yet active in Occupy, can be the basis for such a dynamic. Since I live in Italy, and though I am active here and active by long-distance elsewhere, I have not been to US territorial Occupy events or occupation sites, have not been involved in the discussions, general assemblies, and decision-making processes these entail, and make no judgment on anyone’s position who was and has been there – I come from a certain set of experiences, but write out of humility in order to raise some issues I have not seen brought up in debates so far.

Activists and Unions
The West Coast port shutdown was one action that brought the relationship between Occupy and workers to the forefront. The debate about the action posed several questions: should Occupy activists have discussed the action more thoroughly with port workers and union members? Should the latter have had a veto over whether the action took place at all? Should the Occupy activists have asked union members to vote on a strike and accepted their decision?

All of these are good questions, and from afar I am not in a place to answer them. But the general framework must be reconsidered. When thousands of people want to mobilize to fight exploitation and inequality, they are already a legitimate force and can act without having to ask anyone’s permission. This is doubly true of a movement like Occupy where democratically-run general assemblies are the decision-making bodies, making Occupy more directly an organ of the people than the already at least once-removed system of representatives that currently passes for “democracy” on behalf of the 1% of exploiters.

Having said this, it is at minimum courteous to inform and ask for the support of the workers at any site where an action will take place. This is because as a movement of working class people Occupy or any other revolt must take account of the fact that our power comes from widening the base of the movement and from the power of united people fighting together.

This can go further, and in more than one direction. Workers and unions are not identical. Unions are representative institutions at work, and while any union member can tell you the limits and negative aspects of unions, it is also true that when workers do not have a union they are in a very weak position. So workers will continue to form and join unions with all their faults.

But the question necessarily arises – is Occupy’s relationship with the union or its members? I think it needs to be with both. There is no need to be on hostile terms with any union unless its leadership and structure act in a hostile way toward people and events associated with Occupy But even then, a relationship on the ground, in the workplace, with the workers themselves, both in and out of unions, can be decisive. First because one reason unions are legally prevented from just calling for strikes: under US law a strike during the term of a contract means a big fine for the union and often jail terms for its leadership. It is true that nearly all strikes involved potential sanctions, court injunctions, and other repression up until the 1930s, (still not uncommon today either) and passage of the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), and later the even more anti-democratic Taft-Hartley Act, which explicitly outlaws solidarity among workers, including strikes to support Occupy. So we can’t expect union leaders and unions as organizations to explicitly support strikes or occupations the movement decides on. But there is no reason that the union members cannot be organized, recruited, and radicalized, through common action, common struggle, and discussion to participate informally – through wildcat strikes, slowdowns at work, and absenteeism on the day in question. It is just as possible for union members to be at general assemblies, participate in them like everyone else and decide for themselves, individually and collectively, what they want to do.

This allows for two important possibilities: first, the union leadership can at the very least be convinced to tolerate, or perhaps implicitly support, actions planned by Occupy – this seems to have happened in many cases during the Oakland general strike, and in another fashion during the Wisconsin occupations and strikes earlier in the year– or else be pressured by their own rank and file into adopting a more militant leadership. Second, the general assembly can be made to function as the larger, more inclusive decision-making body for the working class as a whole in a city or region. If this happens, unions as bodies, as well as their individual members, may participate in the GA, express their view, and determine whether they can agree on a decision. But this allows a class-wide form of organization, transcending the limitations and divisions of unions separated by trade or industry, to arise.

If the latter happens, we have what in Russia in 1917 was called a soviet. A form of self-government, which I believe is already present in the GAs and their counterparts in Spain, Greece, Tahrir Square in Egypt and in the informal committees in Tunisia and elsewhere around the world, but which need to expand their base both to hollow out the already broken legitimacy of states and parties, and to build their own legitimacy as founding institutions of a new egalitarian order. If instead the unions play the part of keeping Occupy activists away from their members and out of their workplaces, they risk repeating what happened during the near-revolution of May 1968 in France, when 10 million workers occupied their workplaces as revolts occurred in the streets of every city. Workers were prevented from creating the kind of horizontal lines of communication among themselves and with students and farmers that the current movement thrives on; if this happens again today, then both activists and workers will be defeated separately. So one crucial lesson is this: the workplace is a center of working-class cooperation and power, one that even thousands of activists engaging in civil disobedience cannot match alone. But if isolated from other social forces and movements, it becomes a cage, its energy trapped and then dissipated.

Lessons from Italy
One way to recruit a wider range of workers into the general assemblies and other activities is to take a page from the book of the Italian New Left, while avoiding the outcome that later weakened that movement. Italian militants went to workplaces that they considered strategic, to engage in conversation at the gates with workers, meeting with them outside work and setting up study groups or discussion groups on workers’ problems. Groups like Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and Potere Operaio (Workers Power) built relationships with workers at the gigantic FIAT Mirafiori factory, at the Port of Marghera, and other large workplaces, holding courses together on Marx’s Capital, and making independent workers demands that went beyond what unions were calling for. They demanded equal pay raises and reductions of working hours without pay cuts, to decrease inequality among workers and build greater solidarity. Often this resulted in a regular newsletter reflecting the workers (not always the union’s) point of view on workplace struggles, and informed other movements of what was happening inside the workplaces – internal events which, if isolated, could often remain opaque to the larger struggle. At the same time longer-term relationships were developed in which the workers participated in organizations that went beyond the content and forms of unions and parties. Some of these activities, even if in a different and changed context, are analogous to Occupy Oakland’s descent on the port.

The movement in Italy was systematically repressed through mass arrests, possibly due to its division into two fronts: secure workers versus more precarious workers on one hand, and those who believed in small-scale violent actions as opposed to those who believed that revolution required large-scale mass self-governed action, violent or nonviolent. But the movement responded with a remarkable redevelopment.

Activists with the radical radio station Sherwood in Padova set up the Occupied Social Center Pedro (named for a deceased militant), and in Milan the largest social center, Leoncavallo, was created. Through much of the 1980s, even in an atmosphere of general setback for movements, these groups occupied old abandoned warehouses, factories and other structures, using them to create a whole infrastructure of social centers that engaged in political actions, forms of political education, concerts, and other cultural activities, and mobilized people for protests.

The mainstream unions, even those seen as “left,” never really warmed up to these formations. Starting in 1979 another wave of arrests followed some killings of public officials by the Red Brigades and other small, secretive armed groups. Although the mass movement had distanced itself from these, basing itself on general assemblies, direct democracy, and mass public forms of struggle, the demonization of the movement as “terrorist” had an effect on unions. Often close to political parties, unions remained reluctant to work too closely with groups tainted by the government as too radical, or prone to violence. But even with this difficulty in attracting allies, activists could themselves mobilize hundreds of thousands for demonstrations even without the unions; they could participate collectively under their own auspices with their own banners and slogans at events that more mainstream organizations and unions had organized; they could physically maintain a public space for activities, to hold assemblies and so forth.

Many of these occupied social centers still exist. But there have been two downsides: first, like the workplaces, where workers were kept from engaging more fully with movements, the social centers have sometimes also become isolated from other forces, and have had trouble expanding. This is often understood by activists who try a number of tactic to break out of the ghetto: the anti-globalization movement, for example, gave the social centers another opportunity to mobilize together with church-based activists, unions and others, in a movement that for a time gave every sign of radicalizing more mainstream left forces. But after the events in Genoa in 2001, and the attacks of 9/11, the relationships became more strained – though hundreds of thousands could still be mobilized for years around globalization issues, and then against the Iraq War, suggesting that some radicalization of the base of the center-left parties and the union membership may have taken place.

Still, the relationship between workplace organizations, especially unions – which remain close to the center-left parties – and social centers and other radical movements is not a close one. This is the outcome for Occupy to avoid today, though exactly how to this is to be done remains for those on the scene to work out in real interactions and relationships with other movements, organizations and their members.

There are three lessons to be drawn from the Italian experience.

First, there is a great potential of radicalizing large numbers of working people on and off the job through the example and common action of movements like Occupy. Contact and cooperation with mainstream organizations is worth the risk so long as the latter are not attempting, as MoveOn did, to gain control of, or shut down, the movement.

Second, any physical place can become isolated, as can any movement or organization if cut off, or if it cuts itself off from other forces in the broadly-defined working class. Movements thrive by expanding their communications, contacts and relationships.

Third, as an already functioning form of direct democracy, and one open to the widest possible interpretation of who is part of the working class (99%), the general assembly is a better place and forum for the debates, discussions and decisions to be collectively worked out by workers of all kinds – employed or unemployed, unionized or not – than any union or organization representing a particular sector, industry, trade, ethnicity, neighborhood, or identity group. This does not mean that there will not be conflicts, contradictions, even inequalities to work out. The point is, democracy is two things at the same time: the power of the people, that is to say, a form of popular or proletarian or working-class government, but also the way that inevitable diversity, differences, and conflicts can be worked out among ourselves, without the interference of the undemocratic forces of the 1%.

There is a strange twist these days, emerging from the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, in which not the Democrats but a faction of the Republicans, and one very hostile to collective forms of democracy and working-class interests, seeks to coopt leftists and to have a disproportionate say in Occupy and other movements: the libertarian wing around the candidacy of Ron Paul. Working people need a place to participate directly and engage in self-government, which inevitably means that people most of us disagree with will be involved – as indeed they should be. The democratic dynamic of working out our divisions means precisely this, and in my view takes us beyond the often obsessive focus on the First Amendment, however necessary it may be for self-defense – expressing yourself is one thing, governing collectively is quite another. This is our answer to the individualism of the libertarians. They are welcome, but the general assembly, along with other movement bodies and activities, is precisely where to demonstrate that there are alternatives to every form of capitalism, including the small-proprietor, market-driven vision of the libertarians. So here, we move beyond even autonomy as a perspective: self-government means radicalization of those in struggle together and the logic of it is full, collective self-government, at work, in the economy, in our own organizations, and in political life. I am confident that a worker attending a union meeting, and a libertarian engaging in “free choice” in the marketplace, even if they continue in these activities, will be attracted to the greater power over their lives offered by real, full democracy, which they can now find in a real movement for a different world.

Organizations, unions, and other groups or associations, perhaps even parties (not Democrats and Republicans!) can participate in the Occupy movement, to the extent of putting forward their point of view. Though they cannot dominate assemblies through organizational power and discipline, their members can participate fully in the general assemblies while remaining members of those groups that represent their partial interests at work, in defense of civil rights, or other issues. The general assembly can work to bring these fragments together into a whole, a constituent power greater than its parts.

Steven Colatrella has participated in the Midnight Notes Collective for over 30 years. He is the author of Workers of the World: African and Asian Migrants in Italy in the 1990s and has written for Counterpunch, New Politics, Socialism and Democracy, Wildcat, Journal of Critical Education Policy Studies, and London Progressive Journal. He lives in Padua, Italy.

Author of the article

has participated in the Midnight Notes Collective for over 30 years. He is the author of Workers of the World: African and Asian Migrants in Italy in the 1990s, and lives in Padua, Italy.