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

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.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

Leave a Reply