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What Next for Occupy Oakland?

By John Reimann - Fellow Worker Reimann has been involved with Occupy Oakland, along with several other members of the Bay Area IWW since its inception. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone, though they generally reflect the views of many others who are active in OO and are rank and file union members.

The port shut down of Dec. 12 showed that there is a lot of support for and strength in the Occupy Oakland movement. Sometimes, though, the greatest problems for a movement can arise exactly out of the successes, when we don’t think enough about what problems there are. 

Worker Participation Necessary 

The port shut down was accomplished with the active involvement of almost none of the workers there, especially the longshore workers. This can become a critical weakness if actions continue against employers and those actions don’t come from the workers themselves. In fact, there were several reports that a layer of the longshore workers were somewhat hostile to the Occupy pickets, who were causing them to lose a day’s pay. 

This cannot continue. We cannot continue to act in the place of workers; we must find a way to draw in a wider layer of working class Oakland. If we don’t, we will alienate large sectors of the working class. 

In order to do this, we should make a drive into the work places. Where there are unions and where officials of those unions claim to support Occupy Oakland, we should ask them to organize work place meetings for us to meet with the workers. If they don’t do this, then their “support” doesn’t really count for very much, but in any case, we can find ways to get into those work places. The purpose of such meetings would be to discuss with those workers the issues they are confronting and how Occupy Oakland can help them. This includes the public sector workers who are facing layoffs and cuts. In many cases the union leadership has accepted these cuts, but we in Occupy Oakland should not. 

Within the mainstream unions there is a massive discontent against the leadership of these unions. We cannot continue to ignore this. In the earlier days of Occupy Oakland, we had speakers at our public events who directly spoke to this and to how the unions have to return to their fighting origins. This means a debate and some conflict with the mainstream union leadership, but Occupy Oakland should not shrink from that anymore.

Also, there are thousands of youth in Oakland who are condemned to low wage, non-union jobs at fast food, etc. We can go and directly contact them in their work places and raise the issues that young workers in Oakland face: Low wages, bad working conditions, no job security, etc. On top of that, there are the thousands of workers in banks and offices, most of whom have no union.

If those workers see Occupy Oakland supporting them, this can motivate them to organize to fight for their interests.

Program

Already, many workers who support Occupy Oakland are asking the question: “What are they fighting for?” We now need to more clearly answer that question. Here are some ideas for a program to be worked out:

  • A guaranteed job for everybody who wants one and a $15 per hour minimum wage.
  • A mass union organizing campaign to win union rights for all workers.
  • No concessions, no concessionary contracts; the unions must fight for their members with mass pickets, work place occupations, etc.
  • Socialized medical care. 
  • No support, including union support, for any wing of the Democratic (or Republican) Party
  • Mass funding for clean, safe, renewable energy sources.
  • Stop all evictions and foreclosures through mass action.
  • A mass, publicly financed and run home building program – affordable housing for all.
  • Put the banks and finance capital under public ownership.
  • Link up the Occupy movement nationally and internationally.
  • For a society whose production is based on social need, not corporate profits.

No Leadership?

One other issue should be considered: Officially, Occupy Oakland has no leadership. We all know this is not really true. What has happened is that those with more time and connections tend to make the decisions. There should be no behind-closed-door meetings with union bureaucrats by a self-selected few. If there are to be such meetings, then the group as a whole should decide who are to be involved and what will and won’t be agreed to. Either a leadership will be elected by Occupy Oakland and its role and policies defined, or it will be self-appointed and will tend to do what it wants.

Occupy Oakland and the Mainstream Union Leaders

This is especially important now that the officialdom of the unions in the area is starting to recognize Occupy Oakland as a force to be contended with. Their approach is to seek to make links with a layer of the de facto leaders of Occupy Oakland (whether they are formally recognized or not). The idea is that if they – the union officials – give a certain recognition to Occupy Oakland, then Occupy Oakland can be guided into a safe course. It can be guided into limiting its program to what the labor leadership wants – that is, what the liberal wing of the Democrats can accept. Equally important, it will be guided away from doing anything that might tap into the anger that the union membership feels – an anger at their own leaders for refusing to organize against the employers. It will be guided away from helping this rank and file organize to transform their own unions.

If Occupy Oakland accepts this arrangement, then they become the enablers, the left cover, for the union leadership. Among other things, we then are in the position of being unable to organize among the rank and file of the mainstream unions, since we would have little to say to them.

The choice is clear: Either orient towards the union officialdom or towards the rank and file. This does not mean ignoring or being hostile to the leadership of the mainstream unions. Nor does it mean going to the rank and file with a crude approach, telling them what they should do. It requires a lot of sensitivity as well as a respect for rank and file workers. It means recognizing that we organizers have at least as much to learn from rank and file workers as we have to contribute to them. It is a difficult task, but unless we start down this path, we risk either becoming irrelevant or becoming the unwitting agents of the union hierarchy.

In order to develop a plan of action – a program and a strategy – for Occupy Oakland we must, therefore, have a serious discussion on where we are headed. We cannot simply continue with one action after another without such discussions. First and foremost, what is needed is an in-depth discussion on the state of organized labor today and Occupy Oakland’s relationship with the unions.

That should be the first order of the day.