Occupy the Left

How the Occupy movement has flipped the script on liberal activism.

Occupy the Ports
Protesters at “Occupy the Ports” in Portland, Ore.

Photo by Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Near the end of the Occupy the Ports march in Long Beach, Calif., when 400-odd protesters were walking around in circles and coming up with chants in front of a work site, there was a beautiful little moment of cognitive dissonance. A middle-aged woman, who’d been chanting along with the usual stuff—“Whose ports? Our ports!” and “What’s the direction? Insurrection!” —started in on a version of the labor movement’s unofficial anthem. It’s supposed to go like this:

Solidarity forever
The union makes us strong

The new version went like this:

Solidarity forever
Occupation makes us strong

Occupiers would like to think that the “us” is the same from song to song. That’s not really clear. The Occupy the Ports protests temporarily shut down some commerce from San Diego to Oakland to Seattle, shaming facilities owned by SSA Marine, which is owned by Goldman Sachs. “The 1 percent are depriving port truck drivers and other workers of decent pay,” said Occupy Long Beach in a statement, “even while the port of LA/LB is the largest in the U.S. and a huge engine of profits for the 1 percent.” Unionized workers got some unexpected days off. They didn’t get paid for them.

“I don’t quite understand why they did it,” said Sean Farley, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 34 in Oakland. “They want to impact the ‘1 percent,’ which I get. They need to identify the ‘1 percent.’ Who is it? I heard the name of Goldman Sachs got bandied around. OK. Deal with Goldman Sachs. I don’t think one day at the port of Oakland or Tacoma or Seattle changes the facts that bother you about that company.”

The left’s year of occupation started in Wisconsin and Ohio in February, when protesters rallied, drummed, and slept in state houses to shame legislators out of passing bills that ended collective bargaining for public employees. It’s continued with tent cities in green spaces of New York, Washington, Detroit, and other burgs.

But these aren’t the same movements. The labor fights in the Midwest were, well, labor fights. The AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU and other unions ran campaigns to beat the reform bills, then to recall legislators who voted for them, and then to overturn the bills with ballot measures. They actually won that last fight in Ohio. The goals were specific—save union rights!—but the “occupying” protests were sort of random, touch-and-go.

The Occupy movement, and Occupy the Ports specifically, inverts the equation. The protests (or “actions,” as they’re usually called) are specific, newsy, and announced in press releases and livestreamed by people walking with laptops. As West Coast protesters were occupying ports, their comrades in New York were wearing squid costumes to protest Goldman Sachs HQ. The actions are specific. The goals, as Occupiers get so tired of hearing, are murkier.

“Wall Street has tendrils in every aspect of the economy,” explained Michael Novick, a spokesman for the Los Angeles/Long Beach protest. (His day job is with the committee planning a “general strike” for May 1, 2012.) “The ports do represent a globalized economy, but the whole economy is distorted. If you look at those ports, you can see the exploitation of workers all over the country, and you can see the need to rebuild the country on principles of human need, fair trade. It’s not just about the ports. It represents the larger totality.”

All of that means irritating some of the people they’re trying to save. In Wisconsin and Ohio, the role of the unions—the public faces of the protests—fundamentally changed how the campaigns looked. The International Association of Firefighters ran a TV ad in which four members of the union, all military veterans, spoke out against Ohio’s anti-bargaining legislation. Unions and radicals were marching arm in arm, fighting the Republicans together, saving public employees from the guillotine.

The last few Occupy actions haven’t looked like that. The movement’s villains are the members of the “1 percent.” The people they end up publicly shaming are the police officers who shut them down. If the hero of Ohio was firefighter/vet John Szymkowiak, the villain of the Occupy protests on campuses was Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis police, a public employee who solemnly pepper-sprayed students, injuring them and escalating the conflict.

What was the point of that? What’s the point of occupying ports? A good person to ask is Stephen Lerner, who runs the Private Equity Project at the Service Employees International Union, and who’s terrifically optimistic about what Occupy hell-raising can pull off. In an essay for New Labor Forum, Lerner explained that the movement could do what labor couldn’t. “[U]nions are just big enough—and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure—to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed,” he wrote. The goal they couldn’t achieve: “turn[ing] the tables so workers and regular people feel more secure, hopeful, and powerful—and so the elite feels less sure of its control over the country’s politics and the economy.”

Lerner doesn’t worry about Occupiers distracting from what labor was trying to do. Sure, they were inconveniencing people. But the longshoremen, having negotiated collective bargaining rights, aren’t actually allowed to strike. Look at Occupier projects like the anti-foreclosure Occupy Our Homes, and look at the ways they actually buck up public employees. “In Atlanta, they have been defending the home of a police officer,” said Lerner. “As workers are engaged in the fights with their employers, and various laws limit what the unions can do, it may be that there’s a role for Occupy—just as people seized factories in the ‘30s—to be the front line of people challenging the system.”

That’s the hope, anyway. In the run-up to these protests, the Teamsters put together a letter from a group of drivers who’d be temporarily sidelined by the port protests. “Today’s demonstrations will impact us,” they wrote. “We would rather stick together and transform our industry from within.” But as long as Occupiers were bringing the media in, they’d use it. “There are no restrooms for drivers,” they wrote. “We keep empty bottles in our cabs. Plastic bags too. We feel like dogs. An Oakland driver was recently banned from the terminal because he was spied relieving himself behind a container.”

The longshoremen had cut good deals with their industry. Public employees had cut good deals, too. At first, maybe it was enough to try and save what they had. Occupiers are closing out 2011 by demanding more. They may drag the rest of the left with them.