The response to the small Occupy/anti-National Defense Authorization Act protest at the Democratic convention was indicative of where we are politically in many ways. Some delegates fearfully scurried away from the protesters, others angrily told them they were protesting the wrong party (although Obama did sign it), and others, still, stopped and expressed solidarity with Occupy.
As one activist who was there holding a Millionaires Tax banner outside the hall reported:
“It was like a Rorschach test. You could tell where folks were on the political spectrum by how they reacted. The thing that stood out to me was how the slickest suits in the crowd just walked by like we didn’t exist.”
Sitting at the Millionaires Tax table inside the hall at the Hilton (ironic no?), I overheard voices ridiculing Occupy, expressing dismay at being protested, or saying they were headed over to check out and/or join the action. As activists there to promote the Millionaires Tax initiative I/we were both inside and outside the event.
One moment we were dodging Democratic Party officials questioning our lack of credentials and telling us not to hold signs or gather signatures; in another we were getting enthusiastic support and tons of signatures from delegates more interested in our effort than Jerry Brown’s Chamber of Commerce approved, Occidental Petroleum funded, partially regressive tax measure.
Those in favor of Brown’s measure had little presence and when they did speak on the matter, they lied—either denying the objective LAO analysis that concluded that the Millionaires Tax brings in the most money and claiming the contrary, as SEIU’s political director Rebecca Malberg did in the Labor Caucus, or making up scare stories about how our measure will undermine Proposition 98, as a CTA rep told one of our volunteers. This is shameful. As someone once famously said, you have the right to your own opinion, but not your own facts. The truth is that the LAO estimates say that Brown’s measure would bring in $4.8 billion the first year, less than the $6-$9.5 billion that the Millionaires Tax would garner. Also important: Brown’s measure ends in four years, whereas the MT will bring in ongoing revenue. Contrary to the scare tactics, our measure does not undermine Proposition 98. But sadly, lacking good, reality-based arguments, the opposition is making stuff up, much like the Republicans do.
Here’s the bottom line: all of the statewide labor leaders who have sided with Brown cut a deal. And when your support for the Brown measure is based on your backroom deal rather than the merits of the initiative, you need to divert attention from your dirty laundry. So you make shit up.
Whether it was the bullet train, merit pay or some other favor, the fact is that business as usual politics is driving the other side in this battle of initiatives, not the strengths and/or weaknesses of the measures. If labor leaders want to stop being perceived as “special interests” who care more about their own, narrow political interests rather than the broad public interest, they need to stop throwing their fellow workers under the bus in exchange for special treatment by politicians. The sad fact is that the vast majority of the rank and file in these unions didn’t have any say in the decision of which measure to support—it came from the top down. Indeed, a good number of rank and file members of the statewide unions supporting the Governor prefer the Millionaires Tax.
Inside CTA, the locals in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco don’t agree with their statewide leadership. There are also locals in SEIU that were initially working on the Millionaires Tax campaign that were forbidden from continuing to do so by their statewide leadership. Let’s hope our brothers and sisters inside those unions keep fighting the good fight despite their leadership’s lack of vision.
This dearth of rank and file democracy is one of the key factors that have led to the decline of the American Labor movement over the last 30 years. If we don’t make it another 30, it will certainly be in our obituary side by side with the Citizens United decision and pictures of Scott Walker and Carl DeMaio. Surely the Chamber of Commerce interests that some labor leaders are aligned with in this initiative battle will gladly hasten our demise despite our good behavior in supporting “shared sacrifice” and regressive taxes to appease the corporate community who fear that a clear victory for progressive taxes might mean they too will be asked to pay their fair share down the road.
Anyone who regularly reads this column knows I believe that a strong labor movement is absolutely essential to our democracy and the only way that working people have ever had a voice in American politics, but sometimes it’s time to look in the mirror and see that you are being your own worst enemy.
Which Side Are You On?
The convention was also full of the usual ugly factional battles between progressive and corporate Democrats. Locally, this was manifested in the battle between Lori Saldana and Scott Peters where there was a determined push to deny Saldana the Democratic endorsement so Peters could try to out-spend and defeat her in the primary. The thinking in the Peters camp is that a Republicrat has a better chance against Bilbray than a progressive like Saldana despite the fact that a recent poll showed her doing far better than Peters who will surely have the San Diego pension mess hung around his neck by the Republicans.
End result of this battle: Saldana 25 votes, Peters 10 and no endorsement because Saldana missed the 60% threshold by a one vote. A huge victory for . . . what?
On a positive note, there was a huge amount of support for the Millionaires Tax at the convention. Josh Pechthalt, President of the CFT, got an enthusiastic response from the crowd at the Labor Caucus and Dolores Huerta voiced strong support for the measure at the Latino Caucus. More impressively, Van Jones singled out the Millionaires Tax as the one thing with the potential to engage angry, alienated, disenfranchised youth overburdened with debt. To those worried about a backlash he said, “They only call it class warfare when you fight back!” True indeed.
ReOccupied or Pre-Occupied?
Finally, the New York Timeshad an interesting story on the future of Occupy this Sunday noting that:
Far from dissipating, groups around the country say they are preparing for a new phase of larger marches and strikes this spring that they hope will rebuild momentum and cast an even brighter glare on inequality and corporate greed. But this transition is filled with potential pitfalls and uncertainties: without the visible camps or clear goals, can Occupy become a lasting force for change? Will disruptive protests do more to galvanize or alienate the public? . . .
A danger for a movement like this, driven by a committed core group with strong views, is political marginalization, said Todd Gitlin, an expert on social movements at Columbia University . . . “You can be big but still isolated,” which he said was what happened to the radical antiwar movement he joined in the 1960s . . . But deeper concerns about inequality are not likely to disappear, said Damon A. Silvers, policy director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., nor is the widely shared desire “for the economy to be run for the interests of the majority, not a tiny wealthy minority.”
“Whether the individuals in Occupy Wall Street and their organization turn out to be the center of this sentiment in the next year, I don’t know,” Mr. Silvers said. “But that sentiment will be a powerful force in our country, and the Occupy movement deserves credit for that.”
In an earlier column, I gave some unsolicited advice to Occupy:
“The crucial thing, in my estimation, is to make even clearer than the Adbusters briefing does that key distinction between tactics (the tools we use or the maneuvers we employ against the enemy) and strategy (what is our goal and what is our long term plan to achieve that goal?). Tents and tarps and sleeping outside are tactics. ‘Occupation,’ narrowly defined, is a tactic. How we plan to reclaim our political system from the hands of the 1% and turn our plutocracy masquerading as a democracy into something closer to the real thing is the end we are seeking the means to achieve.”
Since then, locally, OSD has gotten much smaller and suffered from some fairly severe bouts of factionalism and personal conflict. If it is going to survive, here and nationally, the focus has to move beyond tactics and factional squabbling and get back to being about economic inequality and the corporate corruption of democracy. Purity tests and disdain for all reformist politics will shrink rather than grow the movement.
As one of my colleagues in the fight for the Millionaires Tax told an Occupy protester who disdained our foray into electoral politics, “You can’t say you want to tax the rich and then be against the only way you can do it.”
For the most part, Occupy folks have responded warmly to our effort. I would suggest that this campaign is the perfect vehicle for Occupy to push the message of taking back power from the 1% and helping provide education and public services to the 99%. I would also suggest that rebuilding the movement should be more about inclusion than exclusion. For all of their warts, electoral politics are the only practical vehicle to achieve actual change in this country. Direct action tactics should be used in concert with a larger strategy that engages practical politics. That means you have to get your hands dirty sometimes to get the job done. Or you can just keep paring down your list of allies until there’s nobody left in the room but yourself.
Perhaps the best statement on the evils of factionalism, the original sin of the left, was made by the great Monty Python. It’s something unionists, Democrats, and occupiers all need to grok. Watch here and learn fellow workers and friends.