The following report is from my daughter Laura Kelber, who worked as an electrician for 18 years (Local 3, IBEW).
Walking through the Occupy Wall Street site in lower Manhattan last Friday evening, I entered at the southwest corner, through a tent-and-tarp encampment an edgy, makeshift community of activists, homeless people, junkies and drug-dealers.
Eastwards, there were information tables, a medical station, a media center, a large central station offering free meals, a dishwashing station, recycling, clothing distribution, and tables devoted to single topics: the environment, peace, feminism, anti-racism, recycling, socialism, libertarianism, veganism, single-payer healthcare, alternate currencies, homelessness, conspiracy theories and animal rights.
There were sign-up sheets for Muslim prayer, gardening and safety patrols. Signs announced workshops on recycling, economics and politics. The meetings of about 60 working groups and caucuses are held on-site or at nearby satellite sites open to the public. Drummers, dancers and art installations created a festive atmosphere.
The northeastern corner is taken up by an ever-expanding library. On this evening, the southeastern corner had been roped off to create a safe space for a kids' sleepover, attended by mostly white progressive and hipster families. Reporters from CBS, Russia Today, MNBC and every other conceivable news organization roamed the site seeking interviews and unique angles.
All of this was going on in a single square block, through which office workers, panhandlers, tourists, shoppers, construction workers, and high school kids came to gawk, but also to learn. Small groups of people black, white, Hispanic, Asian, immigrant, native, old, young, male, female, transgendered sat or stood, discussing social change.
Those who dismiss this movement as a bunch of hippies or Marxists or spoiled rich kids or riff-raff completely miss the mark. This is a complex coalition that defies easy generalizations. Its leaderless, horizontal democratic structure makes co-optation all but impossible. It serves as an open university on alternative politics and economics, with college kids, beggars, retirees, junkies, workers, tourists, pundits, politicians and policymakers comprising the student body.
Created by anti-corporate idealists, but fueled by the populist anger that's been simmering ever since the bank bailout of 2008, Occupy Wall Street has evolved into a fascinating but unmanageable mixture containing elements of Hoovervilles, Woodstock, crime-ridden shanty-towns, the Wobblies, student sit-ins, the Tea Party and the civil rights movement. It will continue to evolve.
'Occupy' Is Developing its own Democratic Rules
Those who think they can come in and control this thing are kidding themselves. Even the idealists who established the democratic governing guidelines, cumbersomely based on consensual decision-making, have no control. They're learning the limitations of their own model, as mass meetings, lasting upwards of three hours, end without a single decision being made.
But even as its ability to act is being smothered under the weight of its horizontal structure, the Occupation remains a nagging presence for Congress, the White House and Corporate America. They decry it or applaud it, but they can't ignore it.
So what should unions be doing in the face of this indefinable movement? It would certainly ring hollow if the vertically-structured, leader-dominated AFL-CIO embraced the Occupy Wall Street movement itself. Are unions really ready to experiment with democracy? Unlikely.
But the movement has acted to make dissent more acceptable. Occupy Wall Street may not be co-optable, but the word "occupy" has new legitimacy. This is a time when entrenched unions can venture outside of their comfort zones to re-embrace militancy as an organizing tool. They can vocally call for job actions, slow-downs, one-day strikes, sit-ins, and occupations of shuttered work-sites. They can reach out to the unemployed and homeless, many of whom are former union members, inviting them into the fold to broadcast their grievances.
The timid AFL-CIO leadership is in a unique position: it can be aggressive and militant, while hiding behind the skirts of Occupy Wall Street. A window has opened where, for a brief time, militancy is mainstream. If the AFL-CIO leaders want to ensure the existence of an American labor movement in this century, they'd be well advised to jump in.
LaborTalk will be posted here on November 4, 2011 and on our two web sites www.laboreducator.org and on www.laborsvoiceforchange.org.