The Occupy movement and the labor unions

To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
January 18, 2012
RE: Discussion Group meeting this Sunday

Join us this Sunday, January 22, to discuss the Occupy movement and its relationship to the labor movement.

While the depression continues and misery deepens, the capitalists have seen their profits recover as they slash jobs, wages and benefits,public education, and social programs. Their political servants, theconservative Republican and liberal Democratic party politicians, differonly on how far to cut the living conditions of the workers and poor.

But the Occupy movement is a sign of a new wave of resistance against capitalist austerity. The Republicans cursed the movement from the start. Various Democrats feigned sympathy and mouthed the Occupy slogan "We are the 99%" in order to hide their loyalty to the corporate bloodsuckers. When it became clear that Occupy activists were notwilling to confine their protests to what the capitalists found acceptable, the Democratic officials tried to beat the protesters into submission. The Department of Homeland Security, now run by the Obamaadministration, helped city mayors, largely Democrats, coordinate violent police attacks, driving the Occupy movement out of its encampments across the country.

But the Occupy movement has not gone away, and it has replied witha new outburst of struggle. Of particular note were actions in certainWest Coast cities. In Oakland, the "progressive" Democratic mayor had unleashed the police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets on activists and carry out mass arrests. A week later activists replied with a march of 15,000 people at the Port of Oakland. On December 12, Occupy activists attempted to blockade ports all along the West Coast in solidarity with port workers and truckers who are battling hardships imposed on them by the port terminal capitalists and trucking magnates. Again the police were unleashed, but mass blockades of terminalentrances succeeded in shutting down the ports for a day in Oakland, California; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) leadership, however, opposed these solidarity actions as interference with the ILWU's struggle. Like some Democrats, the ILWU leadership claims to support Occupy in general, while denouncing Occupy militancy in practice. The American labor unions are dominated by a class-collaborationist leadership. The ILWU, which represents dockers on the West Coast and some other places, has a militant reputation and owes its origin to the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, yet its leaders adhere to the same basic stand as the rest of the class-collaborationist union leadership. The Local 21 ILWU leadership even discouraged solidarity with the bitter struggle in Longview, Seattle against the attempt of the EGT corporation to push the ILWU out of the port. As this year has begun, the Occupy movement has been organizing a solidarity caravan to Longview, while ILWU LOcal 21 leadership sent goons to disrupt the January 6 planning meeting.

As the battle against capitalist attacks on the workers grows, activists are learning the truth that the pro-capitalist union leaders across the country cannot be trusted to defend the workers. There not only has to be struggle against the capitalists, but a radical change within the labor movement itself. If there is to be a resurgence of a fighting labor movement, then workers and activists, within the unions as well as among the unorganized, will need to build up organization among rank-and-file workers. <>

The Occupy movement and building the class struggle

by Mark Williams

(CV#47 September 2012)

The following presentation was given at the DWV discussion group meeting of January 22 on the current stage of the the Occupy movement, and was followed by animated discussion. The talk focused on the lessons of the West Coast port blockades about the relationship of the Occupy movement to the present trade union leadership. The astonishing role of the union leaders in discouraging solidarity with their own unions is not something new. The as-little-struggle-as-possible policy of the class-collaborationist leaders was apparent even in the great upsurge of the 1930s, which was the time when the main American industrial unions were formed.

Information about the history of the clash between the pro-capitalist union leaders and more recent rank-and-file militancy can be found at the Communist Voice Organization website. See especially "The Million Worker March national conference in Detroit, May 14-15, 2005: What happened to this split in the labor bureaucracy?" by Pete Brown, which discusses the shortcomings of even the more leftist leaders of the ILWU (, those from San Francisco Local 10. Also, for an example of the importance of a revolutionary political party for the trade union movement, and how communist militancy helped the rank-and-file revolt of the 1930s that led to the main American industrial unions, while the pro-capitalist trend among the union leadership tried to put a lid on struggle, see "The CPUSA's work in auto and the change in line of the mid-1930s" ( Other articles on strikes and unions can be found at

The Occupy Wall Street movement signals a new wave of resistance that has begun as the capitalist economic crisis takes it's toll on the masses. The sharks of Wall Street and the other capitalist businesses are recovering from the crisis by ripping the flesh off the workers, oppressed nationality communities, students, etc. The result is a massive growth of unemployment and home foreclosures, slashing of workers' wages and benefits, social programs, and education. Austerity for the masses is the means by which the business owners and executives are fattening their corporate profits, embellishing their personal fortunes, and insuring that half the population is near or below the poverty line while the economic gap between the rich and poor soars to astounding levels.

The Occupy movement targets the crimes of the corporations and their control of the political system.  Though the activists associated with Occupy agree that change on these issues are needed, there are important disagreements among them on what sort of changes are needed, what direction the struggle should take, and who the friends and enemies of the movement are.  In short, though Occupy is officially "non-political", there is a battle between different class political trends within it. In general, Occupy activists recognize that the Republicans are tools for the corporations. And most of the activists do not walk in lockstep with the other big capitalist party, the Democrats, although there are trends in Occupy which have illusions in that party. A sizeable radical section of activists sees not only the need for serious relief measures for the workers and poor today, but is looking for an alternative to capitalism itself. Which trends have greater sway among the activists differ from place to place. Where more radicalized and class-conscious activists hold sway, the greater the extent to which the movement is able to rally the masses as a real fighting force against the capitalist gangsters.

Though Occupy reflects but a first step in the efforts of the masses to get organized, the Occupy encampments and mass actions have been a thorn in the side of the wealthy few. The Republicans generally fumed at Occupy, while a number of Democrats feigned support for the movement and mouthed the Occupy slogan "we are the 99%". But whatever tolerance the Democrats initially showed, when it became clear that Occupy activists were not willing to confine their protests to what the capitalists found acceptable, that they would dare to defy repressive capitalist "law and order" regulations if necessary, the Democratic politicians tried to beat the protesters into submission. Obama's Homeland Security apparatus and mayors in major cities coordinated plans to wipe out Occupy encampments. Protester's cries for justice were answered with police tear gas, rubber bullets, beating of protesters and mass arrests. More often than not, the mayors were liberal Democrats who had feigned support for OWS only to crush it like their Republican cohorts who were openly hostile from the start.

Most Occupy camps were destroyed, but the activists were not deterred and gained more support from the masses. Demonstrations against police repression broke out. Most notable was the November 2 demonstration where about 15,000 protesters marched on the Port of Oakland. Following this, West Coast Occupy groups issued a call for a December 12 shutdown of ports from San Diego to Anchorage. These actions were to show solidarity with port workers, like those in Longview, WA who are battling the multinational corporation EGT, which is trying to eliminate jobs and bring in a non-union workforce. The port terminal operator SSA, which is owned by Goldman-Sachs, was another target. The actions also supported independent truckers, largely of Mexican heritage, the "troqueros", who are were trying to unionize.

The port capitalists and the local authorities did their best to undermine the protest. Shamefully, so did the supposedly militant leaders of the ILWU, the longshoreman's union. The ILWU leaders denounced the protest as an attempt by "outsiders" to take over the workers' struggle. In fact the action would be an impetus to the workers' struggle, while opposing it undermines the struggle the union bureaucrats claim to champion. Despite all these obstacles, blockade plans went forward. Leaflets supporting the action were distributed to the rank-and-file workers, who largely responded positively to them despite the hysteria created by their union officials. On December 12th in Oakland, at one time there were 2,000 people blockading port entrances. The port was effectively closed. In Seattle hundreds of activists set up a determined blockade that eventually was attacked by police with stun grenades and pepper spray. Nevertheless, the port was forced to shut down. Blockades in Portland led to cancellation of two shifts. Other cities had port protests, but didn't have the force to maintain blockades.

Actions on an array of social issues continue in a number of cities. So do protests against the current election circus. In mid-December, for example, Occupy activists held protests against each candidate in the Republican primary in Iowa, denouncing them at campaign headquarters and other campaign events. Protests also took place at the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters and against Obama. A speech by Republican Ron Paul was interrupted by activists denouncing Paul's pledge to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. Paul loyalists are a presence at various Occupy events where they try to appeal to activists by touting Paul's stand against various foreign wars or repressive legislation or bailing out the banks. This sounds good until one learns that Paul's libertarian "solution" to all these evils is to let the capitalists run completely wild, free of virtually any regulations, taxes or government social programs.

The bourgeoisie's police-state tactics have only whetted the appetites of activists for future defiant actions of all kinds. Without mass struggle there is no way to fight capitalist austerity measures, much less create a new social order where there is no wealthy elite lording over the masses.

But the present movement is merely the beginnings of resistance. As the struggle against capitalist austerity develops, it will become more apparent that success rests on the building of the working class movement, and that building such a movement will mean a radical change from the stand of the dominant union leadership which rejects unions as a means to mobilize workers into the class struggle and preaches salvation through electing Democrats. It will mean building up rank-and-file organizations among unionized and non- unionized workers that transforms their growing anger among into militant class actions.

This brings us back to the issue of the West Coast port blockade organized by Occupy activists. The most significant feature of the Occupy actions on the West Coast is not that they resulted in ending the attacks on port workers, which they didn't, but that it showed or confirmed to many activists the need to organize workers to break free from the shackles imposed on them by the timid union officials. To see how this process developed, I'm going to go into some more detail about the West Coast actions and the ILWU leadership's attempts to stifle the solidarity events. This information comes from activists who were involved in organizing the actions and had to deal with the union bureaucracy face to face.

One of the good features of the port blockade organizing was, though the union leaderships opposed the action, the activists worked hard to appeal directly to rank-and-file port workers and truckers and to the working class communities in the area. To give an idea of the preparation for the blockade I'll quote from a report by one of the organizers:

"The two and a half weeks prior to D12 were a coordinated blanketing of our city with community specific flyers for high school students, college students, port truckers, longshore workers, and a general flyer for Spanish and English speaking community members. We and many others spent hours every day handing leaflets out one by one and posting flyers at Community Services, Labor Ready and Work Source Centers, and a Latin day worker center. Bus stops on busy, working class thoroughfares and in our neighborhoods were all flyered. Local Spanish radio stations made daily announcements. . . We made a consistent and concerted effort to outreach to our working communities of color and immigrant communities.

"Specific attention was also given toward reaching out to port workers. Groups went multiple mornings a week at 6:30am to hand flyers to receptive truckers waiting in line to load containers, several of whom openly shared the impossibility in making ends meet and the reality that 'something's gotta change' On two different occasions the port police were called on us by security people.  . . . The same effort went into flyering outside the union hall before swing shift dispatch."

The report goes on to mention conference calls between organizers in different cities, stating:

"Hearing about other organizers facing the common brick wall built by union leaders calmed our nerves and solidified our resolve."

I don't know if the content of the flyers and leaflets was lacking in certain ways. Indeed some of the views in the report I'm quoting from are not helpful in developing the class struggle (for example, the "rise and decolonize banner" or the opposition to political parties in general). But intensively campaigning for a militant mass action of worker solidarity, both among port workers and throughout the working class communities, when it was well-known that the union hierarchy was a "brick wall" against them, is an example of the type of work that must be done on a consistent basis for the revitalization of the working class movement.

The success of the Dec. 12 port blockades sent the ILWU officials into a frenzy of activity, not against the port capitalists, but to squash the solidarity protests organized by Occupy activists. In January, activists, including some rank-and-file members of the ILWU, were organizing a caravan in support of Longview, WA longshore workers who are fighting against the union-busting efforts of the EGT corporation. Instead of welcoming efforts to keep the company from kicking the ILWU out of the port, the ILWU leaders attempted to wreck meetings organizing the solidarity caravan.

This is chronicled in a report by some solidarity caravan organizers.(1) The report states that in a January 5th organizing meeting in Portland:

"During the open microphone, the Local 4 (Vancouver, WA) President Brad Clark took the microphone. To the Occupy crowd of longshore, unemployed, students and non-union workers, he offered an impassioned plea which reflected the position of the International. 'We support Occupy, we support Longview, but please keep your mistaken efforts at solidarity away.' His message was contrary to the voices of the workers and community members in Longview." At the end of the meeting, says the report, "Local 8 (Portland) President Jeff Smith demanded to speak. Jeff Smith had made a name for himself in the weeks leading up to the event, evicting Occupy Portland members from the union hall in the lead-up to the D12 Port shutdown, denouncing the event in the local media, and even threatening to rip flyers from the hands of Occupy members, in a blatant act of disrespect to the event. Smith took the stage, preceding to read a long, publicly published letter from the leadership of the ILWU international. As the crowd in attendance filed out of the room in protest, Smith finished his letter to a mostly empty hall, while rank and file longshore and retirees stayed behind to rebut him for what audience remained.

"Subsequently, after Longview workers spoke in Portland Oregon, the leadership of ILWU international allegedly ordered picket support from Locals in Portland and Vancouver for Longview's longstanding picket be immediately ceased."

The report then describes an organizing meeting the next day in Seattle. Originally, the President of the Longview Local, Local 21, was supposed to be part of the speakers panel. But the ILWU national leadership ordered Longview members against attending the Seattle meeting, and the Local 21 leader was a no-show. The national ILWU even ordered Longview members against making public speeches. Despite this some Longview workers attended the meeting.

But it turned out that ILWU leaders would attend the meeting after all, leading a small goon squad to disrupt and physically attack the meeting. The ILWU leaders included the President of the Seattle Local, Local 19, and two other Local 19 officials. From here I'll quote the Seattle activists' report. It says that just before the meeting:

"a self-identified longshore worker in the audience came up to one of our organizers. He told her there would be a disruption of the panel, and that any Longshore rank and file member who spoke would be physically removed from the stage. . . .

"The disruption took place when Jack Heyman, retired ILWU member from Local 10 (Oakland) spoke. Cam Williams, President of Local 19 (Seattle) along with several ILWU member behind him, rushed to the microphone that was set up in the middle of the room. He interrupted Heyman's speech and demanded that the letter from the International be read. . . .

"Cam Williams shoved the organizers aside and grabbed the microphone. Subsequently, about 15-20 ILWU member and union officers, who had spread themselves out across the hall, took the cue to disrupt.(2) Presidents of Local 4 (Vancouver, WA) and Local 8 (Portland) made sure to throw their weight around. When asked to leave, they threw punches, shoved people, swore and yelled. Their breaths reeked of alcohol. One man wearing ILWU swag was holding a megaphone he had brought along. Audience members surrounding them chanted 'shame, shame' and 'sit down or leave'. . . . The leaders of the most militant union in this country, was [sic] acting like company goons."

The report also describes that a number of women activists who were telling the goons to stop disrupting the meeting were subject to sexist remarks by the goons, leading to one women activist slapping one of the union thugs in the face. Other goons shoved that woman, but were rebuffed by what the report calls "physical resistance from Occupy Seattle folks who had had enough of this sexist behavior."

Now this report from Seattle has its own political problems, for example, rightly criticizing the narrow vision of the AFL-CIO leadership and its support for the Democratic Party, but wrongly concluding that political parties in general, which presumably includes revolutionary workers' parties, cannot address the demands of the working class. They rightly attack the rotten bureaucratic structures of the present union leadership, but wrongly conclude that "The problem is that old forms of struggle that gave birth to the unions no longer work in this globalized world." It's true that each new wave of struggle gives rise to new forms, but it's foolish to disparage the struggle that gave rise to the unions, when the building of industrial unions was largely due to the existence of left-wing political parties, in particular the old Communist Party, USA before it transformed completely into a reformist supporter of the Democrats. These parties formed fighting unions where no unions existed, organized the rank and file in defiance of the AFL leadership and their narrow craft unionism, carried out militant actions, and addressed the issue of race and gender discrimination. Indeed, the CPUSA activists were the principal organizers of one of the greatest Occupy events ever, the Flint sit-down strike of 1937. The truth is that if the class struggle develops it will need a political party, a party of the most class-conscious worker/activists, who can provide a consistent class orientation in the social struggles of the moment while also orienting the workers and other oppressed toward the goal of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

Indeed the more the class struggle advances, the more the general Occupy orientation and rules will become insufficient. Though many worthy struggles have been organized under the Occupy banner, Occupy is a mixture of different trends and organizations, some oriented to the class struggle and some not, some with illusions in some minor reforms, or reforming the Democratic Party, and others who want to abolish capitalism and hold militant class actions. And there are activists still sorting out their political views. Because of this, some of the best actions and organizing gets done not by Occupy structures themselves, but by groups within Occupy who have their own organizational structure and views. Proposals for militant mass actions may be passed by General Assemblies of Occupy, but that doesn't mean the local Occupy structure will allocate sufficient resources for them or be the mainstay of the nuts and bolts organizing work.

The first report by Seattle Occupy activists gives something of a picture of this. It praises some parts of Occupy Seattle for their role in assisting the port blockade. But it also says

"However, a few of the other teams did not work well with us." And that "the various working groups in Decolonize/Occupy Seattle should respect the decisions taken by the General Assembly and allocate resources accordingly. The General Assembly had unanimously voted for the port action. However, whether intentional or not, we faced a lack of support and accountability from some working groups. . . .

"Other members of Occupy seemed to fear the militancy of the port action, with some even calling it 'violence'. They feared we would alienate the unions (typically meaning union officials, not rank and file members) and that we'd alienate people watching mainstream news coverage of the event."

Certain Occupy activists report similar problems in other cities. And they complain about how the supposedly "leaderless" Occupy organizational structures have their own bureaucratic methods that impede the struggle.

I raise these issues not to belittle Occupy protests or the devotion and self-sacrifice of Occupy activists. We encourage participation in these actions. But a realistic evaluation of the Occupy movement shows that the activists who raise the banner of class struggle against the capitalists, whether they work within the Occupy organizations or not, will have to build up their own groups based on a revolutionary working class orientation, groups that allocate all their resources to mobilizing the workers into their own rank-and-file organizations that can carry on the struggle despite the obstacles of the union bureaucrats. This is what is necessary if there is to be real resistance to the capitalist austerity drive. This is what the class struggle will require, both to beat back the present attacks of the capitalists, and to prepare the workers for the time when they will be able to rise up and overthrow the source of their current misery, the capitalist system itself. <>


(1)See "Jan 6th 2012: Unity vs. Union Bureaucracy/Occupy Seattle in Solidarity with Longview, WA"

(2)A comrade of the Communist Voice Organization who was present estimates that there were 8 - 10 ILWU goons at the meeting. <>

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