The Politics of Austerity, Occupy and the 2012 Elections

Posted May 21, 2012

A Solidarity Pamphlet

by Marc Aaron, Warren Davis, Dianne Feeley,
David Finkel & Kit Wainer

Download the PDF here.

AT THIS MOMENT, the central issue facing our society is how to respond to the deepest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s. Unfortunately, we won’t be hearing a substantive debate about this in the 2012 elections. The Democratic and Republican parties both favor austerity — in short, making working-class people pay to bail out the corporations and get capitalism back on its feet.

Austerity means sacrificing the wealth and the rights of the working class (i.e. jobs, wages, pensions, housing and public services) in order to preserve the wealth and the rights of banks, large corporations, and those few families who live off profits and interest (i.e. capital).

More than that, austerity asks us to lower our hopes and expectations of a decent life for our families and communities. And it seeks to transform political and economic institutions in order to be sure that workers and governments will remain “disciplined” into the future.

Those of us who would prioritize human needs and democracy over capitalist profit and corporate power do not have a political party capable of mounting a serious challenge to austerity in the electoral arena. Yet the dramatic emergence of the Occupy movement proves that there is widespread opposition to austerity, as well as deep frustration with the narrow “choices” offered by our legislative and electoral system.

The Occupy movement transformed the political landscape. Young people rejected rising inequality and the bipartisan consensus on bailouts for bankers, proclaiming “We are the 99%.” And Occupiers have refused to be coopted by the Democratic Party or confined by the boundaries of conventional legislative politics. Occupy struck a powerful chord, bringing hope that inequality and corporate power can be checked by a rising mass movement.

Along with the Occupy movement, we’ve seen the magnificent actions of young immigrants, proclaiming themselves “Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic” in the face of the Obama administration’s escalation of deportations beyond the horrible levels that occurred under George W. Bush.

The racist murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teenager, by a vigilante “neighborhood watch coordinator” who wasn’t immediately arrested, has created a mass outpouring of anger and demands for justice, not only in Florida but across the United States and even internationally.

As November looms closer, however, activists in unions, Occupy and social justice movements will face intense pressure to devote their collective political energies to the reelection of president Obama and to Democratic Party electoral campaigns.

In this pamphlet, we argue against falling in behind the Democrats. As socialists, we suggest that the main task facing Occupiers, union militants and social justice activists is not to elect Democrats but rather to sustain and intensify Occupy’s bold challenge to the bi-partisan consensus behind austerity.

We are not going to focus here on how individuals choose to vote in November. We are concerned, rather, with how activists in a wide range of movements can most effectively channel their energies to challenge austerity and the corporate-dominated two-party system.

Democracy: Struggle and Limits

“I DON’T WANT everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Those are the words of wisdom from Paul Weyrich, founder of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

In highly autocratic countries, when elections occur they are often hijacked — or are basically staged mobilizations to legitimize a pre-determined result. In the United States, the formalities of democracy may be held sacred, but the substance is crumbling and even the voting franchise for millions of people is under attack. Democratic rights under capitalism are limited and always a product of struggle — they expanded under the impact of the labor and Black and women’s liberation movements, and they’re threatened now under the corporate austerity drive.

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We believe it is possible for the movements to build on the success of Occupy, the heroism of immigrant youth and the rage over Trayvon Martin’s murder. It’s an opportunity to build mass actions which go beyond symbolism to directly and materially disrupt the project of austerity — and to develop forms of organization with the capacity to put the corporations and the far right on the defensive, whatever the outcome of the elections.

In our view, this will require not only building the Occupy movement but also taking its spirit and approach, and the audacity of immigrant youth who are coming out of the shadows, into the multitude of organizations, networks and communities that collectively provide a base for the radical transformation of American politics.

The Context in the 2012 Election

The corporate consensus for austerity (“belt tightening”) has moved the so-called “political mainstream” sharply rightward. At the same time, blatant lies and racist vitriol coming from the Republican Right will frighten many people, including on the left, who will likely back the President in the belief that it is necessary to defeat a racist wave that smacks of neo-fascism.

By the middle of April Mitt Romney had put a stranglehold on the Republican nomination. Will he now jettison much of his party’s extreme right-wing baggage, and move in tandem with President Obama toward “the center” (i.e. towards each other) for the general election? Although that’s what happened many times in the past, we don’t see that as likely this time around.

In 1996 — the last time a Democratic president ran for reelection — Bill Clinton shored up his corporate centrist image by passing “welfare reform” and the Effective Death Penalty Act. Republican nominee Bob Dole tried unsuccessfully to cast himself as the true corporate centrist. The result was that the positions of the two candidates were difficult to distinguish by Election Day. Similarly, despite their divergent paths after the elections, Al Gore and George W. Bush appeared so close to each other in 2000 that Ralph Nader’s left-wing third party candidacy captured a great deal of energy and 3% of the national vote (historic in the modern era).

Tea Party: Tempest and Gridlock

THE TEA PARTY at its inception had the appearance of an angry grassroots insurgency against big-government overreach, excessive spending and intrusion into ordinary people’s lives.
While some of that posturing struck a responsive chord, it soon emerged that the Tea Party was essentially another of those “Astroturf movements” — funded by the Koch brothers and other corporate powers to protect themselves from the deadly dangers of taxation, regulation, health care reform and restrictions on their sacred rights to pollute and exploit.

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This year may be different. While Romney is likely to modify some of his social views in order to counter the widening gender gap, there is one question on which he will have little room to maneuver: race. President Obama’s commanding 2008 victory was a product of a generalized revulsion toward George W. Bush, a negative referendum on the state of the economy and enthusiasm around the possibility of electing the first African-American president. However, these conjunctural factors masked a deeper trend.

Demographic changes, Latino immigration in particular, and urbanization in states such as North Carolina and Virginia, is providing the Democratic Party with a growing structural advantage. And the Latino share of eligible voters has increased significantly since 2008. By some estimates the 2012 Latino vote will be 26% greater than it was four years ago. While much of this growth appears in safe states for one party or the other — California and Texas — much also appears in the swing states of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Even in North Carolina, the still small Latino population has grown by 18% since 2008.

So far the Republican Party has proven slow to adapt to the changing electorate. Rather than support the pro-business guest worker program championed by both Presidents Bush and Obama, the Republican candidates have engaged in explicitly racist immigrant-bashing and have associated themselves with horrific legislation in Arizona, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Mainstream commentators have noted the extent to which the GOP has become whiter, more southern, more male.

Party speeches have become increasingly racist. The use of “socialism” as an anti-Obama epithet, something Republicans had rarely used against Democrats since the height of the Cold War, is an appeal more to white racism than to anti-Marxist fears. Republicans use the word “socialism” to appeal to white stereotypes of African Americans, whom they envision as wanting to live on government handouts funded by white taxpayers.

Republican policies and rhetoric risk making Republican politicians uncompetitive among Latino voters. A recent Fox News poll found Obama beating Romney among likely Latino voters by a margin of 70-14. If Romney attempts to close that margin by flip flopping on immigration reform and the DREAM Act, he will alienate his angry white voter base and possibly reduce Republican turnout in November. His most likely course of action, therefore, will be to double-down on covert appeals to white racism in the hopes of revving up white male turnout. Whether this might succeed in winning Romney the presidency is difficult to predict. However, this election will be as vicious and racist as any in recent times.

The despicable slurs and personal attacks on President Obama will actually re-energize many of his disappointed supporters to support him once again. Black voters, in particular, will also see the fight to reelect the first African-American president as a defense against the assaults on their community — including the attempts to suppress their vote. It’s important to recognize and respect this sentiment, but also to clearly understand that president Obama, every bit as much as Mitt Romney, is a candidate of the Wall Street bankers, hedge funds and corporate capital.

Occupy’s Voice

Last September Occupy Wall Street (OWS) began with the march of a few thousand to New York’s Financial District and the overnight occupation by a couple hundred people of a small private park owned by a commercial real estate company. The following Saturday, as protestors marched uptown, police beat them, pepper spraying some of the young women, and arresting eighty. As the direct result of this unprovoked violence, hundred went to the park to find out what was happening, staying to take part of the General Assemblies and the flowering of working groups around specific issues. The following Saturday, 5,000 marched on the Brooklyn Bridge to protest police repression. The police seemed to be directing them on to the road, but actually trapped and arrested 700.

Popular disgust with the NYPD’s mass arrests at Brooklyn Bridge pushed city unions to support OWS. This was particularly true for the Transport Workers Union whose members came to the park from the first day of the occupation. Their contract was about to expire and management was demanding another round of concessions. But also present were striking telecommunication workers, healthcare workers and construction workers. By early October they organized a support march, and students from some of the largest New York campuses organized a walkout of over 2,000 and joined.

The media seemed to mock the occupiers because they lacked a list of demands. In fact, their refusal to restrict themselves to such a list challenged the neoliberal agenda. They demanded the right to create a public and open community where fundamental issues about how we take care of ourselves are discussed. They challenged the rhetoric of austerity by proclaiming “We are the 99%.”

OWS dramatically turned the spotlight onto the reason for the economic crisis: The drive to restructure government on the back of its workforce and strip communities of services and resources. It is not that the 99% has been living beyond our means, but that the 1% has used its power to increase economic and political dominance.

The Occupy movement spread across the country as occupations mushroomed in cities, towns and colleges last fall, seeing itself as part of a response to the death culture of neoliberalism. Within six weeks more than 200 Occupies carried out actions on October 15, linking up with the international day of action that “indignados” had initiated in Spain and Greece. As demonstrators in Egypt returned to Tahrir Square to oppose the tricks of the military regime and its repression, defending their revolutionary process, Occupy identified with their struggle.

Occupy’s message also resonated beyond public parks and college campuses. Groups sprang up in poor urban neighborhoods throughout the country in a movement to “Occupy the Hood,” and in mainly immigrant communities to “Occupy the Barrio” or “Decolonize the Barrio.”

In contrast to the often largely white park occupations, Occupy the Hood and Decolonize the Barrio has successfully mobilized in communities of color to fight back against an epidemic of unjust foreclosures and police brutality. These movements have bought many things to the table, including hip-hop picket lines, health clinics, and working towards self-care for communities.

Occupy Wall Street didn’t emerge from thin air. It was preceded internationally by the general strikes in Greece and the Arab Spring. Even its first tactic of occupying space was launched in the United States by the 2008-09 struggles of University of California students, who opposed the tripling of fees over the past decade.

In February 2011, a mass occupation broke out in Madison, Wisconsin in response to the impending imposition of draconian legislation by the governor and state legislature. AFSCME’s lobby day was transformed when hundreds of students and workers from the University of Wisconsin, accompanied by public school teachers, decided to spend the night in the state Capitol, and then stayed on.

Attacking Women’s Rights

STATE LEGISLATURES ARE on a rampage to pass laws restricting women’s ability to control their reproductive lives — each one more outrageous than the last. Over the last two years a wave of health-related laws affecting women have been introduced in various states. Two years ago 950 bills reducing women’ access to reproductive rights in one way or another, and 89 were enacted. Last year 1,100 were introduced and a whooping 135 passing.

These range from limiting comprehensive sex education classes in schools and cutting funding for contraceptives to blocking women’s right to abortion — mandating procedures that are costly, unnecessary and humiliating, such as waiting periods, ultrasounds and even physical invasion of the woman’s body. In the case of Texas, the ultrasound requirement for all women seeking abortions means, for a first trimester procedure, a probe inserted into the woman’s vagina. No wonder it was labeled the state “rape law”!

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Once in the building they needed to feed and organize themselves — and they did, even receiving pizzas ordered in by supporters as far away as Tahrir Square! They set up work stations to meet their daily needs for information, food, health and child care. The Capitol occupation, lasting roughly six weeks, showed the potential for self-organization and the use of space to express a vision for a different society.

A few months later, as Mayor Bloomberg (the 12th richest man in the United States!) launched another round of austerity in New York City, a network of unions, community organizations and political groups started an occupation near City Hall called “Bloombergville.” Becoming a focal point of opposition to the cuts, in many of its organizing methods it prefigured OWS, but was unable to launch a larger movement and packed up once the budget was adopted.

By the spring of 2012 most Occupations have left the parks. Some, like OWS, were violently repressed. Others, like Occupy Chicago, were prevented by the police from ever establishing a camp. Many, in the face of the winter and under attack from city officials, chose to leave for indoor spaces where working groups and General Assemblies continue to meet.

Occupy is not just a physical space, but also an approach to community life. Most Occupies are involved in organizing teach-ins against austerity, standing with people whose homes face foreclosure, mike-checking the corporate elite at their business luncheons, defending community programs and supporting workers’ struggles. Some of these actions involve tensions between unions and organizations tied to the Democratic Party — as to be expected with a model that is non-hierarchical and not inclined toward compromise.

The Occupy movement is driven by a notion of direct democracy, transparency and a notion of a society not based on profit but on meeting people’s diverse needs. Above all, the Occupy movement has altered the political discussion — an important and lasting contribution in and of itself.

2012 and the Politics of War

SOME WARMONGERS JUST can’t get enough. The Republican candidates (except for Ron Paul, who’s a separate case) are braying for war with Iran. Senator John McCain demanded a doubleheader — bomb Syria too. President Obama, in his March 6 press conference, chided his critics for “popping off” with loose war talk.

Among the great majority of the U.S. population, the president undoubtedly wins that particular argument. Since 2001 the United States has undertaken military adventures twice — in Afghanistan for the supposed reason of preventing “another 9/11,” and in Iraq on the lying pretext of eliminating Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. These were both imperialist and criminal wars — win, lose or draw — but also that they have been defeats, even if neither Democrats, Republicans or the corporate media will explicitly say so.

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The Unions and Austerity

Unions, with all their flaws, remain a critical arena of working-class collective capacity — a perennial thorn in the side of capital, and a potential resource for resisting or reversing austerity.

However, labor leaders’ continued commitment to Democratic Party electoral efforts above all threatens to squander the potential for unions to serve as centers of working-class resistance.

Every election year, unions spend millions on political contributions, direct mail and advertising, while enlisting their staff and rank-and-file activists for nightly phone banks, weekend door-belling, and worksite leafleting.

Unions and their PACS spent an estimated $400 million in 2008 on campaign contributions and independent expenditures, plus many thousands of paid and volunteer hours, aimed mainly at electing Democrats.

The Democrats took the White House and the Congress. But instead of the Employee Free Choice Act (labor’s top legislative priority in 2009) and the $9.50 minimum wage that Obama trumpeted during his campaign, we ended up with a pro-corporate health care reform and more “free trade” agreements.

Most importantly, perhaps, we got Obama’s centrist version of austerity, complete with a wage-slashing auto bailout, attacks on teacher unions, bank bailouts that left working-class debtors in the lurch, a Deficit Commission and an overdose of rhetoric about shared sacrifice. It is true that Republicans have taken to union-busting as a general principle. For them, the economic crisis presents an opportunity to wipe out what remains of unions’ institutional capacity and legal rights.

Centrists, including Obama, have chosen a different path, working to incorporate union leaders as partners in implementing austerity. The objective here is to minimize opposition to the core project of austerity while holding the Democratic electoral coalition together.

Union leaders have focused their energies on beating back the most direct (usually Republican) attacks on bargaining and organizing rights. This resistance to direct attacks on unions as institutions has, however, gone hand-in-hand with rhetorical and material concessions to the larger project of austerity.

In this respect, the role of President Obama and the Democratic Party has been crucial. Playing the “good cops” to the Republican “bad cops,” the Democrats have been able to present their version of austerity as the only reasonable alternative for frightened union leaders.

Obama has been explicit in calling upon union leaders to discipline their members to the requirements of austerity. In doing so, he has even drawn strength from the divisive rhetoric of the far right.

Economic Dictatorship

IN ORDER TO bail out the banks, governments in Europe have borrowed from these very same banks, essentially paying higher interest rates on new loans to pay off the bad loans that got the banks into trouble. In order to qualify for these new loans at supposedly sustainable rates, the governments are required to impose austerity measures never seen before. Cuts in pay and pensions range from 20-30% with more coming; union contracts are shredded and labor laws “liberalized;” unemployment soars, affecting upwards of one-quarter to one-third of work forces — so that half the youth in Spain, for example, are unemployed.

Realizing that elected officials are unable or unwilling to follow through with these drastic measures — and that they will be blamed for the inevitable downturn in the economic fortunes of these countries — the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund consort to demand that parliaments appoint “technocrats,” who will be seen as neutral experts willing to do what no politician would. These unelected experts are, in fact, bankers from the highest echelon including the ECB itself in the case of the prime ministers of Greece and Italy. The finance minister of Spain is the former head of the European division of the failed Lehman Brothers investment bank.

The unelected “Technocracy” heading these governments represents the next level, aimed at restoring profit margins for the bankers who hold all the cards, at the expense of working-class taxpayers whose institutions like traditional unions remain on the defensive and divided. Visible mass discontent still lacks a clear, unified strategy and the confidence needed to challenge the new economic dictatorship.

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At a 2011 town hall meeting in Deborah, Iowa, Obama argued that unionized public sector workers must accept concessions in order to avoid a “natural backlash” by those who have seen their wages and pensions slashed in recent years.[1]

Referring to teachers’ unions, Obama said “If there’s a feeling that unions aren’t partners in reform processes in things like education, then they’re going to end up being an easy target.” Meanwhile, Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and his former Chief of Staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have made attacks on teachers unions the centerpiece of their education reforms.[2]

Like every “good cop,” Obama needs a bad cop, in this case the Republican Right. Teachers have not been alone in feeling the pressure. Public workers and services have suffered mightily in the crisis.
Over the last two years, federal workers have given back $60 billion through pay freezes imposed by the Democrat in the White House, and a change to federal pensions passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate will cut new hires’ retirement pay by 41%.[3]

From January 2009 to December 2011, the number of state and local government employees declined by 583,000, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. From 2008 to 2011 local school districts alone cut 278,000 jobs.[4]

The Obama Administration’s bailout of GM and Chrysler applied the centrist approach to austerity in the private sector. As a condition of the bailout, the Obama Administration mandated that unionized auto workers accept “parity” in wages and benefits with non-union auto workers.

In the end, the union agreed to a 50% wage cut for all new hires and replaced their defined benefit pension with a 401K. Further, the UAW allowed General Motors and Chrysler to reduce their previous commitments for payments toward retiree health care, which was already underfunded. As a consequence, the Department of the Treasury ordered fund trustees to immediately cut retiree health care benefits, which they did. The UAW also gave up its right to strike in 2011 contract negotiations.

Ironically, the auto bailout is trumpeted as evidence of Obama’s support for workers and unions. By playing the “good cops” the Democrats have arguably been more effective at implementing austerity than the clumsy, over-reaching and increasingly rabid Republican right.

Yes, there are differences between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to issues of concern to workers. The point we want to emphasize is that Obama and the Democratic establishment are fully committed to the core project of austerity, and using fear of the Republican Right to divide workers and rally union support.

Should workers put their energy behind the “good cop” of austerity in the 2012 elections? We think it would be a better bet to develop effective extra-electoral tools to defend unions’ historic achievements and challenge the bipartisan consensus around austerity.

In our view, the moment is ripe for the rise of an independent political movement to challenge austerity. In fact, the most important missing ingredient in the construction of such a movement right now is probably a full commitment from organized labor. Subordinating union political energy and “messaging” to Democratic electoral campaigns will make such a commitment impossible. Unions cannot hope to build on the Occupy movement’s successful efforts to “change the conversation” while campaigning for pro-austerity politicians.

The Occupy movement resonated so strongly with large sections of the American people because it gave expression to the widespread anti-austerity sentiment that has no home in the capitalist parties. The big question for union militants now is how to direct the organizational capacities of the labor movement toward mass mobilization for direct action against austerity, and for constructing a new, democratic, independent, anti-capitalist, political force that embodies the sentiments and the spirit aroused by the uprisings in Ohio and Wisconsin and the Occupy movement.

Around the country, many union members (and some unions) have begun building bottom-up coalitions, using direct action, and cooperating with Occupiers in locally-focused but nationally linked campaigns against home foreclosures, school privatization, and anti-democratic legislation intended to advance austerity.[5]

The Occupy movement, driven by a small cadre of thousands of dedicated activists, was able to change the national conversation by daring to challenge Wall Street directly. We have no doubt that sustained labor movement initiatives along these lines could radically alter the political map of the country to an even greater degree.

Beginning Resistance

After accepting round after round of concessions, last year working people began to resist. When Wisconsin working people’s month-long action didn’t stop Governor Walker’s legislation, they turned to recalling legislators, successfully replacing two. Now they have gathered a million signatures to recall Walker, and the governor finds himself on the fundraising trail.

A number of other Midwest governors had the same agenda. Ohio’s Governor John Kasich pushed a through a similar bill that limited about 400,000 public sector workers from collective bargaining, collecting dues or striking. Demonstrators then gathered 1.29 million signatures to put Senate Bill 5 on the November 2011 ballot, where it went down to defeat. In Michigan Governor Rick Snyder rushed through Public Act 4, the Emergency Manager bill. More than 225,000 have signed a petition demanding that the law be submitted as a referendum issue on the 2012 ballot.

In all three cases demonstrations and rallies preceded the work on recall and referendum. Many saw the campaigns as a chance to fan out and talk to coworkers, relatives and neighbors about the vicious legislation. They were determined to refute the myth that they were lazy and inefficient workers.

Workers and Occupy Fight Back

Summer and early fall 2011 saw a number of other workers organizing strategic campaigns to win decent contracts in the face of the employers’ demands for more givebacks. First, Verizon workers set up mobile pickets that followed managers functioning as scabs and organized noisy picket lines at wireless stores, turning customers and suppliers away. Although the two-week strike was cut short, the company accumulated a backlog of 100,000 orders.

The most dramatic case was the longshore workers in Longview, Washington. Last summer they began protesting the opening of a state-of-the-art grain terminal whose managers refused to negotiate a contract with the union. By early September they escalated their tactics and massed on the railroad tracks to physically block trains, opening the hoppers and dumping out the grain. The next day ports in nearby Tacoma and Seattle were shut down by wildcats as the longshore workers headed to Longview, where they invaded the terminal. Of course they were met by police, who arrested hundreds, but neither the arrests nor a temporary restraining order banning picketing that blocked the trains convinced the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to back down.

The Capitalist State

OUR SOCIALIST VISION for changing society begins from the notion that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” That argument, advanced by Marx and Engels long ago in The Communist Manifesto, resonates with the language of today’s militant activists: “We are the 99%,” and “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.”

Whatever political label one attaches to these ideas, they reflect the shared conclusion that the overwhelming majority has an interest and a need to deepen democracy. In our view, deepening democracy is about much more than changing the personnel who run the government or reining in corporate influence through political spending.

Ultimately, deepening democracy requires challenging the underlying foundation of corporate power — the private ownership of productive resources. Let’s be blunt: capitalism gives corporate CEOs and investment bankers’ dictatorial powers over the fate of our government, our workplaces, and our communities. No matter how much of our sweat and blood went into producing it, they own the capital, and they make the decisions about what to do with it.

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Yet it was the Occupy movement — initiated by a handful in a small park near Wall Street — that captured mainstream media with its message of “We are the 99%.” The movement has now successfully defended people’s homes against eviction, marched and rallied in defense of city services, called for the cancellation of a trillion dollars’ worth of student debt and supported workers’ struggles ranging from the locked-out Sotheby workers in New York City to the Longview struggle.

To be sure, there have been tensions in the alliances that formed between Occupiers and the unions, and of course the resistance itself is uneven. Anti-immigrant, anti-women’s reproductive rights and anti-union legislation such as Indiana’s right-to-work-for-less bill continue to be passed. Politicians continue to rant against the rights and dignity of poor people, working people, gays and lesbians, immigrants and women. Employers continue their aggressive tactics, including locking out workers. Unions have continued to sell the need for concessions to their members, and members have reluctantly gone along.

Resistance has not stopped the attack. Yet the new-found energy is amazing. We are beginning to fight and realize that turning around a country based on inequality and injustice is not an easy task. It’s too easy to believe we aren’t having much of an impact. Two months before the scheduled G8 meeting in Chicago, President Obama announced the meeting would be transferred to Camp David. That is a direct result of the movement’s plans to be in Chicago.

Occupy the Ballot? What Are the Options?

FOUR YEARS AGO, tens of millions of people of all races and nationalities were delighted to vote for Barack Obama for president. They knew it would be an historic blow against racist ideology for an African American to be elected to the presidency.

Many also believed that Obama’s calls for “hope and change” meant that he would rally the American people for reforms such as a higher minimum wage, more rights for workers, a jobs program, the development of renewable energy, a prompt end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the closure of Guantanamo, and an end to the brutal raids and deportations of immigrants. In the end, none of this happened.

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As a movement of resistance to austerity, social justice activists have a better sense of who are our allies and who opposes us. We have begun to discuss a range of collective tactics and decide which to use on various occasions. We have shown creativity in our signs and democracy in our decision-making. So we are further than we were a year ago because we have rejected the politicians’ rhetoric of divide and rule, because we have built a broad unity and because we realize that the way to be taken seriously is to disrupt business as usual. As a sign in Wisconsin summarized it, “Walk like an Egyptian.”


  1. “Obama to Unions: I Back You, But You Must ‘Sacrifice’” Tom Shoop. FedBlog. August 16, 2011. Retrieved March 4, 2012 from
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  2. Labor Notes ( writers have chronicled myriad attacks on unions by Democrat Governors and Mayors. In some cases, it is hard to distinguish the Democratic from the Republican approaches, except perhaps rhetorically. See, for example, Howard Ryan. “Democrats Join the Raid On Union Bargaining Rights.” Labor Notes online. May 23, 2011. Retrieved March 8, 2012 from
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  3. Warren Davis. “Labor Overlooks Bipartisan Attack on Federal Workers.” Labor Notes blog. March 6, 2012. Retrieved March 11, 2012 from
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  4. Oliff, Phil and Michael Leachman. “New Year Brings Steep Cuts in State Funding for Schools.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, October 2011. Retrieved March 20, 2012 from
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  5. Howard Ryan. “Chicago Occupation Challenges Corporate School Agenda.” Labor Notes online. February 22, 2012. Retrieved March 11 from; Howard Ryan. “Building a Coalition from the Grassroots.” September 16, 2011. Labor Notes online. Retrieved March 11, 2012 from; Noah Lippe-Klein and Sheerlett Hendy. “L.A. Teachers Use Privatization Fight to Build Community Power.” March 11, 2011. Labor Notes online. Retrieved March 11, 2012 from; Joe Berry and Helena Worthen. “Getting Members Involved in Occupy’s Next Phase.” Labor Notes online. February 29, 2012. Retrieved March 11, 2012 from; Jane Slaughter. “Michigan Unions Look to Amend Constitution to Block Anti-Labor Laws.” Labor Notes online. February 20, 2012. Retrieved March 11, 2012 from
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