Welfare: Reclaim the Word

by Johanna Brenner

November 2, 2011

A picture in the New York Times of a family sleep-over night at Occupy Wall Street has got me going. A white family—mom, dad, three little kids—had driven in from Exeter, PA to join the protest. In the picture they had two signs. One, partially hidden, seems to be saying something negative about corporate personhood and money in politics. The other, fully visible, says, ”My momma ain’t on welfare but your bank is.” So what’s wrong with this picture? And what can the Occupy Together movements do about it?


Source: New York Times, October 26, 2011

Activists for immigrant rights have rejected the word “illegal” and educated activists in other movements about why they need to stop using “illegal” to refer to people without papers. We need to do the same work around “welfare.” Welfare is not a dirty word. Welfare is about faring well, about being well, and about our collective responsibility to care for and about everyone. Years of racist and sexist attacks on “welfare queens” and talk about the “culture of poverty” where poor people supposedly choose not to work because they can get welfare, live off of “our” taxes and be dependent instead of independent and “self-sufficient”, have completely extinguished the original meaning of welfare. This is not so surprising, because the United States was founded on the distinction between the “free” man and the “slave” where the slave is dependent on the master but the free man survives (sometimes!) by his own work. “Independence” is also of course coded masculine; dependent men are unmanly and not worthy of our respect. Like any powerful ideology, this fear of dependence and glorification of “self-sufficiency” reflects the material realities of capitalism, and especially the terrible things that happen to people who can’t survive by the “sweat of their brow.”

The couple who drove a long way to bring their kids to Occupy Wall Street are to be respected and appreciated. I am not talking about shaming or blaming anyone. But I think it would be good for the Occupy Movement to do some workshops on the history of welfare and why we should be FOR welfare and for more of it, not against it. We could encourage people to think about how in its essence–however crappy, however demeaning and however controlling of single mothers–the welfare system at least recognized that caring for children is an important contribution to society and one that we, as a collective, should support. In fact, once you think about it, it is pretty obvious that no one is “self-sufficient.” Over our lifetimes, not only as kids but also as adults, sometimes as disabled people, sometimes as aging people, sometimes because we are ill, at some time or another we almost all need to be cared for by others. Dependence is part of the human condition. And we could remind ourselves that men depend on women’s often hidden work of care—-whether it is in the family, the workplace, in the neighborhood and community—-propping up egos, maintaining social relationships, managing conflict, and healing hurt feelings.

We should discuss the vicious assumptions that are often made in distinguishing between “deserving” and “undeserving” people. I wonder why their sign said “my momma ain’t”—-could it be an unconscious identification of Black women with “welfare”?—-it’s rather ambiguous but something is going on there. What is clear is that the mother who doesn’t take welfare is good and the bank who does take it is bad. The problem isn’t that the bank is on welfare. The problem is that the bank is a predator sucking up the wealth we produce and doing so with the consent of the government.

The whole “I played by the rules and I got screwed” discourse also needs to be questioned. It expresses the sense of injustice felt by white, middle-class and stable working-class people who have, until recently, done okay financially. And that sense of injustice is bringing them into the movement. But let’s unpack that sense of injustice and take a good hard look at the assumptions from which it flows. I liked a sign I saw in one of the occupy marches that said “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” The rules are stacked against people and the sooner we move away from believing in the rules and living by the rules of the competitive capitalist game, the better off we will all be.

More Observations from Occupy Wall St.

by Stephanie Luce

October 7, 2011

Picking up where we left off?

It was a strange feeling to be in Zuccotti Park (once called Liberty Plaza Park), right next to Ground Zero. I was with thousands of people listening to speeches through the “people’s microphone.” The crowd looked so similar to those of the late 1990s/early 2000s “anti-globalization” movement – and we used that method for communicating then too. Things had gone poorly in April 2000, when most of the big unions decided to lobby at the Capitol against Permanent Normal Trade Relation (PNTR) status for China, while on the other end of the mall thousands of young people were blocking streets attempting to stop the IMF and World Bank meeting. Despite some common ground built in Seattle, we were a ways off from a real alliance between the labor movement and the other burgeoning environmental, student, anti-imperialist movements.

It seemed like things were beginning to change, however. In the summer of 2001 the AFL-CIO put someone on staff for several months to build labor participation for the coming IMF/World Bank meetings to take place that fall. People were mobilizing around the country, and the world, to build a common movement against neoliberalism and “structural adjustment.” The weekend of September 6-9, 2001, over 1000 labor and community activists convened in Cleveland for the Jobs with Justice conference. Spirits were high, and there was a real sense that the world was about to change.

Little did we know how it would change. Only two days later were the 9/11 attacks. And suddenly the movement we had been building collapsed.

It has taken ten years, but the scene at Occupy Wall Street (OWS) seems to suggest we’ve rebuilt what we had been building then. OWS was started by a group of mostly young people, seemingly unfocused, seemingly mostly white, seemingly not very strategic. But whatever they were they created a space that was flexible enough to allow others in. That hasn’t happened smoothly in all cases, and certainly is not yet enough, but anyone who goes to Zuccotti Park seems to feel the same thing. A sense of exhilaration at the audacity, the feeling of freedom and possibility.

TWU Local 100 was the first union to endorse Occupy Wall Street. Individual members had already been participating in events at Zuccotti Park, but the unions were absent. Local 100 took a bold move to come out early in support of a movement that was still hardly covered by the media, and mostly denounced as a fringe circus. Once Local 100 endorsed, the flood gates opened and unions and community groups jumped on board. Many have endorsed a large community/labor march in New York. Others not based in New York have expressed general support for the Occupation (such as the Steelworkers).

Quickly the Beyond May12 coalition helped pull together a labor/community march in support of the Occupation, and with less than a week’s notice, got most of the city’s largest unions on board, and pulled off one of the largest marches we’ve seen in the city for some time.



Photo: Mat McDermott

Where did this come from?

Some writers have suggested that OWS sprang from nowhere, completely spontaneously. That is somewhat true, but misleading. As I said, the movement is in some ways picking up from where we left off before 9/11. But in other ways, this is just one moment in a series of fightbacks that has been going on for awhile, particularly since the economic recession hit. You wouldn’t know it from mainstream media sources, but there have been an incredible number of protests over the past few years, involving large numbers of people. Of course there was Wisconsin, but there have also been large scale strikes (e.g., Verizon, nurses, longshore), hunger strikes and prison organizing (e.g. Pelican Bay, Georgia), environmental justice protests (e.g Tar Sands), foreclosure fightbacks, bank protests (New Bottom Line), economic justice rallies (One Nation), immigrant rights campaigns (the DREAM Act) the US Social Forum, which had 15,000 people plus numerous large scale marches, and more.

Then there are the international protests – the Arab Spring, Greece, Portugal, Spain, China, London, South Africa, Benin, Brazil, and more. While the US is often US-focused there is no doubt that protests elsewhere have inspired and motivated many here. The idea that resistance is possible, and that fightbacks can win, helps put more people into motion.

As social movement scholars show, we don’t know which of these protests will be the one to spark a larger movement. We try and try, and lose a lot, until one time it sticks. Occupy Wall Street is clearly building off the momentum of resistance seen around the country and world over the last few years, and tapping into the memory of where we were ten years ago.



Photo: Mat McDermott

We are all Troy Davis; We are all Sean Bell

Occupy Wall Street started out small and got little attention. It is possible it would have fizzled out as people went home. But four days into the occupation, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia. This provoked outrage across the country, including among many at OWS, who joined in with others out to protest the execution. This brought new energy, as many people were feeling outraged and disempowered by a racist legal system.

The connection was strong in New York, where protestors have long pushed around by the police. Anyone who has been to a march in this city knows that at least since 9/11, but perhaps since Seattle, the NYPD has used aggressive tactics to keep control over protests. Barricades are used to channel people into narrow spaces, separating marchers from supporters, and often breaking marches into pieces. I’ve been in that situation a lot. In 2002 we were protesting the World Economic Forum meeting in New York. The police continuously stepped into the line of the march with barricades, breaking us into pieces, and pushing us around. At one point they barricaded us from both ends of a block and began pushing. I was in the front, and suddenly a line of NYPD were shoving barricades into my stomach. When I tried to attend the massive anti-war protest on the eve of the Iraq War, I and thousands of others never made it to the actual march because police would not let us enter the street where the march took place. They had cordoned off major parts of the city, giving protestors confusing and sometimes incorrect information about how to enter.

These tactics are alienating and disempowering, and seem a complete violation of our Constitutional rights, but of course are nothing in comparison to the daily harassment of people of color in this city. That ranges from the infamous “stop and frisk” to violent arrests and sometimes death. There are already groups fighting police brutality in New York, and in the early days of OWS and after Troy Davis was executed, some OWS protestors marched through streets chanting, “We are all Sean Bell, NYPD go to hell.” Saturday, September 24, the forces merged in a spontaneous march, and this is when the NYPD took action, beating and arresting people. When the news broke about the police attacks on peaceful protestors, a lot more people started paying attention to OWS. A large spark that moved the OWS from a small protest-as-usual into this larger phenomenon was this intersection. The Troy Davis execution made clear to many of us just how powerless we are.

But what are the demands?

Many on the left have expressed frustration at the lack of concrete demands coming out of OWS. This surprises me a bit, because it is one of the things I find so liberating. Often, when we make demands in our struggles they immediately limit us to the short-term and winnable. Our demands certainly tend toward the least common-denominator and the pragmatic. I understand why that is the case: it builds a broader base and it puts in place something we might win. But it limits us.

Some people point out that the uprising in Egypt started with a concrete demand. That is true. But the demand that “Mubarak must go” is so much less than the demand “Change the system.” I’m not suggesting that “Mubarak must go” was the wrong demand for the time and place, and the victory of this was incredible. But here we have a moment to dream big.

Even in Wisconsin, much of the demand got framed as “reasonable.” We’ll agree to your concessions if you let us maintain collective bargaining. This “message” polled well, but again, it limited our imagination.

The effects of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and imperialism go wide and deep. They interfere with just about every aspect of our lives: the way we work, the way the economy runs, how families are structured, citizenship and rights, police brutality, environmental destruction, the human life span, what we eat. Occupy Wall Street has left open a space for us all to feel we are a part of the movement. If the demands were already set many of us might feel outside – that there wasn’t a place for us, that we couldn’t dream about our issue, that we had to stay “on message.” Our fightbacks are so often balkanized and diffuse. Occupy Wall Street feels exciting in part because it doesn’t force us to choose, to prioritize. We have a few weeks when we don’t have to reduce our dreams to a slogan on a flyer. Where else do we get to chant “We are all Sean Bell,” “Tax the rich,” “End foreclosure,” “Democracy now!” and “We got sold out, Banks got bailed out” all in the same afternoon?



Photo: Timothy Krause

In the meantime, we push the organizations we belong to clarify and step up their demands. Just about all of them tie into the spirit of OWS, and there is no reason why we can’t continue to push in those arenas where we all work on a regular basis. OWS allows us to be more bold and militant in our demands that we are already working on, whether that is student loan forgiveness, a millionaire’s tax, single payer health care, ending the wars, ending the death penality, expanding immigrant rights and protecting the rights of workers to organize.

True: we don’t have real forces pushing for greater change: public ownership and democratic accountability of the Federal Reserve; federal jobs programs to hire more teachers and health care workers; repeal of NAFTA and other trade agreements; and serious reforms to the political system. We need those. Hopefully Occupy Wall Street will finally create some political space to grow the organizations required to build the real alternatives.

The Next Phase in Wisconsin: Veering Away From the Democrats

The recent social upheaval in Wisconsin, where during the last month hundreds of thousands of workers, students, retirees, and people without a job descended on the Capitol building in Madison to protest Governor Scott Walker’s overt union-busting legislation, has for many progressives been one of the most exciting moments in recent United States history. A breathtaking display of solidarity was demonstrated by individuals from a variety of backgrounds – in addition to the public sector union members defending their rights, countless firefighters, police officers, veterans, and private sector workers who are unaffected by the bill were active participants – and the whole experience seemed to provide a glimpse of the awesome potential of collective action as a way to address the problems we face. The courage exhibited by ordinary people, from the high school students walking out of class and their teachers “sicking-out” of work to the Democratic state senators fleeing the state to prevent a vote on the bill, has been contagious, leading thousands more to mobilize in opposition to similar attacks on the working-class in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee and elsewhere.

With the dust now settling on the steps of the Capitol and the impressive wave of militant protest naturally waning, it seems necessary to consider what the experience in Wisconsin has taught us thus far and how we might try to sustain and expand upon the energy witnessed there. To begin with, as important as it was, the Capitol building sit-in wasn’t going to continue forever and the Democratic politicians were going to return to the state at some point; regardless of how this specific standoff was resolved, ‘normalcy’ was bound to resume in Madison, albeit with at least a momentarily more politicized electorate. Consequently, one clear lesson from the past month is that even the most robust demonstrations will often be insufficient to overcome the ideological and financial forces propelling the right-wing assault on working-class people and that absent dedicated organizing geared towards building on the energy that sparks such mobilizations they can’t achieve all that much in the long-run. The widespread exuberance around the alleged imminence of a general strike – notwithstanding the simple fact that the statewide labor movement had neither the infrastructure nor, at the leadership level, the will to execute such a move – sheds light on the pervasiveness of this impulse within progressive circles.

However, while on the one hand Wisconsin may have demonstrated that large crowds and jarring speeches may on their own be unable to withstand such vicious aggression from the right, on the other it highlighted the vital role that the labor movement, the source of those crowds and speeches, must play in offering the progressive response that working-class people are seeking. That there is a hunger for a political vision providing an alternative to the bi-partisan austerity programs being imposed all across the country seems obvious from the visible displays of anger in Madison and other state capitols and the public opinion polls that have exposed substantial popular opposition to these draconian measures. Add to this the reality that, even if from only a logistical perspective, nothing other than the labor movement has the capacity to mobilize so many people in such an efficient manner and it is abundantly clear that trade unions must provide the backbone for any significant challenge to this coordinated national attack from the right. Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson from Wisconsin is the urgency of mounting such a challenge, for if we fail to do so not only does it appear that we’ll soon be left with virtually no public sector whatsoever, but also the very mechanism by which we won most of it in the the first place – the labor movement – may not exist much longer either.

Essential as a progressive fight-back is, if only for the labor movement’s survival, there will certainly be disagreement over how the response is conducted. While the union-busting bills currently making their way through state legislatures are particularly heinous, it is important to remember that they emerged in the context of more than three decades of retreat by the labor movement and the broader left, and thus simply returning to the status quo ante-November 2010, far from being a victory, would be a final surrender. Consequently, determining how to effectively respond to this most recent assault requires assessing what exactly we’ve done wrong for the past three decades, and while analyzing the failures of the US left during the latter part of the twentieth century requires volumes, it seems that a fundamental feature of our defeats have been the extent to which we’ve allowed the other side to define in the public imagination the boundary of the possible, to control the terms of debate.

Unable to offer a bold vision for what our society should look like, both because of our own weaknesses and the intensity with which capital has attacked whatever we’re still holding on to, we’ve been confined to defensive struggles, always reacting to something and never initiating anything. And though one explanation for this is our tremendous anxiety to do anything that could have negative electoral implications for the Democrats – the vitriol launched at Ralph Nader in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election being a noteworthy example – it is important to remember that the neoliberal regime that has put us on the defensive is thoroughly bi-partisan. Bill Clinton’s pursuit of NAFTA and “welfare reform” should serve as painful reminders of that reality.

Understanding the context in which these union-busting laws have surfaced, it should be unsurprising that the most recent phase of the fight-back in Wisconsin, guided as it is by the Democratic Party and statewide union bureaucracies, is charting the familiar course of electoral and legal avenues to overturn the law and will likely be content if that desired outcome is achieved. This approach is significant and will yield tangible gains; the courts have temporarily stalled the legislation and the recall effort seems poised to unseat a few vulnerable Republican legislators which could ultimately lead to a repeal of the bill. These would be concrete victories that for hundreds of thousands of people from the Midwest and beyond would serve as lasting reminders of the power of collective action.

However, important as these achievements will be, on its own the electoral-legal strategy will at best take us back to where we started: state budgets being slashed as teachers, nurses, sanitation workers and countless others either lose their jobs or are forced to relinquish the hard earned wages and benefits on which they’ve depended while we all suffer the repercussions of deteriorating schools, hospitals, and basic social infrastructure. And while almost anyone seems preferable to Scott Walker and the entire Wisconsin GOP at the moment, again let us not forget that for the last thirty years, in that state and across the country, the Democrats have embraced the neoliberal order that has decimated public institutions and organized labor just as fervently as the Republicans, and often in more dangerously inconspicuous ways.

Resorting to business as usual with the Democrats, it seems, will squander what could otherwise be a the beginnings of an effort to build a dynamic class-based social movement aimed at basic concerns like the right to a high-quality job, education, healthcare, housing and, even more fundamentally, how wealth is distributed across our society. Building such a movement is a difficult, long-term project which requires disciplined organizing and carries no guarantee of success. Over time it will likely demand the formation of an independent national organization that can articulate a view of the world and develop a political platform that resonates with the vast majority of people who have to worry about how to make ends meet. In the meantime, however, the situation in Wisconsin, for the first time in what seems like an eternity, can allow activists to experiment with starting that process.

The extended duration of the recall campaigns provide the opportunity for rank-and-file union and community members to build some form of independent organization and to develop a platform to which aspiring candidates for elected office should be expected to subscribe. And though a general strike may not be the most practical or strategically viable course at the moment, activists inside unions can continue to build towards other job actions, both large and small, through daily conversations with their co-workers. This kind of organizing would surely influence union leaderships reluctant to pressure or veer away from the Democrats, and given the extent to which the latter is depending on support from organized labor in the upcoming elections it could inflect the content of their entire recall campaign.

The seeds for such an approach seem to exist already, among militants inside Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI) who orchestrated the impressive ‘sick-outs’, the graduate teaching assistants from Madison and Milwaukee who were among the many refusing to leave the Capitol building, the newly formed Wisconsin Wave, the ‘No Concessions’ coalition spearheaded by the National Nurses United (NNU), or in the many other union locals and community organizations across the state that have been so instrumental in creating this moment. The challenge for organizers moving forward is to connect the leaders involved in these organizations and to harness the explosive energy flowing out of them. Difficult as that may be, it hasn’t been this possible in quite some time.