What started out as 150 activists occupying the privately owned Zuccotti park in Wall Street in mid-September has turned into the permanent occupation of the renamed “Liberty Plaza”. The occupation’s main slogan, “We are the 99 percent”, has caught the imagination of people around the globe.
On 15 October the demonstration in Times Square in New York swelled to over 100,000. The protests have drawn inspiration from the revolutions across the Arab world – in particular, the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt which helped to bring down the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
The “Occupy” protests have hit a chord with a wide layer of people, including unemployed young people (now at 18.4 percent in the US) and workers. Crucially, the demonstrations on 15 October were backed by the largest trade union federation, the AFL-CIO. Large numbers of workers were represented on them.
The president of the Transport Workers Union, James C Little, endorsed the “Occupy” demonstrations. Before setting off on the march he said, “Occupy Wall Street is a genuine grassroots movement, and our members are proud to stand side by side with Americans who are fighting for economic and social justice. It’s time to hold those responsible for the financial crisis responsible for their actions.” The Occupy Wall Street protest may be the beginning of the long awaited fightback in the US.
Three years into the economic crisis, the absence of a serious left alternative in the US has seemed stark. It is important to recall, however, that during the Great Depression it took four years of crisis, from 1929 to 1933, for a mass fightback to develop. In the end there were incredible acts of resistance, from the victorious Teamsters rebellion in Minneapolis in 1933-34, to the Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco. In 1934 alone, more than 1.5 million workers took part in over 2,000 strikes. Today’s “Occupy” movement hasn’t reached the level of those struggles – but it is a big step forward.
For many, the 2008 election of Obama brought with it the hope for progressive change. However, the reality has been a bitter pill to swallow. The deepening crisis has meant rocketing unemployment, inflation and the failure of “Obama-care” to create a free health service. The most recent austerity “compromise” which Obama supported this summer, will mean deep cuts to Medicare and pensions over the next ten years. The rise of the right wing Tea Party movement, and the Republicans’ sweeping victory in last year’s mid-term elections, made the weakness of the left all the more worrisome.
However, the brilliant three-week long occupation of Wisconsin’s Capitol building in March this year by public sector workers and activists showed the huge potential of the organised working class in the US.
Workers were protesting against Republican Senator Scott Walker’s attack on healthcare, pensions and collective bargaining rights. The demonstrations in Wisconsin caught the mood of people across the US, spreading from Indiana to Oklahoma. The “Occupy” demonstrations have shown that the explosive anger seen in Wisconsin has a wider resonance.
While much of the mainstream media have reported Occupy Wall Street as directionless, in reality their target has been very clear. There is constant reference to the bailing out of greedy bankers and the selling out of ordinary people. There have been a wide range of demands on placards including for national healthcare and the end of the war in Afghanistan.
The labour outreach group at Occupy Wall Street has focused on building solidarity between the occupation and workplaces in dispute.
There can be no question that Occupy Wall Street is an important part of the developing resistance to the global financial crisis. The determining factor for its survival as a social movement will be if it continues to extend out to and work together with the broadest layers of the working class. This group of people makes up the majority of the 99 percent in the US. Through collective, industrial action the worker class have the power to bring the 1 percent tumbling to its knees.