Editor’s Note: Barbara G. Ellis is a member of Occupy Portland’s Labor Solidarity Committee.
A lot of us Occupiers everywhere smiled or cheered at the successful impact the movement’s overarching goal – more economic, social and political equality between the 1 percent and 99 percent – appeared to have on President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address. His alarmed speechwriters were astute enough about his faltering re-election chances in November to recognize that the “end corporate power” battle cry has galvanized the growth of Occupy groups by the thousands in cities and even smaller communities.
Obama’s writers knew the movement stemmed from the 99 percent of Americans outraged that Congress, the US Supreme Court and he were all deaf to their basic needs as the Great Recession threatens to turn into the Great Depression II.
Obviously, CPR, sincere or otherwise, was required to resuscitate those of the 99 percent who might not vote in November’s federal elections. So, out of the address’s 7,053 predictable, largely empty words, the speechwriters devoted nearly 18 percent (1,194 words) to issues relating to the goal first enunciated last September by hundreds in the original Occupy Wall Street protest group: Make significant economic and other changes to benefit the 99 percent. Since then, proliferating Occupy groups by the thousands have instituted hard-working, imaginative committees reporting to regular general assembly meetings for input and voting on everything from prosecuting banksters and ending US imperialism to addressing homelessness, single-payer health care, environmental issues and persisting unemployment.
Aided by a coordinated nationwide Internet system such as InterOccupy Info with its call-in meetings, Occupiers pass along ideas, events, strategies and tactics gleaned from fellow Occupiers. They are producing everything from “people’s” budgets for cities and towns geared to the have-nots, lobbying for moratoriums to stave off evictions from foreclosed houses and strategy for getting legislatures to start single-payer health care systems and state banks. Several have staged rallies/marches supporting unions, including postal workers, city maintenance crews, teachers and longshoremen. May Day celebrations are being coordinated nationally and may be the largest in American history. No matter how brutal some police departments have been to nonviolent Occupiers, some cops may know well that they, too, are part of the 99 percent and subject to downsizings and pension cuts. They will need Occupy support in negotiation standoffs with municipalities.
Once most Occupiers moved from camps to indoor sites, the movement’s growing power was not lost on those in state capitols, the Obama administration or Congress. On October 6, Occupiers setting up downtown campouts were supported by demonstrations and marches of hundreds of thousands finally venting pent-up rage about “corporate greed vs. people’s needs.” Cities such as Portland, Oregon, drew at least 10,000 to the streets. And when its Occupy campers were evicted nearly 40 nights later, more than 5,000 turned out to protest. The movement was part of a change in global consciousness with Occupy movements arising almost instantaneously in Canada, Britain, Europe, Russia, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Thousands of Occupiers were among the 13 million lobbying via personal emails or petitions to convince a frightened Congress in January not to pass a pair of bills that would have censored Internet content. The “net” is a primary communication system of Occupy.
Occupy’s earliest actions against corporate monoliths have been aimed at carefully chosen targets. First came its “Bank Transfer Day” in November, building on 2010’s Move-Your-Money campaign to convince ordinary depositors to shift funds from too-big-to-fail banks to credit unions/local banks to keep money within a locality or state. By February, 5.6 million people had switched, 610,000 of them crediting Occupy’s clarion call to fight the giant banksters. The momentum now includes large institutional accounts – cities, universities, churches. According to one report in early February:
“San Jose, Calif. Moved $1 billion from Bank of America; just this week, Berkeley announced a desire to move its reserves from Wells Fargo to local credit unions; and proposals are under consideration in Portland, Los Angeles and New York City.”
Occupy Shuts Down West Coast Ports
Occupy’s second show of power against the 1 percent on November 2 was to block global shipping out of America’s major ports, especially those on the West Coast. Some 10,000 Occupiers shut down Oakland’s port and also demonstrated support for longshoremen and self-employed dock truckers. Building on that success, a month later, West Coast Occupiers shut down key ports such as San Diego, Oakland and Portland and disrupted operations at seven more. Though International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) officials “refrained from embracing” the shutdown, encouragement came from thousands of Occupiers and rank-and-file union members on all coasts.
Significant Occupy efforts in the Pacific Northwest may be at least partly responsible for blocking the giant global grain conglomerate EGT from union-busting, specifically ILWU. Once its $200 million elevator terminal was built in the Longview (Washington) port complex, EGT refused to renew a jurisdictional contract held for nearly 80 years by ILWU Local 21. Up went the picket line last July. By September, they and other Locals fought vainly to block trains from delivering grain to the new terminal. Arrests and a $315,000 fine for Local 21 followed. National AFL-CIO officials regarded it as a “jurisdictional dispute,” and ILWU’s national president sent a stern warning to the Local about the Taft-Hartley laws’ narrow rules on picketing. So by December, the Local was willing to accept help from the Portland and other major Occupy groups, a variety of union locals and a half-dozen activist organizations to fly the banner of “Occupy the EGT.” They arrived at Longview by the hundreds with picket signs and chants excoriating EGT, union-busting and corporate greed.
EGT was startled, but stubbornly refused to fire its standby scabs, or negotiate with Local 21. But in early January, they got wind of Occupy Portland’s plans to revisit Longview with thousands of regional Occupiers and other West Coast unions when EGT’s first freighter arrived to load grain. Longview police, EGT, and others feared “mayhem,” the Longview Daily News reported, despite Occupy’s emphasis on nonviolence.
They also feared Occupiers would launch an extremely photogenic protest fleet (sail and motor boats, kayaks, canoes) to block cargo freighter traffic to and from the Columbia River to Longview. At least one of the 16 river pilots fretted about the possibility of sailing into “mass protests” on the water. The county “activated the Incident Command Response” used for large events or emergencies,” the Longview Daily News reported. That system involves mutual aid from area law-enforcement agencies.
EGT officials, now concerned about their public image as union-busters and an ILWU national boycott of its cargos at US ports, spent thousands of dollars on full-page, four-color ads in Portland’s major daily newspaper touting the company’s beneficent economic role. The prospect of EGT causing even more adverse publicity for the state’s business and tourist industries brought Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire into the picture to convince EGT to start collective bargaining talks with Local 21 – at least on the fines and jailings following the September protests.
By early February, EGT finally surrendered to contract negotiations and, on February 7, the conglomerate’s first freighter “escorted by Coast Guard cutters and police boats” arrived at its Berth 9 for Local 21 members to dock and load 57,000 tons of Washington wheat sold to South Korea.
But in the weeks before that deal was struck, in an ominous development for all unions – and EGT’s obvious fears about an Occupy flotilla – Obama’s Homeland Security agency ordered the US Coast Guard to play strikebreaker by readying armed vessels and helicopters to escort freighters to and from the EGT dock. Calling on the military to quash a labor dispute earned Obama thousands of emails from union and the Occupy movement, including the furious ILWU national president. A Wisconsin Labor Council president demanded Obama “… order the Coast Guard to stand down.” The strike may have been settled, but even if the escort was reduced to a pair of cutters and a police boat, the administration showed its hand to unions.
Prospects of “No Votes” for Obama Prompts Near-99 Percent Quote
Obama’s no-vote prospect in November from unionists and the rest of the 99 percent seems to have galvanized his handlers and speechwriters to surrender to Occupy’s chief goal of ending corporate rule of the United States. In the soaring rhetoric they provided to Obama, they apparently wanted to mention Occupy’s rallying cry for the “99 percent,” but settled for “98 percent of “American families”:
We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules….
Let’s never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same. It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: no bailouts, no handouts and no copouts…. I will not go back to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules.
Unfortunately for Obama, however, Occupiers, unionists and a large share of the 99 percent are unlikely to forget that he somehow never could find time to show up at last winter’s massive Wisconsin demonstrations, despite his campaign vow of November 2007:
“If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.”
Because Obama deliberately failed to turn up at Wisconsin’s lengthy demonstrations for organized labor and in other states where governors and legislatures are attempting to break unions, his hypocrisy about finding jobs for America’s nearly 15,000,000 unemployed should come as no surprise. Appointing two blue-ribbon committees of corporate leaders didn’t do it. And his State-of-the-Union vow to use the executive order to do it is likely to do little either. The law he signed in November to help the hundreds of thousands of veterans find jobs – like those for nonveterans – are dependent on tax credits to big business for hiring a few thousand workers they may not need, given the increased productivity now demanded of their present personnel. For veterans, there was the sop of job training and counseling, both an avenue of keeping them off the labor market. On the same day as Obama’s speech, the Economic Policy Institute was reporting that 4,000,000 jobs would have had to have been added after the 2008-2009 loss of 10,000,000 “just to keep up with the normal growth in the working-age population.”
Despite including Christmas hirings and part-time jobs, the US Labor Department’s January employment report said the jobless rate had fallen from 8.5 percent to 8.3 percent. However, the Department’s use of a “new adjusted numbers” system set off some economists’ questions about that rate. One financial editor pulled no punches:
Another 1.2 million people dropped out the workforce, which means that Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) economists can say that unemployment has moved down to 8.3 percent without that messy job-creation thing getting in the way. That’s been such a bummer for Obama. But now he doesn’t have to worry about his programs actually doing anything, since the invention of the new government BLS math …. makes job creation obsolete. That’s just perfect for the Democrats…. The web site ZeroHedge suggests that if you add back in the 5 million people who have permanently dropped out the labor force, as reflected in the historical average-workforce participations rates, the “implied” unemployment rate is 11.5 percent and rising, not falling.
Obama’s “Do-Nothing” Job-Creation Teams, Bribes for Businesses
Obama has tried the “look-good” approach, appointing do-nothing blue-ribbon committees of corporate leaders: The 2009 White House Jobs Summit and a few months later, the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Or, worried about thousands of jobless returning veterans, the administration got a super-cooperative Congress last November to unanimously pass that bill of more tax-credit bribes for businesses. Humor columnist Dave Barry toted up Obama’s lip-service talk about job creation during 2011 and wrote:
In domestic news, President Obama returns from his Martha’s Vineyard getaway refreshed and ready to tackle the job he was elected to do: seek re-election. Focusing on unemployment, the president delivers a nationally televised address laying out his plan for creating jobs, which consists of traveling around the nation tirelessly delivering job-creation addresses until it’s time for another presidential getaway.
Keeping Occupy’s banking and other successes in mind, it would appear that its tough-minded labor committees are going to start the ball rolling toward pressuring Obama to issue an executive order restarting the Great Depression’s famous Works Progress Administration (WPA) program of 1935-42. The Portland (Oregon) Occupy’s Labor Solidarity Committee is taking the lead nationally to set up a mid-April meeting of the long-term unemployed in the area. The aim: To organize as a lobbying force for public works projects at both state and national levels. They’ll learn that seven months after Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) started the WPA, over 3.5 million people held public-works jobs ranging from infrastructure repair and construction of the Bonneville and Fort Peck Dams, plus malaria- and flood-control projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority. WPA workers repaired, built and staffed thousands of schools, hospitals and park systems – not to mention the famed WPA arts programs.
FDR strong-armed Congress into appropriating an initial $1.4 billion for this colossal program, using the carrot of instant economic benefits to their districts from those monthly $26-55 paychecks. The stick was the threat of a Communist-goaded revolution by the desperate and angry millions who were barely surviving. The seven years of WPA existence provided 25,200,000 jobs.
If it’s precedent Obama believes he needs for an executive order to restart a WPA, Roosevelt assuredly provided it. He might have been testing the executive order waters when he announced in the State of the Union address:
During the Great Depression, America built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge … Democratic and Republican administrations invested in great projects that benefited everybody, from the workers who built them to the businesses that still use them today. In the next few weeks, I will sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects. But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.
Interestingly, part of Obama’s executive order on jobs may be reserved for 20,000 returning military, a “Veterans Job Corps” with an estimated $1 billion price tag. They’ll be “rebuilding trails, roads and levees on public lands,” as well as “restoring habitat and eradicating invasive species, among other activities,” according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. If it sounds like a carbon-copy of the WPA’s companion program for young men, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), that’s because it is.
Dangers Seen in Habit of Contracts Limited to Private Industry
Now, Obama’s track record with bloated Department of Defense budgets differs little from former President George W. Bush. This program could be handed off, once again, to low-bid, high-priced private contractors such as Bechtel and Halliburton’s KBR that’ll argue – as their predecessors did unsuccessfully with FDR – that they are the only construction outfits capable of building mammoth infrastructure projects or undertaking massive land restoration (with costs to match). The billion-dollar invoice for Hoover’s privately constructed dam arrived during FDR’s first term and included an at-the-time eye-popping $250,000 bonus for the project’s supervisor. It convinced FDR not to use private contractors for WPA projects. He handed their supervision to the Corps of Engineers. Unless Occupiers insist that federal departments/agencies run a restarted WPA, it’s likely that contracts, once again, will all go to the same corporations that bilked US taxpayers out of billions in Iraq. It’ll be yet another triumph for corporate greed. The Corps of Engineers perhaps along with the US Navy’s Construction Battalion (the SeaBees) are fully capable of handling massive and complex projects at a fraction of the cost, on time and with quality work.
Obama’s executive order for the neo-CCC sets precedent for signing another executive order: restarting the WPA which would be of monumental benefits to the jobless among the 99 percent. Addressing the nation’s horrendous and growing unemployment crisis would be an ideal lobbying project for Occupy’s labor committees. The goal would be to push the president into finally doing something about the nation’s jobless – to say nothing about the $2.2 trillion needed to repair the nation’s rickety infrastructure. They could start with the current 1.1 million long-term jobless who’ve given up looking for work and no longer receive unemployment checks, especially those in their 40s and 50s. Many have committed suicide or are contemplating it. Many more are living on the streets or in shelters, including some dying of alcoholism and drug addiction.
Basically, the Occupy effort could be fairly simple: Round up as many long-term unemployed as possible in each community for a weekend training session on how to form a political group to lobby Obama to restart the WPA before he doles out any more billions of tax dollars to corporations for make-work jobs. And then let those groups take it from there, particularly emphasizing that this action would win him millions of votes from registered voters in all political parties among the 99 percent. It’s also possible that this nucleus could start a new party with clout to be reckoned with in each state.
That’s the way Minnesota’s powerful Democratic Farmer-Labor Party started in the early 1930s. Growing up in that state, I remember a family member telling me that the “F-L” was heavily dedicated to do something about the thousands of unemployed. It had spunky leaders among the jobless who did round-ups and on-the-job political training. They couldn’t afford radio announcements, the 1930s only mass-communications medium, to recruit the jobless. So, it was fliers on every doorstep and they were distributed or posted in places the jobless frequented, such as grocery stores, parks and churches. Then, as now, most unemployed were deeply depressed and tended to stay isolated at home. Thousands more lived in “hobo” camps. The frustrated headed for taverns, though, today, I note the jobless hang out in coffeehouses doing endless crossword puzzles, reading used newspapers or laptopping off free Wi-Fi to send off yet another batch of resumés. From what I’ve seen in my days in the movement, Occupiers are the nation’s masters in using electronic devices, blast lists, shoe leather and the good-old reliable flier to carry messages.
Occupiers everywhere have a golden opportunity to change this catastrophic jobless situation that corporate power has brought down on the 99 percent. They have the imagination, the energy and the time (because many are also unemployed) for this initial push to get the unemployed to realize what a powerful political force they could be in turning the economy around. Collectively, both Occupy and the prospects of a rising organization of the jobless could result in a mighty army to force Obama to walk his talk of last June during his speech to North Carolina workers. Unemployment was the nation’s “single most serious economic problem,” he said. And, then, in his usual theatrical earnestness, added:
“I won’t be satisfied until working families feel like they’re moving forward again, that they’re progressing again. That’s what drives me every day when I walk down to the Oval Office – you, your families, your jobs, your dreams and everything it takes to reach those dreams.”
Occupiers have proved their worth in helping organized labor not just in West Coast ports. Locals, such as Portland’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), have responded in kind by permitting our Labor Solidarity Committee to plan events within their halls. In view of current corporate-directed union busting’s power to dwindle union membership, farsighted labor leadership knows that welcoming the jobless to use labor facilities for political purposes will bring lifetime gratitude, loyalty and new members into organized labor’s ranks.
Roosevelt, in his first term, told activists clamoring for drastic economic changes for that era’s 99 percent: “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.” They did. Immediately. The result was not just the WPA and CCC, but programs such as Social Security in his New Deal. Obama started his first term mouthing FDR’s make-me-do-it to the millions who voted him into the White House for the same rescue vital to the American polity. But unlike his predecessor who paid close attention to the devastated 99 percent in the Great Depression, the timid Obama apparently needs a major shove to the wall to do the same.
The Occupy movement and an army of the unemployed seem fully capable of providing that shove after the primaries when Obama’s “election anxiety” begins to rise – to say nothing of creating popular power greater than anything the corporate world has ever encountered. Indeed, perhaps the only “hope and change” possible for the 99 percent during any Obama presidency must come from them.
McEllrath, Robert. (3 January 2012). “Letter to All Longshore, Clerk and Walking Boss/Foreman Locals.”