Rules of Engagement for Non-Profits and Unions Working with the #Occupy Movement

There has been a great deal of interest by progressive unions, labor federations, community-labor coalitions, and non-profits of many kinds in the rise of the Occupy movement. A lot of this interest is positive, and represents the leadership of existing progressive organizations understanding the importance of expanding their efforts at this particular moment in history – and reaching out to the new movement in the best spirit of mutual aid and solidarity.

Some of this interest, however, is less positive. I won't speculate overmuch in this editorial about why organizations that claim to share the values of the new movement might engage in questionable behavior towards it. Suffice to say, some organizations have what could best be described as “turf issues” with the occupiers – which has unfortunately been the case here in Boston at times.

It is ever thus when representatives of an old order come face to face with a potential new order – in progressive politics as in every sphere of human activity. And a certain amount of friction between these forces, as I've written previously, is healthy. Especially if non-profit and union leadership heeds the admonition I wrote to media producers, intellectuals and professionals in an editorial at the beginning of the Occupy movement, and pledges to accompany the movement. Offering their skills and resources to the occupiers without trying to maneuver for power.

But when this friction devolves into attempts by the old order to subsume the new, and wipe it out – directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally – it's not always so healthy. Because any serious attempt to shove the new movement back into the old organizing bottles will kill it.

So I thought I'd offer a few ideas that I'm calling “Rules of Engagement” for the consideration of all the progressive organizations in United States and beyond that are trying to work with the Occupy movement. I am speaking here both as a journalist that has been covering the progressive scene in Boston since 2008, and as a longtime progressive activist in community organizations and unions at the local, national and international level. I am not directly involved in the Occupy movement, having decided it was more important to spread accurate information about the movement to the public at large as a reporter and editor than it was to join it. But in the course of my work I have spoken to a good number of Occupy activists, and closely tracked coverage of the movement in the media. Putting the observations I've made about the Occupy movement together with my knowledge of the progressive non-profit and union scene – and combining all that with my previous experience as an activist – led me to write the “rules” that follow.

In putting forward my ideas on these matters, I'm not saying that the Occupy movement is perfect, or that it can do no wrong, or any such thing. But I am saying that the only social force that has the possibility of overthrowing capitalism in favor of democracy and saving humanity from political, economic and ecological catastrophe in the foreseeable future is the Occupy movement. No existing progressive organization or group of such organizations in the old model has anything like that potential. Especially those many groups that refuse to even name capitalism as the main enemy of democracy in this age – choosing instead to focus on this crime or that crime committed by its adherents minus any explanatory systemic analysis.

The one potential the old left does have, though, is the potential to destroy the Occupy movement by the death of a thousand cuts – or more colorfully, the “circular firing squad” behavior the American left is justifiably infamous for implementing against any faction that has a chance of majoritarian success.

Which is why, in summation, I think it is far better for non-profits and unions to work with the movement in a solidaristic fashion, than to try to take it over or push it out of their way.

Read on for details.

1) Learn how the Occupy movement works before engaging with it

The Occupy movement – at two months old – has already developed a sophisticated internal process and a welcoming culture. While not perfect, it's easy to plug in, as long as your organization makes an effort to work within the Occupy movement's system of governance. That means showing up for public meetings, learning their rules for discussion and debate, and the hand signals that go with them. It also means understanding how their general assemblies work, and how their working groups function. Organizations that do this will demonstrate to occupiers that they “get it.” Organizations that don't set up a “we-thou” relationship instead. Meaning a “we know it all, you know nothing” relationship. Which is a poor way to begin a friendship, yes?

2) Respect the Occupy movement's process

The fastest way to alienate occupiers is to try to find their “actual leaders” rather than working with their established process. Their only leader is that democratic process – most especially the general assemblies – which are institutions of direct democracy. Organizations looking for back room meetings with “movers and shakers” are going find their initiatives blocked in Occupy meetings once word gets out. And it will get out.

3) Develop a relationship with the Occupy movement

However much institutional experience many progressive organizations may have, the progressive movement as a whole has been on the retreat for four decades in the United States. The Occupy movement is the biggest broadest movement for democracy and social justice to rise in this country (and globally) in that time. There's a huge amount of talent and strategic acumen in every Occupy encampment – and, regardless of any faults, the new movement has done a tremendously good job of pushing the public debate on a host of issues to the left in a short period of time. All this to say, don't assume that the Occupy movement needs your organization's “experts” more than your organization needs the movement. Occupiers are happy to work with any individual or organization that approaches them in good faith, and wants to dialogue about how to proceed with a raft of campaigns and initiatives. They also very much like to support existing organizations that deal with them in an aboveboard way. So by simply participating in their process, and getting to know point people in different working groups, your organization can develop a longer-term relationship based on trust with the occupiers. Which virtually always benefits the popular movement as a whole.

4) Give back at least as much as your organization gets from the Occupy movement

It is inappropriate for your organization to deal with the Occupy movement – or any ally – in a mercenary fashion. That is, to try to use its public appeal, and the significant numbers of people it can field to help your organization's particular corner of the progressive movement without giving anything back to the occupiers. That kind of behavior has become all too common among too many progressive organizations in the last 40 years, and it needs to stop. Your one non-profit or union, no matter how large, is not a substitute for a genuine mass movement. The fate of your particular organization or any particular organization is functionally irrelevant. Sorry to be the bearer of tough love, but that's he way it is. The fate of the new movement overall, on the other hand, is critical to humanity's survival. So if, for example, your organization uses its affiliation with the Occupy movement to raise money, then it should give a significant percentage of that money back to the movement. Or if it calls an action with the Occupy movement it should make sure that that action benefits the movement as least as much as it benefits your organization. Don't be a user. Be an ally.

5) Connect your organization's members to the Occupy movement

One great way to build a relationship with the Occupy movement – and to build that movement – is to turn your members out for events at your local Occupy encampment. That will demonstrate to the occupiers that your group is serious about working with them, and that your staff people aren't trying to act as gatekeepers between members your constituency and the broader social movement. Another unfortunately common attitude among progressive non-profits and unions. Yet ironically, it is precisely because of many organizations acting to narrow their member's horizons down to the footprint of their particular community of interest or organization that the progressive movement fell upon hard times in the last 40 years. How could it be otherwise, when members of community organizations are told to focus on organizing for park benches in their neighborhood or legislative bills to get shoelaces for left-handed welfare kids (“we'll get 'em for right-handed kids next year!”), or union members are told to fight for a contract that gives a few extra pennies an hour? And all these tiny reforms are called “great victories” by non-profit and union leaders when grudgingly acceded to by the powers that be. While capitalists loot and despoil the planet. So trust that your organization's members are thinking beings – not just objects to be “organized” – encourage them to join the Occupy movement directly, and I suspect you'll be pleasantly surprised to see a huge uptick in interest in positive collective activity within your organization and in the movement as a whole.

6) Play nice – don't try to take over your local occupation or start puppet occupations

It may be tempting for some non-profits and unions with sufficient funding to send in paid staff to work 24/7 to try to push their local Occupy encampment in whatever direction they decide it should go. Or to start satellite occupations that they dominate from word one – in cities or regions that already have occupations. I would strongly recommend avoiding that temptation. Because, first, it can't work in any positive way, and therefore is nothing but a stealth attack on the new movement. And second, there's this idea out there that mere organizational longevity translates to having the tactical and strategic acumen needed to to run a giant growing movement. But that's not how it works. Movements aren't “run” by anyone single organization or faction. And they're certainly not run by people whose main skill is managing minor bureaucracies – although such people have a useful skill set for doing a great job with certain instrumental tasks performed by any social movement. Also, most non-profits and unions have been taking a “magical” or romantic approach to what they call “organizing” for many years now. Not an empirical approach. That is, they don't ask whether the tactics and strategies they use actually work in any real way. It's just assumed that they work – often in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. And then these untested (at best) or failed (at worst) tactics and strategies get telegraphed to younger activists, who are told by the legion of “trainers” that the foundation-backed non-profit set and foundation-influenced union leadership has inflicted upon the left that these are tried and proven tactics and strategies that are worthy of replication in the absence of genuine proof of their efficacy. Once the magic incantations and formulas are thus passed on, this new generation telegraphs it to the people coming up after them. Rinse and repeat until 40 plus years of failure and retreat go by. Until one day, a couple of months ago, people largely outside this “foundation-industrial complex” rise up angry and build a huge democratic movement with a speed which was considered impossible by non-profit and union leaders “in the know” – without the use of any strategic planning meetings or four-day retreats or encounter sessions. Fancy that. Meaning the people actually building the Occupy movement are their own best experts, and they are developing new tactics and strategies and repurposing the best of the old ones as the movement expands. So the smartest course for non-profits and unions to take, again, is to let the new movement develop organically – and always try to be helpful. Not overbearing.

7) Do not claim that your organization leads the Occupy movement

No one person or organization leads the new movement. Which is its great strength in many ways. At least for reaching the first major goal of any genuine social movement – spreading the ideas of the popular uprising far and wide. Any organization or individual that claims to lead the movement – or even hints at such leadership – should be looked at critically by any honest observer. This includes any of the aforementioned “experts” or “trainers” that would like to think that occupiers need to be led by the nose to the water of liberation by people trapped in the desert of the old left. Here's a last bit of free advice … they don't.