Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has practical and ideological roots in the radical labor movement. This diary explores some aspects of that relationship.
What is radical labor? All of organized labor believes that labor organizations "must combine the wage workers in such a way that [they] can most successfully fight the battles and protect the interests of the working people of to-day in their struggles for fewer hours, more wages and better conditions." Radical labor is radical in the one sense that it includes an additional goal: organizing "must offer a final solution of the labor problem – an emancipation from strikes, injunctions and bull-pens." (A bull-pen is a temporary, and intentionally spartan jail, such as those set up in warehouses during political convention protests.)
We might believe that labor organizations seek to become ever more powerful; certainly, labor's enemies assert this. But many labor organizations carefully avoid measures that even hint at any sort of preference for a different economic system in order to avoid possible consequences.
I believe the most revealing quotation from all of labor history is found in an obscure document from more than a century ago. The railroad tycoons – the most powerful capitalists of the era – feared one particular type of labor organization because of its inherent power, and because of its leadership's willingness to embrace that power.
The American Railway Union (ARU) headed by Eugene Debs was one of the first organizations formed along industrial lines. (Industrial unionization would later be re-defined, and somewhat moderated, by the CIO.) The railroad brotherhoods – organized by craft, rather than by industry – presented a weak, but internally cohesive (and easy to organize) labor structure. The division by craft meant that if a fireman who shoveled coal wished to move three steps over and accept the job of an engineer (with whom he had shared the locomotive throughout his career), he was forced to join a different union. Craft organizing (the specialty of the old AF of L union federation that eventually became the AFL-CIO) was, and frequently is, comparatively weak.
In contrast, the industrial organizing of the era not only sought to revolutionize society to improve the lot of working folk, it sought to build mass organizations, with all workers in the same union. To frustrated members of the railway brotherhoods, the ARU appeared both powerful and promising. Thus, the ARU was perceived as a threat not only to wealthy industrialists, but also to supporters of the railway brotherhoods.
The ARU demonstrated the power of industrial organization when it shut down commerce throughout the country in 1894, in support of workers striking against the Pullman Company. In the Journal of the Switchmen's Union, 1907, we find this comment about the 1894 railway strike/boycott of Pullman railway cars:
E. St. John, who was at one time general manager of the C. R. I. & P. Railway and was chairman of the General Managers' Association, said to the general managers in meeting assembled on the eve of the strike, "Gentlemen, we can handle the various brotherhoods, but we cannot handle the A. R. U. We have got to wipe it out. We can handle the other leaders, but we cannot handle Debs. We have got to wipe him out too."Federal intervention soon followed. This was no small operation; it included national guard organizations throughout the country, the U.S. army, and federal marshals. The ARU was crushed, and ARU leadership was sent to jail.
After the federal intervention, many of the railway workers returned to the brotherhoods that they had recently abandoned for the ARU. Samuel Gompers (chief of the AF of L) was at the time courting the craft-based railway brotherhoods, and he assisted the government in suppressing the strike by the ARU. It was at the height of the ARU strike that the U.S. Congress rewarded Gompers with declaration of a national labor day, and it was signed into law just six days after the strike was finally crushed. (Organized labor has sometimes been its own worst enemy.)
What parallels are there between radical labor, and Occupy Wall Street? Both concepts question the legitimacy of the existing economic order. Both assert that mass organizations are necessary to effect change. Both extend acceptance of allies broadly, rather than narrowly. And both are open to creative, and sometimes controversial tactics, in order to "break through" the stranglehold that the perceived ruling class has upon the social conversation.
Radical labor and Occupy have both exerted influence well beyond what their numbers might suggest. And the reaction to the Occupy movement, and to radical labor have been of a pattern, including disinformation, vilification, demonstrations of massive state power, sabotage by agents provocateurs, and repression.
OWS is a Wobbly sort of endeavor, with numerous characteristics ("general assemblies", horizontal democracy, emphasis on direct action, libraries for the rank and file, and adopted creative tactics -- from clogging the court system, to the silent shaming tactic at UC Davis) either explicitly borrowed from the IWW, or re-discovered organically. The IWW is the only union in the U.S. that has supported the general strike as a vital weapon against capital since its inception in 1905. AND, the one person most credited with launching OWS in Zuccotti Park (Anthropologist David Graeber) is not just an anarchist, he is also a Wobbly.In 1917, the IWW was seriously (but not fatally) injured by government suppression during the First Red Scare, and subsequently, the Palmer Raids. In 2011 and 2012, Occupy has been subjected to "aggressive tactics and over-policing, all of which resulted in the systemic suppression of the basic rights of Occupy protesters."
Suppression of rights does not simply happen. It occurs within the context of framing the target. The formula varies little from one period to another. Miles Poindexter was an example of the propagandists who set the stage for suppression of the IWW. The first stage is the denial of a problem. The working class was plagued by low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Yet according to Poindexter, all the issues of importance could easily be remedied by appealing to the existing court system:
[T]here is not a state nor a city between the two oceans in this great republic where an honest laborer, seeking protection or justice, cannot find a judge who will zealously guard his rights, his liberties, his property, his life, with the shield of the law against the hand of the despoiler.Rush Limbaugh similarly attacks Occupy Wall Street participants, asserting that the problem isn't with Wall Street, but rather with the protesters themselves:
...this parade of human debris calling itself Occupy Wall Street. These people are the perpetually lazy, spoiled rotten, ninety-nine percent white kids, who don't have anything else to do but sit around and be told how rotten their lives are... these people are announcing that they are parasites... how many jobs have they created?
–Rush Limbaugh (see video)
Another tactic is vilification. IWW members and leaders were clearly identified as "other", for example, in the 1927 coal strike:
The Colorado newspapers railed against foreign workers and, alternately, an alleged foreign, or a lower class philosophy. For example, IWW leaders were called "tramps with their pants pressed". The Denver Morning Post criticized the strikers' spelling, their speech, their dress, their personal hygiene, and their values.Limbaugh has the same sort of disdain for union workers:
We don't have workers. I hate that term, workers... Bused in union workers ... are thugs... union brass knuckles busting on your knees... Unionized [workers] rape fellow citizens...
–Rush Limbaugh (see video)
The formula includes fear-mongering:
Unions are like the fetus of the mafia. It's a problem though because these fetuses are never aborted... Just like in Greece, you tell the freeloaders the free ride is over and they just raise hell... Public sector unions [steal] from taxpayers under the guise of collective bargaining. Their objective is to break the private sector...This echoes similar attacks from the past:
–Rush Limbaugh (see Rush Limbaugh's Long War On American Workers video)
Tear down the courts and the law, and there is left the spectacle of a bloody tyranny – of ignorance, avarice, cruelty, imposing their brute will upon all who differ with them or stand in their way.The IWW was falsely characterized as a puppet organization of foreign powers – variously, the Kaiser, or of the Bolsheviks.
Limbaugh claims that Occupy are puppets of the left, and are controlled by the "Democrat Party":
Look, you have [an Occupy] protest manufactured, no doubt orchestrated out of the White House. This is what the left does for a living... I am convinced that the mayors got phone calls from Washington, from Axelrod, from somebody, "look, let's shut (the Occupy camps) down because it's not working anymore."It is true that radical labor wanted (and still hopes) to change the economic system to make it more fair for working people. Occupy Wall Street likewise recognizes that the current system is corrupt and favors the wealthy and powerful. These are dangerous ideas, as perceived by the Miles Poindexters and the Rush Limbaughs of the world. Any threat to their comfort must be confronted, ridiculed, vilified, attacked, and neutralized. And propaganda (such as the Rush Limbaugh Show) serves to grease the instruments of suppression.
–Rush Limbaugh (see Limbaugh's War on Occupy video)
The reality, however, is that Occupy and the Wobblies are, themselves, very effective propagandists. Before Occupy was organized, the U.S. media focused on the budget, and on deficits rather than on jobs and corruption at high levels. That changed overnight, and now everyone recognizes the 99 percent/one percent meme. The old time Wobblies, famous for street theater, music, and an outsized influence for their numbers, would have been proud of such an impact. But they would also have acknowledged that the job isn't yet finished.
Occupiers, Wobblies, moderates, liberals, and yes, even conservatives and a few libertarians recognize that Rush Limbaugh isn't just a propagandist, he is also a misogynist and a belligerent, mouthy liar. Many of us participate in Flush Rush on Facebook, and we use the StopRush database to hold Rush accountable. We're having a very real impact; please join us.