Have just returned from the demonstration in Boston, one of hundreds planned nationwide. On the theme of Jobs not Cuts, the organizers called for public spending to fix America’s decaying infrastructure. The rally was supported by Occupy Boston, Move On, Defend the American Dream, and numerous unions and community organizations.
The rally began with a cold drizzle which did little to dampen the crowds or their enthusiasm. What was most striking was the diversity of the crowd. The usual students, young white unemployed and long-time activists were joined by many unionists and numerous individuals and groups from Boston’s diverse neighborhoods. There was even a sizeable contingent from the Chinatown Neighborhood Association, a first that I’ve ever seen. If this diversity is starting to build in other cities, I understand the intensity and desperation with which the state, coordinated by the Homeland Security and (In)Justice Departments have acted to displace, intimidate, and destroy the movement. They may sense the beginning of something uniting enough people to seriously threaten the powers that be.
The march and rally were energetic. It was fascinating to see the creative tension between the union leaders who wanted to impose structure, such as approved slogans and the Occupy Boston affiliated folks who are not used to letting leaders tell them what they can think or do. In this case, the union leaders largely gave in. At the rally, the union speakers could not be heard. Thus they good naturedly turned to the people’s mike to get the words across. Unfortunately, speaker after speaker said few the exact same things, sticking tightly to their script, so that much of the crowd, me included, decided to leave in boredom. Still, it was quite an experience to see so many people from such diverse backgrounds marching together to say “NO!” to the status quo.
What if working class Americans actually like Occupy Wall Street?
By Greg Sargent
t’s become an article of faith among some on the right, and even among some neutral commentators, that Obama and Dems risk losing the support of blue collar whites in swing states if they dare to whisper a word of praise for Occupy Wall Street.
But what if the opposite is true — what if working class white votersactually like and agree with Occupy Wall Street’s message, if not always with the cultural and personal instincts of its messengers?
The movement is still very young, and it’s very hard to gauge support for it. But one labor official shares with me a very interesting data point: Working America, the affiliate of the AFL-CIO that organizes workers from non-union workplaces, has signed up approximately 25,000 new recruits in the last week alone, thanks largely to the high visibility of the protests.
Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America, tells me that this actually dwarfs their most successful recruiting during the Wisconsin protests. “In so many ways, Wisconsin was a preview of what we’re now seeing,” Nussbaum says. “We thought it was big when we got 20,000 members in a month during the Wisconsin protests. This shows how much bigger this is.”
The cultural fault line and tensions between blue collar whites and liberal activists is a well established storyline in American history. But Working America — which organizes in industrial battlegrounds like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania and other swing states — is having a new burst of success among precisely the sort of working class voters who are supposed to be culturally alienated by the excesses of the Occupy Wall Street protestors.
Nussbaum says that her organizers report that new recruits often mention the protests in a positive light, even though they have very little in common in cultural terms.
“These are not the folks who normally wear dreadlocks and participate in drum circles,” Nussbaum says. “They’re working class moderates who work as child care employees or in cafeterias or in construction. They’re people who work in lower middle class suburbs around the country.” Pressed on whether the movement’s excesses and lack of a clear agenda risk alienating such voters, Nussbaum said: “We’re proving every day that that’s not the case.”
I don’t want to overstate the case that can be made off of this kind of anecdotal evidence. And I’m sympathetic to the case made by some conservatives that it’s way too early to place stock in polls showing the movement is well received by the public. But as new polling emerges, it will be very interesting to track how it’s received by working class Americans who conservatives insist will be repulsed by it.
At a minimum, the question of whether Occupy Wall Street can forge any kind of meaningful bond with blue collar whites and moderates will be seen by both sides as a crucial one going forward. Nussbaum acknowledges that conservatives might have some success discrediting the movement “if they can change the subject to what the occupiers are wearing.”
“But if we keep the subject on jobs and democracy, we’ll keep those working class moderates in this fight,” she concludes. “It’s crucial that we not let this moment evaporate, and we can do that if we tie the movement to a working class constituency.”
At the risk of being pedantic, let me point out that “99% versus 1%” is not a class analysis, not in any respectable sociological sense. Shave off the top 1% and you’re still left with some awfully steep divides of wealth, income and opportunity. The 99% includes the ordinary rich, for example, who may lack private jets but do have swimming pools and second homes. It also includes the immigrant workers who mow their lawns and clean their houses for them. This is not a class. It’s just the default category left after you subtract the billionaires.
Some of the diversity of the 99% is clearly on display at the variations occupations around the country. I’ve seen occupiers who look like they picked up their camping skills on vacations in the national parks, as well as those who normally make their homes on the streets, even when they’re not protesting. Occupy Wall Street has attracted contingents of airplane pilots, electricians and construction workers -– the latter often from the new World Trade Center being built a block away. You’ll also find schoolteachers, professors, therapists, office workers and, of course, the usual crusty punks of indistinct provenance and profession. In Washington, I met one occupier wearing a crisp blue dress shirt and a tie emblazoned with tiny elephants. He said he was a Republican, a lawyer, and he’d had enough.
Then there are the poorest of the poor – the unemployed, the foreclosed upon, the chronically homeless. In Los Angeles, traditional residents of Skid Row have begun to join the occupation encampment. When about 150 people met to plan their local occupation in a union hall in Fort Wayne earlier this week, they solicited advice from already-homeless people in the crowd, who had first-hand experience of where the police are most heavy-handed and where you’re most likely to find a nutritious dumpster or a public toilet. For the homeless, joining an occupation brings instant upward mobility: free food — not entirely vegan, I have been relieved to discover — and, in some cases, Port-a-potties and the rudiments of medical care.
The evident poverty of so many of the occupiers has left the right sputtering for apt denunciations. In the ’60s, neoconservative intellectuals looked at student protesters and saw the political avant-garde of a “new class” or “liberal elite,” bent on taking power and imposing their own twisted combination of sexual libertarianism and Soviet-style Communism. The neocons accused the protestors of being the privileged, “spoiled” children of a “permissive” upper middle class, and utterly alien to salt-of-the-earth working class Americans. There was just enough truth to this accusation to make a few of us young radicals flinch.
I saw one community organizing effort crash on the class divide between earnest Marxist professors, who thought meetings were a good site for “political education,” and blue collar recruits who thought meetings should be social occasions adequately lubricated with alcohol. In the ’70s, Minneapolis was the site of the “twinkie wars,” in which a food co-op was torn apart between the conflicting demands of working class omnivores and middle class organic purists. At the absolute nadir of New Left-working class relations, in 1970, 200 union construction workers attacked a student anti-war protest near Wall Street—not far from where construction workers now take lunch breaks with the protesters in Zuccotti Park.
For decades, as Tom Frank and others have documented, the right exulted in its clever diagnosis: Anyone who raises his or her voice on behalf the downtrodden is in fact an “elitist.” “Real” Americans loyally align themselves with the wealthy and their corporations. And, at least for a couple of years, the Tea Party seemed to make the fantasy come true. Although heavily funded by billionaires and thickly populated by prosperous suburban business owners, the Tea Party did manage to attract some representatives of the unemployed and uninsured, like the financially shaky California man I interviewed in 2009 who told me he would happily forgo health insurance if that’s what he had to do to “stop socialism.”
But today, even the college-educated among the occupiers no longer fit the sloppiest notion of an “elite.” This is the student debt generation, which graduated with five- to six-figure dollar debts and no jobs in sight –- people like thirty-three-year-old Cryn Johannsen, who has MA’s from both Brown and the University of Chicago and now works as an unpaid full-time “warrior for the indentured educated class.” Forty years ago, someone with Cryn’s credentials would be settling into a tenure track academic job, complete with health insurance and maybe even a housing subsidy. When I first met her about two years ago, she was working as a sales clerk in a department store. Now she lives with her in-laws and hustles for bits of money to keep her on the road, organizing occupations.
The class contours of American society (and no doubt Greek and Irish and many others as well) have been redrawn since the last great outbreak of mass protest in the ’60s. True, a college education still offers a lifetime earnings advantage; the unemployed lawyer faces a brighter future than the laid-off sanitation and call center workers she confers with at an occupation encampment’s general assembly. But the parts of the middle class once lumped together by the right as a “liberal elite” have been severely eroded, its core occupations go underfunded and exploited. Promising young academics end up as adjuncts earning near the minimum wage; social workers face starting pay in the neighborhood of $12 an hour; lawyers from non-Ivy League law schools may find themselves toiling in basement “legal sweatshops.”
So the “99% versus the 1%” theme is beginning to look like an acute class analysis after all, and it’s the guys in the 1% who made it so. Over the years, they have systematically hollowed out the space around them: destroying the industrial working class with the outsourcings and plant closures of the ’80s, turning on white collar managers in the downsizing wave of the ’90s, clearing large swathes of the middle class with the credit schemes of the ’00’s—the trick mortgages and till-death-do-we-part student loans.
In the ’60s we dreamed of uniting people of all races and collar colors into “one big working class.” But it took the billionaires to make it happen.
Interview with Jesse LaGreca, freelance writer for the Daily Kos under the name MinistryOfTruth, at the Oct. 5th Solidarity March with Occupy Wall Street. Jesse’s interview with a FOX News Reporter has been exploding on the internet…but for some reason FOX never aired it. Hmmmmmm.
New York police apparently have a brutality problem. Reportedly this video was filmed last night at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street:
In another video a NYPD Officer on Wall Street is heard bragging :
“My little nightstick’s going to get a workout tonight”
NY Channel 5 reports that its reporters were hit and pepper sprayed by police:
Officers swatted protesters with batons and sprayed them with mace, according to video from the scene. Fox 5 photographer Roy Isen was hit in the eyes by mace, and Fox 5 reporter Dick Brennan was hit by what he believes was an officer’s baton. Both were all right and continued to cover the protests and arrests.
This video sure looks like the police deliberately trapped demonstrators on the bridge so they could arrest them. Why, once they led them onto the bridge, didn’t they just let them get through to the other side? As unions step out in support of Occupy Wall Street, has Bloomberg decided that the movement is getting to strong? Did he hope that a confrontation would scare many potential supporters away and discredit the movement?
“The police aren’t here to create disorder. They’re here to preserve it”
Mayor Richard Daley, August, 1968″
Review of The Patriots: An Inside Look at Life in a Defense Plant by Jean Alonso. Leap Year Press, 2011. Available at Amazon here.
Did you ever demand any answers?
The who, the what or the reason why?
Did you ever question the setup?
Did you stand aside and let them choose while you took second best?
Did you let them skim the cream off and then give to you the rest?
Did you settle for the shoddy?
Did you think it right
To let them rob you right and left and never make a fight,
never make a fight, never make a fight?
Suddenly jobs are on the political agenda. Politicians from the President on down state that creating jobs for American workers is their top priority. Often any jobs, as with the low-wage jobs that Texas Governor Rick Perry brags he “created.” Sometimes they want to create “good paying” jobs. But in this discourse having a job is everything, because it allows one to pay the bills and avoid poverty.
Those who worked with Jean Alonso making missiles in a Massachusetts defense plant – referred to as American Missile and Communications Corporation but sounding suspiciously like Massachusetts-based Raytheon –knew how important it was to have a job in this society. But they also recognized that ”good jobs” should mean far more than good-paying ones. And they knew, from their own bitter experience, that many jobs can be toxic, destroying the mind and soul, and sometimes the body as well, of those who work them.
Alonso’s book The Patriots: An Inside Look at Life in a Defense Plant begins as the missiles fly at the start of the first Gulf War. The fragile community in the plant is strained by tensions between the patriotic workers and Alonso with her antiwar views and activities. Alonso copes with her own anguish by conducting an informal survey of how her coworkers feel about their work. She learns that these coworkers are filled with a profound sense of hopelessness and despair:
“I feel like a zero.”
“I’m very depressed and anxious.”
“I’m so unhappy here I get aches and pains from it.”
“Apathetic. I can’t do anything at home anymore but watch TV.”
“I was a musician, you know, so I still need to write everyday – if you don’t you have no soul. But I go home and I’m too tired.”
“I feel like there’s something crushed inside – I feel really defeated. It’s like giving up on your whole self in order to make a living – you can’t figure a way out.” (pp. 10-11).
These responses, expressing feelings that had never been spoken among these workers, start Alonso and a small group of coworkers on a journey to make sense of what was happening to them at work and why. Through monthly meetings buttressed by Alonso’s library research they explore the deadening effects of repetitive work accompanied by social powerlessness in the workplace. They try to understand Alonso’s realization that “something in this work is changing us, as if we were living by Love Canal” (p. 37).
Over the next couple of years this group of defense plant workers examine their dashed hopes and dreams as well as an extensive body of social science literature in an attempt to figure out just how the work was changing them. They confessed to each other that their ability to reason had diminished after years in the plant. The lack of mental stimulation was reducing their very intelligence. And, indeed, as Alonso learned from her reading, a German researcher had found that IQ declines following years of unskilled labor. This cognitive decline didn’t seem so surprising to the workers when one of them recalled being told by a supervisor “You don’t get paid to think.” These workers discovered through their own experience that mindless work induces mindlessness.
Alonso later realized that the experience of the American Missile workers wouldn’t have seemed strange to Adam Smith, who in 1776 wrote of the mind-destroying effects of unskilled work as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the then new industrial system:
The understanding of the greater part of men is necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man’s whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations and he naturally loses, therefore, the habit [of solving problems] and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become… But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall (p. 180).
In addition to cognitive problems the plant workers confronted elevated depression, anxiety, and apathy. Alonso’s research convinced her that these symptoms were similar to those experienced by victims of what psychologist Judith Herman called “complex chronic post-traumatic stress syndrome” or CCPTSD. She quotes Herman as saying that those suffering from CCPTSD “have a history of subjection to totalitarian control over a prolonged period of time” (p. 125).
The shop floor environment that Alonso and her fellow workers experienced daily was, indeed, totalitarian. Every motion was monitored. Bathroom breaks were strictly regulated. Supervisors yelled at workers as if they were disobedient children. Conversations were monitored and often forbidden. Escape, while not impossible, became ever more difficult as years in the plant went by and economic chains bound the workers.
In her efforts to better understand the totalitarian aspects of her work environment, Alonso studied military culture and found many similarities to the culture at American Missile. The similarities were not accidental. She realized that the company deliberately sought out supervisors with military backgrounds. The fact that the company was part of the military-industrial complex, producing missiles for US wars, probably made military culture especially desirable to management.
At the time that Alonso writes about, relations between workers in the plant were especially stressed as many of the workers sought a sense of meaning and community through patriotic identification with the company’s missile-producing mission and with the war in progress and became less tolerant of those questioning the war. Pressure to not rock the boat increased as demand for the missiles rose.
Like many manufacturing companies, American Missile had a union. Unfortunately, this was as much a part of the problem as part of the solution. Union officials refused to pursue cases of sexual abuse, wouldn’t recognize the women’s committee founded by Alonso and others, and systematically harassed militants. Thus, much of the energy to improve the workplace was channeled into often futile attempts at union reform.
Throughout The Patriots: An Inside Look at Life in a Defense Plant Alonso weaves her personal account of nearly two decades in the factory with an account of the research into the effects of the work environment on workers. The result is one of the most thought provoking books you will find to read this year. As the politicians talk endlessly about “jobs” while providing few, Alonso reminds us that a good society will provide not just jobs, or even well-paying jobs, but jobs that enhance the spirit and development of those who work them.
Surely today, 235 years after Adam Smith described the mind-destroying nature of unskilled work, an “improved and civilized society,” – as Smith described the new industrial capitalism – should be one that proves him wrong. Such a society would be one in which all who work find that their jobs enhance their thinking, spirit, and sense of humanity. Such a society would be one in which workers are not merely the tools of the already wealthy and powerful, but makers of a more decent world for themselves, their fellow workers, and the rest of society. While the politicians beholden to the powerful are not likely to be concerned with this goal, surely the vast majority of us ought to be.
What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?
Were you content in the evening?
Did they teach you how to question when you were at the school?
Did the factory help you grow, were you the maker or the tool?
Did the place where you were living
Enrich your life and then
Did you reach some understanding of all your fellow men,
all your fellow men, all your fellow men?