A story in the Washington Post today features the support the Occupy Wall Street movement is getting from unions in New York. Although the horizontal democracy of the OWC is very different from the structure of traditional labor organizations, they have been brought together by a common aim of defying the power of corporations and the super-rich.
“Labor groups are mobilizing to provide office space, meeting rooms, photocopying services, legal help, food and other necessities to the protesters. … And in return, Occupy activists are pitching in to help unions ratchet up action that targets several New York firms involved in labor disputes … Occupy activists have helped union workers disrupt the rarified environs of Sotheby’s art auction house, as part of a contract dispute between the firm and about 40 of its art handlers. … Jason Ide, president of Teamsters Local 814, which represents the art handlers, said the Occupy tactics surprised and inspired him and his members — so much so that the workers have become regulars at Zuccotti Park, the Wall Street plaza that has been occupied by protesters for weeks.”
All kinds of people have been inspired by OWC’s stand against Wall Street and its backers. According to the OWC’s website, “people from every corner of the United States have sent donations of tarps, home baked pies, hand-knit mittens, and pizzas — with personal notes of solidarity and support.” They have even started a new website featuring some of the notes, like this one: “Thank you for your representation! I’m a fulltime mom and nursing student with 3 part-time jobs. My president calls that American. I call it slavery. My mission is no cold ears on Wall Street! Let me know if you need anything more. Jessica Rainbow – knitters for the 99 percent.”
What is the reason for the breadth of this support? Unlike the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s, which as Naomi Klein pointed out took place at the peak of a frenzied economic boom, the context of today’s occupations is a rapid reduction of living standards caused by the economic recession which immediately followed the 2008 banking crash. The bailed-out banks are squeezing the working and middle class hard through student loan debt, mortgage debt, and credit card debt.
David Graeber’s piece in Naked Capitalism on Wednesday had this interesting observation: “Why would a protest by educated youth strike such a chord across America—in a way that it probably wouldn’t have in 1967, or even 1990? Clearly, it has much to do with the financialization of capital. It may well be the case by now that most of Wall Street’s profits are no longer being extracted indirectly, through the wage system, at all, but taken directly from the pockets of ordinary Americans. … given the fact that interest payments alone take up between 15-17% of household income, a figure that does not include student loans, and that penalty fees on bank and credit card accounts can often double the amount one would otherwise pay, it would not be at all surprising if at least one dollar out of every five an American earns over the course of her lifetime is now likely to end up in Wall Street’s coffers in one way or another.”
He goes on to speculate that through the fusion of financial and political power, capitalism in the U.S. today has taken on some of the characteristics of feudalism through the direct political-legal extraction of wealth, using extra-economic as well as economic coercion. However, Americans won’t allow themselves to be forced into debt peonage.
The resonance of the “Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent” message throughout the heartland indicates that we are in a new historical moment, different even from the one that sparked the struggle in Wisconsin just a few months ago. The ascendance of the Republican right and the corporate Democrats has been effectively challenged. They and the financial elites suddenly sense the reality of the class war they have so often invoked as a metaphor.