The USA's September Spring


A Tale of Two Rallies :

By Stephen Holmes UWS Correspondent

On Tuesday September 27th there were two rallies in New York City: Occupy Wall Street and Save America's Postal Service. On the most basic level, both were a cry of protest against the current economic system and the situation the working class right now. Beyond that, however, the rallies were completely different in terms of organization, structure, and purpose. Comparing the two is useful for examining the nature of protest today, especially in the United States, as well as asking the question : which type is more effective?

Occupy Wall Street is clearly inspired by the recent “Arab Spring” in the Middle East, but its roots go all the way back the most basic form of protest: Physically occupying a space until your demands are met or until your point is made. Some classic examples from US history include the lunch counter sit-ins during the 1960s civil rights movement and the United Auto Workers (UAW) sit down strikes in the 1930s. The 60s' lunch counter protests were designed to raise consciousness about the unfairness of segregation in the southern United States; the 1930s' UAW actions had a specific aim of union recognition.

Occupy Wall Street is in the former camp : an open-ended, continuous protest that began on September 17th with the purpose of asking hard questions about the structure of the current economic system; specifically, whether or not it works for most people or just a few. The unifying statement is the bottom 99% of Americans versus the top 1% . There is no fixed end date, no leaders, and no set agenda.Anyone may raise an issue at the twice-daily general assembly (1 pm and 7 pm) and every decision is made by consensus which can make it seem somewhat unwieldy and unfocused. However, it does appear to work.

Importantly, the occupants of Liberty Square have reached a “detente” with the New York City Police Department about ground rules after the protests were marked by unrest and accusations of police violence last weekend. In addition, there is a system for collecting and distributing donated food, legal and other tactical trainings, and an art exhibit of signs that have been created during the protest.

What is truly impressive is that so far, approximately one hundred people occupying Zuccotti Park (renamed Liberty Square by the group), have drawn worldwide attention and support. In the last few days, they claim that protests have broken out or are in the process of being organized in 52 cities and across three continents. Their general assemblies have featured appearances by Michael Moore, Dr. Cornel West, and Susan Saradon as well a statement of support from Noam Chomsky and a positive mention on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. This is all with minimal coverage by the mainstream media such as CNN or the three networks or even what could be considered the traditional left wing media such as or The Huffington Post. (The Daily Kos even ran a fairly critical story). In addition, groups who would appear to be natural allies such as the AFL-CIO or Jobs With Justice are curiously silent. In fact, there was a group from UNITE-HERE leafleting some project across the street from the park with no interaction with the protestors. Will Organized Labor join the protest? Can they?

The Save America's Postal Service rally that occurred at the district office of Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney could not have been more different. For one thing, in that it was structured with a defined purpose and time limit. Secondly, it was planned and executed in a top down manner by the four postal workers unions: American Postal Workers Union (APWU), National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU), National Rural Latter Carriers' Association (NRLCA). Since unions are, by nature, representative organizations, rank and file concerns opinions played some part in making this event happen, however, a nationwide day of action coordinated between four different unions does not happen spontaneously. It was also not intended to raise challenging questions about the entire economic system.

For the postal workers, the plan was to rally on Tuesday, September 27th between 4 PM and 5:30PM at all 435 congressional home district offices and ask members of Congress to sign on as co-sponsors of H.R. 1351 (designed to deal with the financial shortfall currently facing the Postal Service) and to thank those who had already done so. Congresswoman Maloney had already signed on as one, but she came out of her office to meet with the postal workers and lend her support. It was a fairly typical event for the labor movement with standardized signs and members passing out handbills to passersby.

The big question raised by these rallies is : Which approach is more effective? Specifically, is it better to work towards an articulated, larger goal that may have little chance of success  - or a narrow, achievable goal that provides immediate benefit for its advocates? Is it better to be spontaneous...or plan and coordinate events? These are questions that harken back to the debate over the “One Big Union” ideology of the International Workers of the World (IWW) versus the “Business Unionism” of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the early part of the 20th Century.

Two things are clear: Occupy Wall Street is raising awareness that there are problems with the way the economic system is currently run, and Save America's Postal Service was able gain the attention of every member of Congress and to increase the likelihood of saving their jobs.

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