Though Occupy Wall Street (OWS) always eschewed electoral politics, in many ways it was Occupy that enabled the election of Bill de Blasio.
Occupy Wall Street maintained that the wealthiest 1% always rule, controlling elections and elected officials through campaign funding and a thousand other levers of power. Nevertheless, OWS catalyzed the new political environment in which de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren were elected and Mitt Romney defeated. Occupy did so by surfacing people’s widely held, but rarely acknowledged, belief that the US is divided between the 99% and the 1%. When the right wing accused us of waging class war, we boldly embraced the idea, defending it as a response to the class war from above by the corporate elite.
Through militant direct action OWS broke through the media emphasis on the deficit as the problem and austerity as the alleged solution. Since Occupy, the political debate has become increasingly focused on economic inequality. In that context, voters are rejecting candidates tied to the 1% like Christine Quinn, Bill Thompson and Joseph Lhota.
In a surprising reversal, de Blasio, despite initially limited funds and union support, rose from polling only 5% or 10% to win the general election with three-quarters of the vote. Key to his success was adopting the OWS-style message of the “tale of two cities,” in which the rich get richer and the poor poorer. In the election’s most important achievement, people soundly rejected the policies of billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg in favor of taxing the rich, funding education, lowering housing costs and raising the minimum wage.
De Blasio’s “tale of two cities” was not just about economics: he also voiced a sharp critique of the NYPD’s racial profiling through stop-and-frisk, and noted that his son was a potential victim of the practice. With a clear and consistent campaign message on both economics and justice, de Blasio won overwhelming support: African-Americans chose him over Bill Thompson in the primary, and he won a majority of voters of every race in the general election. The question is, what comes next?
We have a new moment of opportunity, arising from the confidence gained in the majority’s progressive choice and their new hope and rising expectations. However, no election ensures progressive policies, and the 1% is already working to “lower expectations” and block the agenda of change that voters supported. They will succeed if the people, their unions and community organizations rely solely on elected officials. Fortunately, since their disappointment after electing President Barack Obama, many have learned that political lesson.
It’s clear that Mayor de Blasio will be under intense pressure from Wall Street and the political right from his first day in office. If that is the only pressure he feels, the result is predictable. Whether you are hopeful or skeptical about de Blasio personally is really beside the point – the only hope for fulfillment of his campaign promises is grassroots mobilization to demand it.
For the people’s will to be implemented, there must be a higher than usual level of activism and unity. With all municipal unions without contracts in the face of a Bloomberg budget that set aside no funds for decent raises, let alone retroactive pay, the need for solidarity and activism is greater than ever. In that manufactured scarcity, there is a danger that City unions will simply compete for available funds or that one will accept a poor contract, which will then be imposed on the rest. And if unions merely depend on Democratic Party politicians “to deliver,” they will not break out of that bind. Unless the unions unite behind a common program that not only demands fair contracts but also serves the working and middle class as a whole, they will fail and lose people’s trust.
Raising the Bar
To convince the public to support public workers requires showing how our struggles are connected. We cannot win this fight alone. Consistent and visible public-worker support for private-sector organizing, like the recent fast-food strikes, is one way to make this connection. “New York needs a raise!” – and that goes for all of us.
It’s not clear if many unions are ready to move in this direction, but there are some positive signs. Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO President, and Vincent Alvarez, NYC Central Labor Council President, have repeatedly warned that if the labor movement, despite the increasing class war from above and a declining membership, continues to only seek a few contract gains for their own members, it will die. Hopefully unions in NYC will heed that warning.
One promising attempt at a more effective strategy was the early December “Wall Street Week of Action” organized by the “New Day New York” coalition of 60 unions, community organizations, Occupy and particularly low-wage workers. While unions’ level of mobilization for this action was less than what we need, the alliances that the coalition represents and the focus of its demands have a lot of potential power. Going beyond OWS, it linked opposition to the 1% to specific grassroots needs. That coalition intends to continue and we should make sure that the December protests are just a beginning.
De Blasio’s proposal to tax the rich to fund universal pre-K is fairly modest – but still faces tough opposition. If this plan is approved, that could open the door to more ambitious proposals. But if Albany blocks it, we need to follow the example of the “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina and Florida’s “Dream Defenders” and respond with bold and creative direct action. Labor should be ready to mobilize tens of thousands of people, both from above by union leadership and from below by organizing the rank and file, to go to Albany and occupy the capitol.
We should demand that de Blasio’s proposal be adopted, but we should not be afraid to go beyond it. For example, most global financial centers collect a tax on financial transactions (often known as the “Robin Hood Tax”). Such a tax is already on the books in New York; unfortunately, current law refunds 100% of the amount collected. If New York simply ceased refunding this tax, which is a tiny amount on each transaction, contract demands and social needs could easily be met.
Furthermore, we should call on Mayor de Blasio to immediately take measures not dependent on Albany, such as ending privatization through the outsourcing of unionized city jobs to non-union, for-profit businesses and ceasing attacks on the teachers’ union by the replacing of public schools with non-union charters. Voters supported these ideas in November – and where Albany’s approval is not required, there is no reason to wait.
Occupy activists understand that the class struggle has not been ended, but intensified by de Blasio’s election. With other community and labor groups, they are already organizing to counter the efforts of the 1% to maintain their domination of City policies.
Jackie DiSalvo is professor emerita of English at Baruch College and a member of the Occupy Wall Street Labor Outreach Group.