Near the end of the Occupy the Ports march in Long Beach, Calif., when 400-odd protesters were walking around in circles and coming up with chants in front of a work site, there was a beautiful little moment of cognitive dissonance. A middle-aged woman, who’d been chanting along with the usual stuff—“Whose ports? Our ports!” and “What’s the direction? Insurrection!” —started in on a version of the labor movement’s unofficial anthem. It’s supposed to go like this:
The union makes us strong
The new version went like this:
Occupation makes us strong
Occupiers would like to think that the “us” is the same from song to song. That’s not really clear. The Occupy the Ports protests temporarily shut down some commerce from San Diego to Oakland to Seattle, shaming facilities owned by SSA Marine, which is owned by Goldman Sachs. “The 1 percent are depriving port truck drivers and other workers of decent pay,” said Occupy Long Beach in a statement, “even while the port of LA/LB is the largest in the U.S. and a huge engine of profits for the 1 percent.” Unionized workers got some unexpected days off. They didn’t get paid for them.
“I don't quite understand why they did it,” said Sean Farley, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 34 in Oakland. “They want to impact the ‘1 percent,’ which I get. They need to identify the ‘1 percent.’ Who is it? I heard the name of Goldman Sachs got bandied around. OK. Deal with Goldman Sachs. I don't think one day at the port of Oakland or Tacoma or Seattle changes the facts that bother you about that company.”
The left’s year of occupation started in Wisconsin and Ohio in February, when protesters rallied, drummed, and slept in state houses to shame legislators out of passing bills that ended collective bargaining for public employees. It’s continued with tent cities in green spaces of New York, Washington, Detroit, and other burgs.
But these aren’t the same movements. The labor fights in the Midwest were, well, labor fights. The AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU and other unions ran campaigns to beat the reform bills, then to recall legislators who voted for them, and then to overturn the bills with ballot measures. They actually won that last fight in Ohio. The goals were specific—save union rights!—but the “occupying” protests were sort of random, touch-and-go.
The Occupy movement, and Occupy the Ports specifically, inverts the equation. The protests (or “actions,” as they’re usually called) are specific, newsy, and announced in press releases and livestreamed by people walking with laptops. As West Coast protesters were occupying ports, their comrades in New York were wearing squid costumes to protest Goldman Sachs HQ. The actions are specific. The goals, as Occupiers get so tired of hearing, are murkier.
“Wall Street has tendrils in every aspect of the economy,” explained Michael Novick, a spokesman for the Los Angeles/Long Beach protest. (His day job is with the committee planning a “general strike” for May 1, 2012.) “The ports do represent a globalized economy, but the whole economy is distorted. If you look at those ports, you can see the exploitation of workers all over the country, and you can see the need to rebuild the country on principles of human need, fair trade. It’s not just about the ports. It represents the larger totality.”