Lost In New York: Can Occupy Find Its Way Back To Prominence In The Crowded, Distracted City

Despite being branded a general strike, one thing that isn’t on the menu for May 1 is a work stoppage. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told The Observer the Occupiers haven’t worked with the unions in “a serious way.”

“They haven’t tried to understand how you create coalitions with established elements of the progressive community,” Mr. Appelbaum said.

Despite the fact he and his union were early supporters of the Occupy movement, Mr. Appelbaum said the protesters made no attempts to communicate with organized labor.

“We’re on the same side, that’s what the Occupy movement doesn’t seem to understand,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “We’re on the same side and we should be talking to each other, not just being talked at.”

Over 20 labor groups, including Mr. Appelbaum’s RWDSU, have endorsed the Occupy protests. However, they have not called on workers to strike. Mr. Appelbaum said Occupiers should have checked with the
unions before proclaiming a strike.

“You’re not going to see workers leave their jobs in large numbers,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “That was what was called for at this time without appropriate discussion and involvement.”

A union official, who didn’t want to be named because his group is endorsing the protest, said “continuing conversations” between Occupiers and unions broke down because the diffuse, leaderless nature of the movement made it difficult to collaborate with.

“With the Occupy movement, it’s not always clear who you’re even supposed to be speaking with,” he said.

The union official also described the culture clash that occurred between labor groups and Occupiers.

“I think that, because the labor movement was established with hierarchy and the like, that it was held up to a little bit of disdain. It didn’t reflect the way the Occupy movement thought that democracy should operate, so I think that there were language barriers because of that,” the official said. “I also think that the labor movement, because it has such a hierarchical structure, has difficulty in understanding a movement without structure like that.”

Mr. Appelbaum believes Occupiers’ inability to partner with unions and other established progressive political groups shows the movement might not be able to grow beyond the cadre of young protesters who have kept the occupation alive after its eviction from the park.

“I think that in order for a movement to be successful, you have to expand beyond your core constituency and that has not happened with Occupy Wall Street,” Mr. Appelbaum said.

None of the May Day festivities planned by the Occupiers are part of the “99% Spring,” a slew of Occupy branded activities hosted by the multimillion-member progressive fund-raising organization MoveOn.org.

Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director, told The Observer his group got behind the protests almost as soon as they began.

“Economic injustice and inequality had been our top priority and campaign since the beginning of last year,” Mr. Ruben said. “Then, when Occupy happened, we kind of jumped in. It was articulating the exact same concerns that our members were really frustrated about and had been working on all year, but in a really compelling, amazing way. So, we sort of jumped in to connect people with it, to support it.”

MoveOn’s involvement triggered a backlash from Occupiers who abhor the organization’s work on Democratic political campaigns. Last week, AdBusters, the anticorporatist magazine that initially launched the call for a Wall Street occupation, published a scathing online editorial blasting MoveOn for sending Occupy-themed solicitations for donations and calling the organization part of the “dead body of the old left.”

“MoveOn wants to hijack our movement with their 99% Spring,” the AdBusters editorial said. “MoveOn is an existential threat to our movement because they don’t have a revolutionary bone in their body.”

Mr. Ruben vigorously denies the charge his group was trying to co-opt the Occupiers. He also suggested protesters’ intolerance of different approaches may hurt them, especially as the presidential election
nears.

“Many of these groups and strains, who have been fighting together against economic inequality and for the power for the 99 percent, are going to go in different directions around the elections,” Mr. Ruben said. “Some people want to put their energy in different places and, I think, we need to have a notion of a diversity of strategies that we all respect, because we’re doing the work of the 1 percent if we just tear each other down.”
Electoral politics can be a “useful tool,” he added, “and even if that’s not your bag, hopefully we can sort of honor the fact that some folks are going to want to get into that.”

Protesters we spoke to seemed unconcerned what others think of their methodology and confident they’ll blow the city’s collective mind, come May Day. “Ultimately, this will be a catalyst for a lot of people who are in their early 20s and relatively middle class to wake up and recognize their place in the theater of the world and the social struggle,” said one Occupy organizer we spoke to after the planning meeting.

“That brings more people to it. It’s a new context.”

What remains to be seen is whether the Occupiers can continue to make an impact on the larger world by speaking on their own terms. And whether they can regain the attention of a city populated with habitual ignorers. The kids say they’re all right. The rest of us will find out on May 1.

 

hwalker@observer.com