Last year the Occupy Wall Street movement took Canadian and American society by storm. Its reach extended far beyond New York City, stretching across the continent to numerous sites of class struggle. Most notably, it spread to the docks of Oakland, where occupiers linked up with longshore workers and played a pivotal role in forcing labour negotiations with the bosses. According to Jack Mulcahy of the ILWU, “the mobilization of the Occupy Movement across the country, particularly in Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and Longview were a critical element in bringing EGT to the bargaining table and forcing a settlement with ILWU local 21.”
However, the Occupy movement has also experienced numerous setbacks over the past few months. These range from the inevitable push-back of state repression to self-inflicted wounds, like the drug overdoses that took place in Vancouver. Many have called the movement into doubt on account of these developments. At the same time, there have been calls within the movement for re-occupation. Some seem to have the hope that the Arab Spring of 2011 can be repeated on North American soil and expanded over the coming summer of 2012.
By marking the official date of “re-occupation” as May 1st, the Occupy movements in Toronto, New York, and other cities around the continent have chosen a symbolically significant date. May Day, as it is commonly called, commemorates the Haymarket Massacre — in 1886, workers from Chicago were killed by agents of state repression. The workers had wanted to reduce their workday to eight hours, but the police — supposedly provoked by dynamite-throwing anarchists — opened fire into the crowd at random, even wounding many of themselves in the process. Aside from an estimated fifty dead in the streets, seven police officers were killed and sixty wounded, mostly from friendly fire. The ensuing trial saw the execution of four labour activists, including pioneering figures in the American labour movement such as August Spies and Albert Parsons.
To honour the victims of this attack by the state against the working class, May 1st was adopted by the Second International as a day for labour. Since then, it has been known as International Workers’ Day and celebrated around the world in the spirit of proletarian internationalism. This makes May Day unique, as Lal Khan notes, because of the way that it cuts across “the prejudices of race, colour, creed, religion, nationality, ethnicity and caste, which are used by the ruling classes to drive a wedge in the unity of the proletariat.”
In deciding to symbolically identify their call for re-occupation with May Day, perhaps the Occupy movement has learned that their struggle against the “1%” is the same struggle that the working class has been fighting against the bourgeoisie for more than a hundred years. On the last day of Occupy Toronto at St. James Park, to an enthusiastic audience made up of union members and occupiers alike, Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan essentially expressed the same idea in his speech: “The issues you’ve been fighting for are the same issues that the labour movement has been fighting for the last three decades.” Hopefully the supporters of Occupy Toronto heard Ryan’s call to action, and in picking May Day as their date of re-occupation, are looking to solidify their connections with the labour movement in general.
This would be a welcome development. Not only would it bolster the working class, who have recently come under attack in the form of cuts and austerity (especially in Ontario, where Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government wants to ram through austerity measures at the behest of Bay Street bankers and to the detriment of the rest of society), but it might help the Occupy movement solve some of its own difficulties as well. As Fightback stated last year, the problem of Occupy Toronto was its diffuse message and lack of integration with the wider workers’ movement. Informal leadership structures exacerbated the confusion and, in the final analysis, led to a lack of democratic unity in action. People enthusiastically embraced Occupy as a forum for discussion — but, after a period, discussion just becomes cheap talk and people demand action. To act, a group must have democratic structures and accountability of its leading figures.
On the other side we have to recognize that the spectacular rise of Occupy was, in itself, a symptom of the lack of leadership given by the traditional labour movement and its political arm, the NDP. The union leadership needs to adopt the radicalism of Occupy if it wants to mobilize people and catch the attention of the mass that Occupy was so successful at.
We do not know if the Occupy movement’s call for re-occupation this May Day will be met with the kind of general enthusiasm that greeted its inception last fall. However, even if Occupy does not re-emerge explicitly, the movement is not dead. In struggle, nothing is wasted. The lessons of Occupy and the inspiration of mobilizing thousands against the crime of capitalist inequality will be incorporated into the working-class and youth struggles to come. Capitalism is in crisis and offers no way out. All that the bosses can offer people is austerity and the removal of democratic rights. Inevitably, in one form or another, this forces people to fight back. Occupy forms part of the collective memory of this coming fight back and serves to strengthen and move forward the struggle. The concept of the “99% versus the 1%” is very powerful and in hindsight will be seen as a step along the realization that society is split into classes, working and ruling, and that the working class can unite all the oppressed in the struggle for a new socialist society where we are neither 1 or 99 percent, we are just people.
This May Day, join Fightback in calling for the following:
Workers and youth unite against the austerity agenda!
Say no to the bosses’ offensive!
Put an end to global imperialism!
Victory to the working class in the struggle for socialism!