Yesterday saw a major escalation in the tactics of the Occupy movement, as a concentrated effort was made to shut down ports across the West Coast. This kind of direct economic action is a very welcome development, made even more interesting by the movement’s reluctance to name specific reforms that would allow it to be bought off. These actions aren’t about a clear-cut attack on capitalism itself, but they certainly have elements that point in that direction, and they’re a lot less limited than many other protests in recent memory. Another interesting development is that the actions took place against the explicit opposition of the International Longshore Workers’ Union. As the very different example of the electricians’ struggle in the UK also shows, the unions will only support action that stays within the rules written by the bosses and their politicians, so it’s necessary to break out of their control in order to win.
So, how did it actually go? The Guardian and the Portland Occupier both ran informative liveblogs on the day, Russia Today has another report, and this libcom thread has some really interesting first-hand accounts. Blockade-Strike-Communize?, Blockading the Port is Only the First of Many Last Resorts*, and this open letter from a group of port truck drivers are all worth a look – the first two are theoretical pieces from a broadly insurrectionary/communisation perspective, the last is more of a personal account from some of the most exploited port workers. The essential facts about the day are simple: despite the opposition of port owners, the state that exists to protect capital, and the union that’s meant to represent longshore workers, protesters were able to shut down much of the ports of Oakland, Vancouver, Longview and Portland, with some disruption also being caused at Long Beach. (EDIT: Oh, and Seattle, and LA).
In terms of lessons to take away, I’d say that this is most important as an example of how mass direct action can still have a major economic effect without being supported by the unions. The age of mass class conflict organised through the unions may be coming to an end, but that certainly doesn’t mean the working class has been totally defeated. The West Coast Port Shutdown in the US and the sparks’ network in the UK have shown what’s possible outside the unions, now it’s up to the rest of us to step up and match them.
I think it’s also worth taking a moment to think about the idea of occupations, and how they’ve changed over the last few years. For a lot of the last decade, radical occupations were pretty much non-existent; an “occupation”, when it didn’t just mean a job, was something a powerful state did to a less powerful state. Then we had a wave of university occupations and a handful of workplace occupations in 2009, a huge number of university occupations at the end of 2010, and this year we’ve seen the Occupy movement spread across the globe. But the Occupy movement has lacked a crucial feature of previous occupations: usually, occupations take a space that’s needed by the people you’re trying to put pressure on, and so disrupt their business. Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots have tended to just occupy “public space” with the primary aim being to create a visible space for discussion, and so the antagonistic edge that makes an occupation different from a regular protest was lost. But, in one form or another, the radical, disruptive side of occupations has re-emerged: most spectacularly with the port shutdowns, but also through the excellent work of Occupy Our Homes, as well as the Bank of Ideas and the Bloomsbury Social Centre in London. But, as encouraging as this is, a lot remains to be done: crucially, the idea of people occupying their own workplaces, or services threatened with closure, still isn’t one that gets much attention. As ever, I’m skeptical of any vision that sees an enlightened elite leading the masses to victory; but if those of us who share anarchist or communist ideas can play any useful role, a large part of that has to be introducing new ideas and tactics which then spread independently of us. The walkouts called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts at the end of last year and the worldwide spread of the Occupy camps are two examples of how well a tactic can reproduce itself if it catches a mood; I think that radicals should now be pushing hard to try to re-introduce workplace occupations into the vocabulary of struggle. I don’t want to underestimate how hard it is convincing people outside the activist/politico bubble to get involved in anything, let alone something as challenging as a workplace occupation, but a lot of the work’s already been done for us: after years, if not decades, when class struggle was practically invisible, occupations have been put back on everybody’s agenda, and the N30 strikes brought mass industrial action back into the conversation. Now it’s our job to join the dots and push back the limits of what’s possible once again.
Closing notes: the WSM report on an inspiring piece of direct action that opened up a former union building for use by the homeless in Belfast, the repression against people who posted about riots on facebook is still continuing, and action against ATOS “Healthcare” continues with protests in Edinburgh and Glasgow and a rolling phone blockade.
* this piece also contains serious inaccuracies, like the accusation that UK Uncut distanced themselves from violent protesters on March 26th, when in fact they refused to condemn them – something which should be celebrated, not written out of history.