When Occupy Philadelphia showed up at the corporate headquarters of Presby's Inspired Life to mic check the CEO of a union busting nursing home company this week, it wasn't an action that could be narrowly defined as a "union" action. Sure, the African American and immigrant workers of color that have been struggling for the last two years to organize a union and bargain a contract for better working conditions and living conditions for their residents have been doing it as a union. However, what solidarity is really about, is the coming together of ALL workers to demand that, at work, at home, and in every aspect of our lives, direct democracy and the power to make collective decisions together knows no boundaries.
"Occupy Work" is about the struggles that exist between those who work and those who make profit from it. This is an important concept for us to understand in the Occupy movement for many reasons, and while it is an extension of what unions traditionally have been attempting to struggle with throughout the history of work, it's much more than a traditional approach to union organizing. It's at once complementary and in solidarity with what unions are building, but it's also about pushing the envelope and extending what solidarity truly means, and how to be more creative about the possibilities of workers coming together to make concrete change.
"Occupy Work" is about all workers coming together to define what work is. By "workers" and "work", we mean waged labor, temporary labor, union labor, unorganized labor, parenting, manual, physical, intellectual, slavery, indentured servitude, migrant workers, black market, prison labor, unpaid and unrecognized, the unemployed, retired, and disabled. This means that solidarity should know no bounds, and by recognizing that we create value by working, and that this value is transformed into power for the 1%, we are taking the first step toward "Occupying Work." The next step is recognizing that all of the ways we talk about workplace struggles, and the "labor movement" need to be seriously updated.
"Occupy Work" is beyond the debate about "more jobs" or "better wages." It's about building the kind of power that makes the economic system directly accountable to all working people. The conservative approach to the economy is about breaking down the power of union workers who have raised some standards and set the bar higher, while cutting services, and cutting taxes for rich people and corporations. The liberal answer has been to create jobs programs, raise taxes on the rich, and "jump start" the economy so that more people have money to spend. Both political camps work overtime to deregulate industries and give incentives and remove barriers for the 1% to outsource and diversify their exploitation of our labor across national lines in order to avoid being confronted by our organized resistance.
When you stand back at look at these two arguments, you realize there is a cyclical condition that narrates the very system itself. Both arguments are about attempting to manipulate the economy in ways that continue the business as usual. Both arguments enable the 1% to maintain the power to control industry and labor, and all political, social, and economic policies and infrastructure. Both arguments defuse the ability for all workers to have a say in, not just the conditions at work, but by extension, all aspects of daily life. As long as we work for the 1%, calling on "more work" essentially allows the 1% to profit from it, and in turn, continues the domination by the employers, their investors, and the state that protects their interests.
There is an alternative, and "Occupy Work" is about simply reframing that message to each other, and changing the conversation. We aren't simply interested in rebooting another bubble of job growth, so that talking heads can jabber on about a drop in unemployment rates. Even if new jobs are created, it doesn't necessarily mean that the conditions at those jobs are good. It doesn't mean that the job itself creates value for all. Do we want more bank tellers? Do we want gas extracting engineers? Do we want clerical workers at the Department of Homeland Security? Do we REALLY want to build new roads to nowhere? The point is, as long as the dialogue about work is defined by the 1% (cuts vs. jobs), it doesn't matter what we want. It only matters what the 1% wants from us.
"Occupy Work" means working people declaring intentions about what kind of society we want to produce, how we do it, for whom, by whom, how long, and for what reasons. It also means improving the conditions of life to relieve the force of debt, bills, rent, interest rates, cost of living, and increasing the access to the resources that enable us to live the lives we want to. By doing so, it frees up the anxiety about work itself, and lets us self manage as a class - it enables us to build our collective power as working people.
Yes, we will join the chorus of more jobs, because being unemployed is disempowering while living in this economic system. However, as we address the conditions of life beyond work in order to make space to allow us to redefine work itself, the Occupy movement has an opportunity to make different kinds of demands and goals. Maybe we want less work, less hours, more time to spend with family, whole years off to explore the world. Maybe we don't want to make plastic doo-hickeys, or earth-killing chemicals, or tanks for war. Maybe we want to be able to learn new skills, create new projects, or teach each other ways to not have to rely on those extra hours at the job in order to cover the rent or pay off that loan. Maybe some of us want to work slower, while others want to work more efficiently. If we remove the precarity of the pending loss of basic resources, our decisions about how we define the changes in work life will be in our own hands, and not decisions that we struggle with in reaction to the power of the 1%. The bottom line is that we don't get to make any of these decisions until we organize to make these changes at work and beyond.
Unions are one answer to the crisis we live in, AND there are many other answers. There a multitude of strategies and tactics to consider in order to "Occupy Work." Unions are key to this, because unions have been leading this struggle, and we all have a lot to learn from their strengths and weaknesses. There are tactics and strategies to better the lives of those who labor that the Occupy movement has much to learn from.
By building bridges with the union movement, we declare our solidarity with our fellow workers, while respecting that union workers have been building a path that has fought hard to raise conditions and standards for all of us in ways that we take for granted. These conditions, such as the 40 work week, safety and child labor protections, and breaking down barriers for women and people of color, are all hallmarks of a combination of civil rights movements and union workers marching for all people to have a better life. We also recognize that because these historical wins are back on the table to be attacked by the rich, the power of currently organized workers is no match alone in defending these wins. "Occupy Work" should celebrate the wins, defend them right next to unions, and demand much more. This means continuing our work to "Occupy Union Busters," as well as joining current unions, building the power of the union's membership, and creating new worker's organizations where there are none. "Occupy Work" intends on being creative about what these organizations look like, and what their goals are.
This also means taking action in ways that traditional unions can not. As workers, union or not, the conditions we live under effect us all. This means that not only is it our right as the 99% to take action where the 1% extracts their wealth (at work), whether we get permission from unions or not, but it is our responsibility to one another. However, this also means, that taking action with union workers is paramount, and being smart about how to achieve this means reaching out to build those relationships in order to optimize these wins.
For example, blocking a port successfully without union leadership support (due to legal reasons) can be defined as a limited win. Doing it with membership support, in spite of union leaders' positions can be defined as a complicated win. Building the kinds of relationships between Occupy, unions as a whole, community groups, existing social movements, and regular people, and deciding together to block a port is an absolute win for us all. We have to make this road by walking together, learning to trust each other, and taking action as a movement, not in spite of one another.
"Occupy Work" demands that until all aspects of work are decided upon by those who do it, and those who are affected by it, "democracy" is a charade. Real democracy can only exist when we have the power to decide on these things, and right now, we live in a society that is really about those in the 1% getting together to decide "democratically" what our lives will be like. They are able to do this, because they have created a system of wealth that they made because WE WORKED FOR THEM. "Occupy Work" seeks to challenge this system, and looks to empower workers to build a movement that benefits us all.
An injury to one is an injury to all.