The Occupy Movement Needs a Good Fight

occupy la change“Power concedes nothing without a demand.” – Frederick Douglass 
In a movement based on general anger about inequality and the domination of big banks, it becomes difficult to focus the rage into something concrete. For many Occupiers, being concrete is a mere distraction, meant to shift the movement into something ‘less radical,” since their targets — big banks and inequality — are at the root of the problem. Why mess with the tree when you could go for the roots?

But, as any tree-removal worker will tell you, the tree comes first, then the roots. The roots cannot be the immediate goal of the Occupy movement because pulling them out would require tens of millions of hands, and the vast majority of working people are not yet directly involved in the movement, though many of them are giving approving nods from a distance.
Bringing these more distant people into the movement requires they be given a good reason to join. And although a general anti-1% sentiment sounds appealing to the 99%, a struggle to win worker-friendly demands can help pull these people into the streets.

Thus far the Occupy movement has successfully held a series of actions and protests, with different issues being highlighted on different days in different cities, with a national “bank divestment” day (Occupy friendly people transferring their money from big banks to small ones) on November 5th. The big banks will be left standing, however, since they still have the immense wealth of the 1%, not to mention a never-ending bailout fund from the politicians of the 1%.

Most working people will recognize bank divestment as a positive symbolic gesture, but they would prefer action accompanied by victory.

Action in this case means the dirty work of organizing working people, based on the issues that they care most about. Organizing a new union is a perfect example — on a smaller scale — of what needs to happen in the Occupy movement nationwide. When organizers come to a work site to form a union, they do not simply pass out pro-union propaganda in the parking lot until workers decide to join up. Instead, organizers use agitation based on the key problems of the work site — low wages, no rights, etc. — to spur the workplace to action. Only when workers are motivated in this way and united to achieve their common demands do they feel empowered enough to take on the boss and form a union, transforming themselves and their workplaces in the process.

This is what Occupy is missing. There is plenty of good anti-1% propaganda about inequality and against the banks, but so far there has not been a serious effort to agitate for the majority of working people to wage a united fight over specific issues. Only the most progressive 5% is directly fighting for Occupy now; the rest of the population will be won over or turned away by how the Occupy Movement relates to them.

One way not to relate to working people is to ignore their issues while “escalating” the struggle. Escalating the Occupy Movement without having engaged working people with their most pressing issues will amount to strangling it (imagine a battlefield where the calvary charges and the infantry stays put, unable to back-up those mounting the advance). The real organizing still needs to be done, but the activists’ impatience is fast becoming a threat. This weakness has its roots in the left’s inability to link their “more radical” ideas to the needs and current consciousness of the broader population.

This impatience pushes some activists to create change “now” — the urge to harvest the crops without having first plowed and sown the field.  Working people soon get dismissed as being “not radical enough,” and the most progressive participants become further isolated. No social movement can survive with this dynamic; in fact, many have died from this disease.

For example, in the late 60s, the Students for a Democratic Society became a massive organization with real movement potential, until they started to suffer from impatience and split into two; a more radical isolated group (the Weathermen) who left control of the group to the more Conservative liberals. Both factions killed the movement. The liberals drove the group into the movement-killing Democratic Party. The radicals isolated themselves from the working class. The SDS’s sad end was due to its inability to wage a fight that engaged the broader population into struggle, since without the wider population’s participation, winning demands becomes impossible. This inability to “win” demoralizes activists and drives them to desperation via sectarian radicalism or its opposite — compromise with the establishment.

To prevent the Occupy Movement from experiencing a similar tragedy, the 99% must be engaged in a concrete fight. There are a few key demands that can galvanize the broader population to fight at this time; they are similar to the demands fought for during the Great Depression: Jobs Not Cuts and Tax the Rich. If the national Occupy Movement fought for a massive public jobs program and against cuts to social programs —including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, extended unemployment insurance, education, etc. — by massively taxing the wealthy and corporations, the vast majority of working people would join the movement until it was capable of actually winning these demands.

The two political parties would reel under this pressure and would either make concessions or be quickly pushed aside. During the struggle, working people would be transformed by their experience, learning firsthand who their friends and enemies are while also being won over to more radical ideas in the process. Fighting for demands and winning them in a united fashion pushes the movement forward and hardens it, because each victory serves to embolden the movement and encourages it to reach for even more. This society-wide process of mass radicalization and action would be a real revolutionary movement.

The Occupy Movement has the potential to catapult its power into a truly massive movement that can challenge the domination of the two major political parties of the 1%. But potential is not always actualized. Its life can be strangled prematurely by ignoring the demands of the 99% and fighting instead for a number of fragmented progressive causes that are not yet able to unite the majority.

shamus cookeThe Occupy movement should also reach out to organized labor, which has already been raising the key demands around creating jobs and opposing cuts. Uniting the 99% in concrete struggle is the issue of the day, but time is short. The Occupy Movement has the nation’s attention now, but working people’s attention is conditional; they will stay focused on Occupy if Occupy is focused on them.

Shamus Cooke

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist and writer for Workers Action (


  1. dusty says

    Obviously I meant Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the ensuing garment workers organizing that resulted in unionization. During the long struggle to organize unions across the US goons, National Guard troops, Pinkertons and company security gall uards (more goons), and regular police departments and sheriffs have repeatedly attacked unarmed strikers and union organizers as the police and politicians have allowed “the property rights” of the 1% trump the civil and human rights of the 99%.

    • dusty says

      Sorry for a mistype, security gall uards are actually security guards — sometimes it hard to type when you have just got started in the morning.

  2. dusty says

    I don’t know where Shamus Cooke actually lives and operates. In Los Angeles the jobs movement has been getting good support from OccupyLA and visa versa and the Labor movement in LA, as in many places, is supportive and active in the Occupy movement. As far as SDS, I worked with SDS people from the mid 60s on into the 70s and many were active supporters of community organizing and I saw them walking the picket lines at strikes in support of workers. On the other hand, there was great agitation within labor against SDS and other leftists as CIA plants, AIFLD or some such was the CIA front, within the US labor movement worked to divide and conquer by playing on the cold war anti-communism to turn workers against students. The CIA continued to do this infiltration and disorganize into the 80s and worked to hinder solidarity with the El Salvadorean peoples movement and to oppose Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. It is true that there was a split in SDS but it wasn’t just the weather underground as there were RYM I and RYM II organizations in some places as well as other groups such as Rising Up Angry in Chicago. While I agree with much in this article I think it would behove writers such as Shamus Cooke to show an awareness of Intelpro and other FBI efforts to destroy the movement using agent provocateurs to insight violence that was then used as agi-prop by the system against the working people and leftists. My own education included training in grass roots organizing as well as Alinsky type “grass tips” balance-of-power capitulate is okay organizing that seeks to use one community against another to grab a bigger share of the crumbs at the edge of the table of the 1% controlled society. I was personally trained by Saul and knew him as well as the Industrial Areas Foundation where I attended training. Saul was admirable but his strategy was bound to keep those imprisoned by poverty and powerless in that situation because there was no vision toward a new society. From my visits and participation in “Occupy” activities in three places in CA and one in Arizona I am impressed by the progress that has been made although what the future holds is very cloudy. Yes, there does need to be some focus or foci for the movement. Attacking the financial system with rhetoric is not enough, political action is a possibility but it is also a field for fools. Too often people work within the political system and end up believing that, even if they lose, just a little more will win and at last as the win disappears into the receding horizon disillusionment sets in and then despair and resignation. The violence shown in the counteract by the system the last few days in just the beginning of the effort to repress the Occupy movement. WHERE IS THE OUTCRY AGAINST THE ACTIONS OF THE POLICE? IF THIS WERE SYRIA OR OTHER COUNTRIES THE US WOULD BE DEMANDING THE RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND AN END TO POLICE VIOLENCE AGAINST THE PEOPLE OF THE NATION. Frederick Douglas was a true revolutionary who supported action against slavery — as was John Brown who took the fight to the trenches and was martyred by the US government and of course the number of union members who lost their lives as martyrs for the movement is immense — from the mines of Colorado, Arizona and the West to the women workers in the garment industry: think the waist coat workers. We the 99% have a long history of fighting back against the attempt to imprison our movements and now we have arisen again and we will devise the strategy and tactics to move against the 1%. For the record I was a rank and file elected officer of a approximately 30,000 member local and later the President of another independent local and did both community organizing and labor organizing. At the several Occupy sites that I have visited I have observed demands for social security protection, medicare and single payer medical for all, support for education and housing as well as stances against the ugliness exhibited by the right against “illegal immigrants” and anchor babies. In summary — the demands of the 99% do involve the awareness and demand for justice and for programs such as jobs that will begin to immediately help the working class — and yes the reaction from the reactionaries in both political parties will expose their hypocrisy but at that point the forces for progressive change will further formulate their own strategey and tactics to achieve the strategic goals that will bring about a better society that can only be faintly visualized now but will become real through struggle. Success is not guaranteed but there is a better chance with hard, committed, vigilant struggle that brings out unity between and among peoples and as Shamus hopes brings more power to the movement.

  3. Pam says

    I like how people keep saying what the Occupy movement should do, instead of getting out there and doing it themselves.

  4. Val Eisman says

    Excellent article. Excellent points. But a person has to go through the tedious assembly process, attend lots of meetings. IN Oakland they vote at 11 p.m. at night? How can working people participate in such a movement? The answer is they cannot.

  5. D.W. Landes says

    Mr. Cooke the question that should be raised are those protestors signed up to vote?
    Is that OM group’s patchwork organization focus on a course of action to make changes?
    An unified voting block, insuring not a hollow pledge,with possible say action to remove the under 35s from supporting the growing boomers.
    Just as Ms Parks and the bus, started others into action or BOA bank fees increase started the Move your money.
    Could this be only a glorified tailgate party outside the arena!

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