The Forest for the Trees: New York and May Day, Post-Zuccotti

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The Forest for the Trees: New York and May Day, Post-Zuccotti

May Day 2013 in NYC Photo By: Joshua Stephens
May Day 2013 in NYC Photo By: Joshua Stephens

It was still mild enough such that light sleeves or a hoodie were sufficient, when Occupy Wall Street first stepped out with the major labor unions as Fall stretched its legs in 2011. The jog between Foley Square and Zuccotti Park can be put at spitting distance, without much exaggeration, but a march was staged between the two, nonetheless. I’d taken up a role at the base of the steps leading down into Zuccotti, holding a perimeter around a designated area for the steadily snowballing media circus that had swelled around the movement. As the march streamed in from Broadway, the composition of the park, and thus the composition of all it had come to frame, morphed to reveal color-coded union affiliations donned by rank and file workers as numerous as the regulars on the ground and the media scrum, combined. Knowing glances could be plainly seen passing between workers taking in the participatory processes and self-organization that had, at that point, caught just about everyone off-guard. The union leadership on hand looked visibly nervous.  Suddenly, however briefly, their usefulness was backlit by a methodology utterly at odds with the inertia to which they’d played stewards. And it was working. A moment was had, you could say.

Within a few months, even Salon was talking about it. Shortly thereafter, workers at an Upper East Side location for the local Hot and Crusty deli chain had begun agitating around unpaid wages, kickbacks, not meeting minimum wage requirements, and forcing deliverymen to buy and maintain their own bikes. When a union was voted for, the owners announced they were closing up shop, workers occupied the space, and the fight went straight to the front of Occupy-related news feeds all over the city. Many of the organizers –based with the Laundry Workers Center-- had come out of traditional unions, in search of more freedom and creative, grassroots organizing options, and with Occupy working-groups still operating all over the city (namely, the Immigrant Worker Justice working group), a dynamic support base existed and community support was mobilized to picket the space . In the end, the deli was reopened, and the workers rehired, under unionization. It was a rare and otherwise unlikely victory.

Similarly worker-led, community-driven workplace actions unfolded, elsewhere. At the Golden Farm grocery in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn, workers challenged an owner who’d failed to pay overtime or back wages from the time the store opened a decade and a half ago. New York Communities for Change backed them in forming a union to demand back wages and benefits, and community groups like 99 Pickets and one of the remaining neighborhood assemblies spun out of Zuccotti into the boroughs, Occupy Kensington, mobilized the local community in a boycott, and escalated actions around the fight where workers were restricted by labor laws.

Rather high-profile and major workplace strikes were staged on the part of fast food workers (generating international headlines), and school bus drivers (a story that preoccupied a considerable chunk of New York’s population), in the last six months, though with conspicuously and considerably less substantive support within Occupy-related circles. This, on effectively the same timeline in which Occupy Sandy has taken center stage as a reconstructive disaster response operation, with an eye toward the prefigurative; the project has been seeding worker-cooperatives in the Rockaways, of late, to bolster community self-determination as a bulwark against disaster capitalism. “I feel like Occupy Sandy was a huge privilege-check for a lot of folks in the [Occupy] network,” says George Machado, a young organizer from the early days in Zuccotti. “It forced people out into the city to actually meet people on the margins, instead of theorizing in a park, waiting for everyone to come to us.”

It’s hard not to see in all of this an innovative, migrating democratization of the methodology that captured imaginations a year and a half ago. Recent workers’ actions have achieved successes and visibility in New York unseen in decades, and horizontalism is practically a default template for organizing. Machado sees a sort of hybridization afoot. “[There’s been an] uptick in grassroots organizing that is bridging the causes of labor with other ones. I think we're going to see a lot of organically intersectional groups appearing. At same time I think we’ll see some subversion of a lot negative and bureaucratic tendencies of big labor.” Nonetheless, seemingly expired vestiges of Occupy Wall Street still (somewhat inexplicably) animate a core of young organizers attached to its discreet, orthodox identity, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the methods they champion have already, in many ways, won the day, and continue to proliferate.

This year’s largest May Day event in NYC was, by far, the immigrant rights rally and march from Union Square – attended by well over 4,000 people. From the rally’s stage, one could hear accounts of immigrant community organizing post-Sandy, immigrant student struggles, and precisely zero about political candidates, despite the mayoral campaigns under way. Flags representing a staggering array of New York City’s diaspora communities were strung across the square, and banners and placards in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, and Hindi (among others) ran the entire length of the march to City Hall. By comparison, a gathering of maybe thirty assembled hours later at Foley Square for the “Occupy People’s Assembly” – a sort of orthodox reboot of Zuccotti’s General Assembly model, due to be repeated monthly. Toward what end, it’s not apparent.

“I think there are definitional difficulties in talking about Occupy Wall Street getting behind any particular worker struggle or campaign,” says Sundrop Carter; a lawyer in labor circles, heavily involved in 99 Pickets. “Most of the actual people involved in the groups that provided support were people that were already connected with worker and immigrant struggles before coming to Occupy spaces, and brought that commitment to the groups they joined.” What May Day in New York may have spelled this year was the definitive closing of one chapter of grassroots struggle, projected onto headlines and TV screens the world over, and the opening of new chapters – as of yet without the burden of projections. What remains to be seen is whether those who in recent years modeled and broadcast horizontal, participatory methods for struggle can countenance their adaptation under different conditions – even where that yields previously unimaginable successes, and an entirely new terrain.

 

Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and has been active in anticapitalist, international solidarity, and worker-cooperative movements across the last two decades. He currently divides his time between the northeastern U.S. and various parts of the Mediterranean.