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Occupy London and the unions: brothers in arms or a marriage made in hell?

Occupy London came out in support of the N30 public sector strike over pension reform - but there was disagreement among the ranks. Can Occupy support Britain's unions, and what can the unions learn from the movement?

Jamie Mackay
1 December 2011

This week’s public sector strikes over proposed changes to the current pension system won the support of many affiliated but non-affected groups. The 30th November saw UKUncut, NCAFC, and Coalition of Resistance as well as student groups and charities, march across the UK in solidarity with the major unions. Though David Cameron was quick to brand the action as a ‘damp squib’, the atmosphere on the street was energetic and empowering. In London, the usual signs and slogans of competing agendas were to be found alongside groups dressed in festive and satirical costumes, but amongst this carnivalesque display it was the Occupy movement’s message, towering high above the other banners and complete with bright orange lettering, which demanded attention.

At the rear of the march towards the Victoria Embankment, members of the St. Paul’s camp wheeled along three large pillars roughly 20 feet in height and sporting the words ‘All Power to the 99%: Occupy’. Stopping every few minutes for members of the press to frantically congregate and take photographs, it was a suitably grand and iconic gesture; impossible to ignore.

occupystrike.jpg

Given the statement of support posted on the movement’s webpage on the 25th November it is unsurprising that Occupy had such a large presence at the march but the potential implications of this gesture are significant both for public perceptions of the movement and for its supporters’ own conceptions of the political identity of the group. Indeed, how heavily the Occupy movement is seen to support the specific case of resisting public sector pension reform will have far reaching implications on their relationship with other resistance groups and so too with the Government. 

The main question related to this is the extent to which the issue of opposition to public sector pension reform can be said to reflect the demands of the 99% - something particularly important given the continual insistence of Occupy London that this is their fundamental concern. It is the perceived earnestness of this pledge that has given the participants a degree of credibility and public support and as such the potential accusation of hypocrisy on this point could prove to be pivotal. What makes this all the more complex is that attitudes of the individual activists as to the level of Occupy London’s endorsement of the November 30th strike remain diverse. This nebulousness of Occupy has constituted both its strength and its weakness but the level of dispute as to whether to support the strikes has presented one of the largest challenges so far to the group’s consensus model of reaching decisions. 

The Occupy members to whom I spoke fell into four major groups regarding the issue. Firstly, there are those who fully support the strike, believing the specific issue of public sector pension reform to be a demand of the 99% and the method of striking as a necessary form of action. As such this group could be said to support both the specific principle of the unions’ case as well as establishing the method of striking as compatible with Occupy’s ethos. When I asked one activist about the tactics employed by the unions, he responded - “The unions need to move towards a general strike. We have shown them that it is possible to keep a self-sustaining community outside of employment. Now it’s time for them to take the next step.”

Secondly, there are those who see the strikes as indicative of something wider than individual concern with pensions – as part of a critique of neoliberal capitalism – and the method as being a different but still useful means of eliciting change. This group could be said to support the implicit principle of the public sector protest while seeing the method of striking as necessarily different to that of Occupy. “It’s not really about pensions” was something I heard many times, alongside the claim that different forms of resistance are required to create lasting change - “The Civil Rights Act could not have been passed without Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers.” 

Thirdly, in a similar vein, are those who maintain that the strikes represent more than just dissatisfaction with Government negotiations but who are more explicitly vehement in their rejection of the strike method on account of the potential disruption caused to members of the public. “We have worked so hard to make our case without alienating the people who we want to be involved with us” said a member of Occupy’s outreach team. “The idea of striking, of causing inconvenience to the very people who are already being victimized, just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Finally, there are those who lament what they perceive as self interest on the part of union members. This group stand by the notion that by and large the strikers do not see themselves as part of the 99% and that they have failed to understand the larger structural reasons for the cuts  - “When their pensions are on the line they’re all ready to come out and act. Act? I mean not go to work. It’s not like they are actually doing anything. What about all the other problems we have? What are they doing then? Sitting on their arses.”

It is important when judging and appraising these four voices to remember that the Occupy movement’s banners on Wednesday did not read ‘Occupy Supports the Strike’. While their website presents the movement as endorsing the strike method the dominant rhetoric on the march was a continuation of that which is to be found at the St. Paul’s camp and in their initial statement. Similarly, the group of activists who targeted the Xstrata building and attempted to occupy it demonstrate not only that the movement was prioritising its own tactics on November 30th but that it was able to do so with respect for of all of the above viewpoints including those of the striking union members. This was the most impressive characteristic of the day’s actions - the realisation of consensus as something innovative and practical and not simply a long-winded way of achieving compromise.

What the Occupy movement asks us to do is to step back from the immediate issue and to observe that the top-down implementation of cuts upon workers, while individuals such as Mick Davis receive annual pay packages of £17.7m, is an intrinsic concern of the 99%. Public or private sector, striker or non-striker, Occupy remind us that the public sector pension reforms are inherently related to questions of financial regulation, corporate and individual greed and the current austerity measures. They emphasise that whether the strikers are motivated by self interest or otherwise, by pressure from colleagues or ideological zeal - the idea that the public sector should pay the price of a crisis instigated by the financial sector while those responsible continue to make huge profits, is undemocratic and affects us all. It is the disproportionate influence of the 1% on Government policy, the relationship between Xstrata and the pension reforms, that make this an issue for the 99%.

By pursuing their own agenda on these terms and not allowing the plurality of positions to obscure the chance to act, Occupy London didn’t undermine the union’s case on November 30th but situated it within a larger debate. The rhetoric of the 99% may sit uncomfortably with the more archaic elements of union democracy but it is important to consider the former term more as a means of explicating wealth divide than as correlating to the group’s currently successful consensus system. As such, rather than dwelling on whether Occupy should be backing unions, the more pressing issue is how union members may support the wider aims of Occupy while making their own institutional system of democracy more effective.

Occupy London, thus far, has shown itself to be a powerful and adaptive group and they may yet prove to be a significant force in diverting claims of self-interest away from the unions. If this is to be successful though, the unions themselves must look to Occupy’s strategic example as a matter of urgency in order to develop a more progressive and effective means of resistance against the current plan of cuts and the system which presents them as necessary.

James Mackay is a freelance writer based in London.

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