Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Portland Occupiers Go on Strike

Photo appropriated from the Portland Press Herald, because (dammit Jim,) I'm a writer, not a photographer.

Occupy Wall Street protesters celebrated May Day with a nationwide general strike. Workers were encouraged to strike or call-out sick; students and teachers walked out of school; and members of Occupy groups held various rallies, marches, and teach-ins throughout the country. Strikers also put a 24-hour moratorium on banking, shopping, and any other routine chores. The goal was to disrupt business as usual and call attention to the high rate of unemployment, outrageous student debt, and the increasing war on workers’ rights.

Students at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus walked out of classes at 10:30 a.m. and held a press conference at the entrance of Luther Bonney Hall. They explained their reasons for the strike which included the staggering amount of student debt from college loans, the lack of available jobs for those with college degrees, and the ongoing university budget cuts which lead to higher tuition costs. A handful of striking professors also lamented the general erosion of college education, particularly in the Humanities and liberal arts studies.

Protesters then marched in the rain to Congress Square where participants used a makeshift soapbox to voice their economic or societal concerns. Many students talked about their student loan debt. Last week, the national average of student debt reached the $1 trillion mark, surpassing credit card debt.

A number of speakers denounced the corporate two-party duopoly, though a couple of protesters confessed to me, as the Chair of the Portland Green Party, they do not believe a “viable” alternative to Obama exists. (I have addressed this issue at length in previous posts, so I will refer readers to them for my thoughts on why progressives routinely vote against their own interests.)

Economics major Will Gattis talked about the importance of workers to any business, and how paying workers a living wage can increase productivity, the quality of their work and overall job satisfaction. “Workers are actually the most expensive investment for any employer,” Gattis explained. “In fact, Henry Ford, for all his faults, at least understood that if you want to retain good, qualified workers and have them continue to do quality work, you must pay them what they are worth.”

Also present were two members of the Teamsters Union Local 340, and Jonah Fertig, owner and manager of Local Sprouts to pass out free cups of tomato soup to shivering protesters.

A protester named Paul explained he often attends similar rallies. He spoke about Occupy’s need to address, not just economic inequality, but the broader issue of power inequality. “Society is governed by power, and those who have the most power ultimately rule,” Paul said, echoing Marx’s views espoused in his article, “The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideas.”

May Day has long been a day of national protest and worker solidarity demonstrations. But much of the tradition has been erased from history classes and textbooks. The origins of May Day (or International Workers Day as it is known overseas) are widely associated with the Haymarket Square riot of May 4, 1886 in Chicago.

A group of anarchists and labor rights activists gathered in the square to call for an eight-hour workday (at the time, factory and industrial workers often toiled for 12 hours a day or more; many of them were children as child-labor laws did not yet exist). The otherwise peaceful assembly quickly dissolved into chaos when a bomb was detonated by an unknown figure. (Some have speculated the bomb was set off by an agent provocateur working for the Chicago police, but to date no substantial evidence exists to verify this claim.)

The explosion killed seven police officers, and lead to the arrest of eight activists. Labor leaders throughout the country perceived the incident as a declaration of war on workers, and called for more strikes and rallies. While workers eventually succeed in securing a host of workers’ rights and protections (the eight-hour workday among them) a century after the Haymarket riot it is disturbing to see many of these fundamental rights under attack.

The concept of the general strike emerged with the understanding that it is American workers—not the business community--that fuel the economy. Every morning when we wake up and go to work, we are voluntarily consenting to a system that exploits, oppresses, and literally undervalues our labor. Indeed, the greatest irony of democracy is Americans spend the majority of their waking lives in the one arena where their Constitutional freedoms do not apply—their job.

But if we withdraw our consent for one day--ideally more--the system grinds to a halt. The 1 percent, in other words, are nothing without us. Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden drives home this point in a scene in the movie Fight Club, when he explains to a kidnapped 1-percenter, “The people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep.”

To be sure, Tuesday’s cold, rainy weather did not provide the best conditions for a public march and rally, but protesters’ spirits were high nonetheless. “You are all beautiful!” shouted USM student and principal strike organizer, Jake Lowry from the soapbox. “This is only the beginning!”  


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