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In the 1976 movie Network, a deranged news anchor urges his viewers to go to their windows and cry out the now-classic line, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" And so we get a series of shots of ordinary citizens, in cities and towns all over America, doing just that. It's a spontaneous release of pent-up rage over any number of calamities that were befalling the nation at the time. From the standpoint of a moviegoer back then, it was exciting to watch. But with the scene's conclusion came the inescapable question: What now?
That's a question that the Occupy Wall Street movement has been asking itself ever since September 17, 2011, when a group of protesters took up residence in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, handy to New York's Financial District. The driving force behind the action was anger over the widening gap between rich and poor in America - specifically, the skyrocketing fortunes of the wealthiest 1 percent.
Say what you want about the makeup of those who were camping out in civic plazas across the country - a combination of political die-hards, homeless individuals and young people with too much time on their hands - but there was something stirring about the very notion of public protest. Especially in light of the almost eerie sense of apathy that accompanied the build-up to the Great Recession, when a cadre of investment bankers knowingly flooded the market with billions of dollars worth of debt and mortgage-backed bonds that were guaranteed to fail. (A fact that they didn't bother to convey to the hapless buyers of those securities.) A little proletarian uprising back then wouldn't have hurt.
Now we have a supposedly headless movement that's desperately searching for a reason to keep living. With most of the original encampments broken up by local law enforcement, the protesters seem to be flitting from place to place, looking for traction. In a time of alarmingly brief news cycles, they need to be constantly renewing themselves in order to stay relevant.
And so they've hit upon the idea of blocking access to the nation's ports. It began in Oakland on November 2, when a group of up to 10,000 protesters shut down operations for a day. Emboldened by that success, the Occupy movement scheduled a blockade of all major West Coast ports for December 12. The action didn't turn out to be as widespread as protesters had hoped - there was little or no disruption at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach - but it did enough to cause significant backlogs at Oakland and elsewhere on the West Coast, while depriving independent truckers and other workers of a day's pay.
Why ports? Occupy protesters tried to evoke the "1 percent" theme by pointing out that investment-banking giant Goldman Sachs holds a minority stake in SSA Marine, which operates container terminals at the Port of Long Beach and elsewhere. But the crux of their argument rested in the notion that port activities are somehow tied directly to the fortunes of the richest Americans, and that to disrupt them would be to strike a blow against the Capitalist bosses.
In one easy step, the Occupy movement has gone from targeting a small, identifiable number of businesses who possess a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth, to all of business. In the process, they have declared war on ocean carriers, truckers, longshoremen, clerks, forwarders, warehouse workers, retailers large and small, and just about everyone else who makes up the global supply chain. They've migrated from a clear message to one of incoherence.
Significantly, most labor unions refused to go along with the blockades, even though officials of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expressed tepid support for the movement. (I can imagine ILWU leaders complaining: "Nobody shuts down this port except for us!") The very people whom Occupy claims to represent are sharply divided over its methods, especially when the result is a loss of personal income.
Not surprisingly, the entities who keep cargo moving on a daily basis aren't pleased with the antics of Occupy. "The Port [of Oakland] is connected to over 73,000 jobs in the region, and more than 800,000 in the country," Oakland said in a statement. "These are good jobs held by real working people and working families. Disrupting the Port hurts them. It will also hurt our community at a time when unemployment is high and the economy is weak."
Added Michael Shaw, vice president of external affairs with the California Trucking Association: "The Occupy Movement's planned blockade of West Coast ports misses the mark and threatens to hurt the very '99 Percent' that they claim to represent. The hard-working men and women who haul containers in and out of our ports stand to lose a day's earnings due to [this] misguided attempt to hit Wall Street between the eyes."
With their campaign against the nation's ports, Occupy protesters have hit nothing but their own credibility and effectiveness. It's time for this still-amorphous movement to ask itself seriously: What now?
Virtual jobs in Dubai: In other news, Dubai Airports is bragging that it's the first facility in the Middle East to install bilingual "virtual assistants" that provide travel information to passengers. These digital images "create the illusion of a real person," according to Dubai Airports, "cheerfully" greeting and "engaging" with travelers. Yet another triumph of labor-saving technology over flesh and blood. If Occupy wants an issue to chew on, how about the reluctance of companies that are swimming in cash to do any significant new hiring in a time of high unemployment?
Happy Holidays to all.
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