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The One Demand: Hire People to Do Stuff

The idea that a diverse global movement would settle on a singular idea on which to move forward isn’t very realistic. The Tea Party never had to do it outside of a bumper sticker like “smaller government.” But the Demands working group at Zuccotti Park is working around to that one demand, and not surprisingly, it involves the most important problem facing the nation today.

The Demands group, first publicized yesterday by the New York Times, hasn’t shared its proposal until now. The plan would involve the federal government raising about $1.5 trillion in new revenue and using it to create 25 million new public-sector jobs paying union-level wages. It would put Americans to work building bridges, roads, and affordable housing; providing free public transportation and free university education for all; staffing a single-payer health care system; and pursuing clean-energy research.

“We are talking about direct public employment, where you are working for the government—everything from wielding a shovel to educating engineers,” says Lerner, who drew inspiration from the Depression-era Civil Work and Works Progress Administrations. The 35 members of the Demands Group will vote Tuesday afternoon on how to build support for the plan before taking it up with the General Assembly, the open-ended group that serves as the protest’s governing body.

Given that Occupy Wall Street is the first, largest, and most high-profile of the dozens of occupations around the country, any demand that it adopts could have a major impact on the movement. But it’s not all clear whether Lerner’s demand, or any demand, for that matter, will make the cut.

I would hesitate to say this will be the one demand out of Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, or that one is totally needed. Adbusters, which inspired the first meeting in Zuccotti Park on September 17, wants a global march on a financial transactions tax, or a “Robin Hood tax,” on October 29. There are a lot of ideas out there.

Furthermore, there is some controversy about whether this will get voted on in consensus or through some super-majority measure, and whether the one demand should be made at all. It is a hell of an opening bid, however. You’re talking about something four times the size of the American Jobs Act, to fund direct public works.

And by the way, it’s not all that radical a concept. The Local Jobs for America Act, the AFL-CIO’s big public works plan and Alan Grayson’s new Civilian Conservation Corps all attempted something similar, at different levels, when Democrats were in charge in 2009-2010. And it may even be fully funded!

The other thing that’s clear is that this Congress will not pass such a measure, or anything of value, in the next year. Senate Republicans balked at the AJA, 1/4 the size. They will balk later this week at the state fiscal aid bill for teacher and first responder jobs, at around 1/50 the size. Europe just announced a ban on naked credit default swaps. Byron Dorgan couldn’t even get a vote on that when 59 Democrats were in the Senate. This Congress is captured by corporate interests and uninterested in an actual plan to move the nation forward.

But surely the OWS crowd knows that; it’s part of why they are in the streets. And it’s not to say, as Barney Frank does, that the fault somehow lies with them for not voting for him and his colleagues last year. These are long-held grievances over many years and just about every permutation of Congress. I disagree that “simply being in a public place and voicing your opinion in and of itself doesn’t do anything politically.” It has already changed the national conversation. It has set the table for a bolder agenda in ways that every politician in Washington couldn’t, and in ways that a 15 million-person movement of a new President couldn’t.

Ultimately, the one demand is going to be some version of this: do your job. People are suffering, people are sick to death of the current system. Go make a new one.

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David Dayen

David Dayen