Occupy Wall Street : Organized Labor Jumps In as Movement Grows, Evolves





Article and Photos By Stephen Holmes
UWS Correspondent

Recently, stories in this space asked when and if labor unions would join the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests and movement that began on September 17th in Zuccotti Park (renamed Liberty Square by the protestors) in New York City. Now the floodgates have opened. Many New York City and national unions have made statements of or taken actions in support, there is almost continuous media coverage, and similar protests have broken out across the country. As the coverage and support grow for “Occupy,” the questions such as What do the protestors want? are being replaced by What is the next step?

Perhaps the most dramatic labor support for Occupy Wall Street came early on with Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 refusing to transport protestors arrested during a march on the Brooklyn Bridge. In rapid succession, Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, issued a statement of support, the AFL-CIO's Next Up Young Workers Summit issued a resolution that ends with “We Are One.”, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), called for Americans to listen to the protestors.

By far the largest show of support was the October 5th Labor/Community March that was organized by New York City unions and community groups to show solidarity with the protestors. Unions marched with Occupy Wall Street from their base in Zuccotti Park to Foley Square for a rally and then back near Wall Street. Several thousand people took part peacefully under fairly heavy police watch. There were, however, a small number of arrests as protestors tried to break through police lines near the end of the march. It is safe to say that any reservations organized labor had about supporting Occupy Wall Street have largely dissipated.

Since that time, media coverage of Occupy has increased exponentially. The movement is now frequently the lead story on cable or network news.  This has, in turn, led to more politicians commenting “for” (US House of Representatives Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi) or “against” Occupy (Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain). In this short time, other self-started Occupy movements have begun in their own cities, with rallies and protests breaking out in DC and Boston, among other cities. At a recent New York rally, a union member mentioned to this reporter having already appeared on NBC and CNN. At the same rally, a construction worker was observed being interviewed several different times by television outlets. Hardhats are suddenly in.

Increased coverage has brought additional scrutiny and pressures on the Occupy movement. What's the next step? Commentators have called this a pivotal, delicate moment for the protests, as traditional media searches and struggles for descriptive labels to attempt to describe a movement that has, so far, shunned leaders and defied easy categorizations.

One suggested avenue is the movement broadens to encompass the grassroots elements of the Tea Party. “Occupy” in many ways remains a group of activists upset about the direction of their country, in the same manner early Tea parties viewed the Republican party as no longer representing “true conservative values.” In a similar fashion, some of the harshest vitriol taking place in Zuccotti Park is directed at President Obama and the Democrats. Pretty quickly, however, the Tea Party mantle was co-opted by large groups, such as FreedomWorks, set up by former US House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Americans for Prosperity co-founded by billionaire David Koch, as well as numerous politicians eager to tap into the anger and dissatisfaction on the right. The same thing may well happen with the Occupy protests. In addition to unions aligning themselves with Occupy Wall Street, groups like Progressives United run by former Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold and Rebuild the Dream by former Obama adviser Van Jones are now explicitly supportive (Signs produced by Rebuild the Dream were prevalent at the October 5th rally).

Will this leaderless movement without a defined message have both imposed upon them, and is this necessary for it to effect real change in the country? Stay tuned for more updates.