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Labor and Progressive Groups Join Occupy Wall Street in Solidarity March

This evening, labor support for the Occupy Wall Street movement will be on full display, as union members march from New York City Hall to Liberty Plaza.
 
 
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The increasing labor and left support for the Occupy Wall Street movement will be on full display this evening, as members of unions and long-time community groups march from New York City Hall to meet the occupation activists in Zuccotti Park, AKA Liberty Plaza. The march arrives as the two-week-old occupation is capturing national media attention, receiving ugly police pushback, and spawning dozens of actions across the United States.

While union members have been part of Occupy Wall Street from the beginning, the past week has been marked by increasingly broad and public union support. Friday AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka described the action as "a valid tactic," and "being in the streets" as "sometimes the only recourse you have." Sunday the AFL-CIO distributed a statement passed by delegates at its Young Workers Summit declaring solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Trumka yesterday told Mike Elk of In These Times that the AFL-CIO will vote on an official endorsement today. Occupy Wall Street this week drew the official support of large international unions including the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the United Steel Workers (USW), and the nation's largest public sector union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Workers (AFSCME).

Meanwhile, several major New York unions and community groups last week announced today's march, which leaves City Hall at 4:30 PM. "In this case," says Dan Cantor, Executive Director of the labor-backed Working Families Party (WFP), "labor is following the youth of America."

Mary Clinton, an Occupy Wall Street activist, led a training on encampment activism at the AFL-CIO's national Young Workers Summit in Minneapolis and proposed the solidarity resolution passed there. Clinton says she was encouraged by the broad support among the summit's 800 participants, and sees supporting Occupy Wall Street as a chance for unions "to participate in a broader struggle which I think will be necessary in order to make the gains we want to see and will benefit their members." Clinton, a former organizing intern with the Writer's Guild of America, is now a graduate student in labor studies at the City University of New York (CUNY). She describes linking arms with Occupy Wall Street and community allies as a better way forward for labor unions. Too many, she argues, approached the New York City budget debate by "trying to cut backdoor deals." "In order to see a budget that doesn't have cuts in social services and lay off teachers," Clinton says, "we need to see a stronger movement," working more closely with other allies.

In interviews, leaders of groups sponsoring the New York march expressed admiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement and hopes that it would provide momentum for their shared goals. They were also quick to emphasize their sense that their own organizations' commitment to the themes of Occupy Wall Street long predates the new movement. "This is not new," says SEIU District 1199 Communications Director Leah Gonzalez, pointing to the coalition that won a three-year New York State "millionaires' tax" in 2009. "We have been calling for some time, along with other unions in the organized labor movement, that the rich should pay their fair share."

"The issues that they have focused on are obviously things many of us have been working on for years," says Cantor, "and they have done us all a favor by elevating them to an even higher level of public awareness. So it was not a heavy lift to persuade our leadership that this is something we need to do to stand in solidarity with them and to use some of the energy they have created to advance something we all agree on."

Echoing others, Cantor points to three reasons Occupy Wall Street is capturing the national imagination: the resilience protesters have shown in maintaining and growing the occupation; the well-publicized violence by members of the New York Police Department (NYPD) against non-violent protesters; and the unrelenting economic crisis. Occupy Wall Street "didn't cause a crisis - it just exposed the underlying conflict," says James Mumm, Organizing Director for National People's Action. Citing the example of Ella Baker resisting pressure to try to absorb the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) into the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), he said Occupy Wall Street activists "don't need to be co-opted by anybody," but they represent "another constituency or two coming to the movement table."

In a statement, Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 praised "the courage of the young people on Wall Street who are dramatically demonstrating for what our position has been for some time: the shared sacrifice preached by government officials looks awfully like a one-way street." Local 100 has filed a restraining order against the NYPD's occupation of public transit vehicles as paddy wagons. "Our operators are not there to transport folks that are arrested," Local 100 President John Samuelsen told a local TV station, "particularly innocent folks that are arrested. That's particularly appalling to Local 100."

The New York General Assembly, an open decision-making body which meets twice a day in Liberty Park, released its first official statement Thursday, warning that "corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments." It indicts corporations for a string of offenses that include workplace discrimination and resisting collective bargaining. Since taking Liberty Square last month, Occupy Wall Street activists have joined labor protests at Sotheby's and Verizon workers.

While the General Assembly statement, like many activists in interviews, makes no mention of electoral politics or legislation, organizations behind today's march are open about their hopes that the energy of Occupy Wall Street movement, like that of the Tea Party, will be felt in voting booths and legislatures. "You'll never have progressive policy without having progressive candidates elected to office," says Charlie Albanetti, Communications Director for Citizen Action of New York.

Cantor says that in contrast to the Egyptian Revolution, "this is a symbolic protest, not a challenge to the regime so to speak," because "we live in a democracy. We'll know we've succeeded when the values being espoused by the Wall Street protesters find their way into electoral contests, and we put people into office committed to some of the policy reforms they're talking about." Surveying media interviews with participants shows that that's a goal that will be embraced by some Occupy Wall Street participants and dismissed by others. Organizations sponsoring the march pointed to extension of the "millionaire's tax" and creation of public jobs as policies they hope will gain momentum from today's march and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"There's a commonality of purpose," says Albanetti. "At the very least, there's commonality in what we deem to be the problem." Mumm says visiting Liberty Park conjured decade-old memories of the anti-globalization movement that kept gaining steam following anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle but "really collapsed after 9/11." He believes Occupy Wall Street has the potential "to go to the place that the anti-globalization movement ten years ago could have gone, which is to mobilize some constituencies in America that have not worked together the way they have back then."

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He worked as a union organizer for five years. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.
 
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