Unions Rally to Wall Street Occupation

Wall Street occupiers have been sitting in for two weeks. Several unions will rally in support today, and plan to march October 5 starting at New York's City Hall. Photo: David Shankbone

Since September 17 protesters united under the banner of "We are the 99%" have occupied Wall Street—or at least a park a few blocks north. This loose and varied encampment of several hundred mostly young people has been taking a stand against runaway corporate power in the United States and the incredible inequality that exists today.

To this end, they have been practicing nonviolent direct action: leading small and larger marches around the Wall Street area, protesting Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis, picketing at Verizon headquarters with Communications Workers fighting for good contracts, and disrupting auctions at Sotheby’s—which has locked out its unionized workers. (For a good story on the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, check out Liza Featherstone's coverage in Newsday.)

Readers might not have heard about Occupy Wall Street had it not been for what happened last Saturday, when OWS marched to Union Square. As videos show, protesters were met with police attacks, including violent arrests and the pepper-spraying of people in custody.

A few professors at the City University of New York, some of us officers of our union, the Professional Staff Congress, began to plan a solidarity demonstration against these repressive police tactics. We put out a call which was quickly signed by many others: individuals and leaders from the PSC and the UAW; longtime activists and new organizers; journalists and other writers; students and more.

This demo is today, at One Police Plaza in Manhattan at 5:30 p.m. The OWS protesters have voted to join us, and many other groups have now put out a call to come.

But ours is now one of many solidarity efforts being launched. According to reports, Transport Workers Union Local 100 has endorsed OWS, and a big contingent from SEIU 32BJ, the big janitors’ local, arrived Thursday, with banners and signs.

Perhaps most important, a coalition including A Strong Economy for All, which includes many of New York's largest unions, along with Communities for Change, the Working Families Party, and others, have called for a solidarity demonstration on October 5 at 4:30 p.m., starting at City Hall and marching to Zuccotti Park. These organizations mounted the May 12 action that brought more than 10,000 people to Wall Street.

Union Solidarity Two Ways

From where I sit, these are amazing developments. Union solidarity is expressing itself at two levels, both of which are key to the New York City labor movement but have national implications as well.



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Today’s rally is protesting police tactics, which have crushed everyone’s capacity to demonstrate in New York since the Giuliani era in the 1990s—though it got markedly worse after 9/11/2001. Demonstrating in New York has meant, at best, being trapped inside metal pens with strict crowd control, if you're lucky enough to get a permit. Unpermitted marches have been met with violence, massing of officers, and other dangerous and intimidating tactics.

Unions should be out in front challenging these restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly—and today will be a step in that direction.

But more, these unions are now coming out as part of the "99 percent." As in Seattle in 1999, when anarchists and young protesters committed to direct democracy were joined by their brothers and sisters in the unions, OWS has now opened up a space where protesters and union members—usually coming from different cultures and backgrounds—are finding common ground. They’re saying the 99 percent can’t afford not to unite.

I mean, this is a city where its richest citizen is also its mayor—and some unions have spent a lot of time being very cozy with that poster child of the 1 percent.

The unions’ stand against the 1 percent comes just after the membership of New York state's Public Employees Federation rejected an austerity contract this week. PEF President Ken Brynien said his rank-and-file members “clearly feel they are being asked to sacrifice more than others, particularly in light of the pending expiration of the state's millionaire's tax."

It's unclear where this will all lead. But it's good to see some action.

Penny Lewis teaches at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at the City University of New York and is on the executive council of PSC-CUNY, AFT Local 2334.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #391, October 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


fistnbone (not verified) | 10/05/11

I am an active member in my public employee union. While I am excited that unions are joining this fight. I am also concerned about the real possibility that they'll eat up media attention, co-opt the movement, and water it down.

Unions bring a lot to to the table positively. But, we have to recognize that the International Unions they are affiliated are often the biggest obstacle they have to real organizing. Let us hope all goes well.