Organized labor was back in the streets Oct. 26 to show support for Occupy Portland. In a 1,000-strong rally and march organized by the Oregon AFL-CIO, Oregon AFSCME and others, the message was of solidarity and gratitude — for the protesters who have camped across from City Hall since Oct. 6.
Occupy Portland is one of hundreds of occupations around the country inspired by Occupy Wall Street.
In recent days and weeks, news outlets that ignored earlier labor marches of thousands have swarmed all over the Occupy Portland camp, but sometimes have reported more on what protesters wear and what they smoke than what they have to say or why they’re there. Much of the reporting has focused on homeless and mentally ill people who’ve joined the encampment, concerns about damage to the park, criticisms of the “illegality” of camping in parks, and details of internal disputes and disorganization.
Labor’s Oct. 26 march was intended to demonstrate that the Occupy cause has broad popular support, and to insist that the focus return to what motivated the protests to begin with — anger over the capture of the U.S. political system by a financial elite, and the wreckage they’ve made of the economy which the other 99 percent of Americans rely upon.
“Some people in the media say that there’s concerns about safety, about this, that and the other thing,” Toby Green — an organizer for the Laborers union — told rally-goers. “I want to applaud the occupiers, because they have made everyone down there feel welcome.”
Green, echoing a call his national union has been making since 2008, said America needs a national jobs program to put people back to work — and should pay for it by taxing the rich investment firms to pay their fair share.
“I’m proud of you, Occupy Portland,” declared Ken Allen, executive director of the 25,000-member public sector union Oregon AFSCME. “If we’re going to take back our future, our first step is to show that we’re pissed off.”
While several local union activists have camped at the Occupy Portland site, the encampment’s labor liaison is Tony Zilka, a 20-year-old singing busser on the Portland Spirit river cruise ship. Zilka told ralliers that the union example is one of the inspirations of the Occupy movement.
“We’re a coalition of freedom fighters,” Zilka said. “We are here to fight for YOU.”
“We were promised change we could believe in,” Chamberlain said. “We fought hard. We got people elected. We were told things were going to change. They didn’t change, did they?”
“What’s exciting about this movement is this: We’re scaring the hell out of those elected leaders today,” Chamberlain said.
There are dangerous times ahead, Chamberlain said, as was seen in Oakland and Atlanta, where police moved in forcibly to displace occupiers.
“The corporatists and the corporate media are going to push back. We’re not going to be violent, but by God, we’re going to stand our ground.… We are the 99 percent and we’re not going to take it any more, we’re not going to go away. We built this damn country. These are our streets. This is our city. This is our state. This is our nation.”