When workers in 1936 sat down at a GM plant in Flint, Michigan, they didn’t know their moment was a turning point. In the same way, it’s too soon to tell if Zucotti Park, Manhattan, is a turning point. But the Occupy Wall Street movement which began there is already having an impact. Six weeks ago, debt limit debates and Republican presidential talking points dominated the news. Now, Wall Street corruption, corporate money in politics, and the profound concentration of wealth have been at the top of the news agenda for weeks.
In an Oct. 9-10 poll by Time magazine, 54 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the Occupy Wall Street protests, while just 23 percent had an unfavorable opinion, and 23 percent no opinion. [By contrast, 27 percent said they had a favorable opinion toward the Tea Party.] And even larger percentages agreed with the message of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Of the 79 percent of respondents who said they were aware of the protests, 86 percent agreed that Wall Street has too much influence in Washington; 79 percent agreed that the gap between rich and poor has grown too large; 71 percent agree that financial executives are responsible for the 2008 meltdown and should be prosecuted; and 68 percent said the rich should pay more taxes.
For organized labor — which has always focused on economic justice — it’s a moment of vindication, and of excitement over the movement’s potential.
Around the country, unionists at every level of the labor movement are coming out to support the Occupy demonstrations and encampments. Though protesters express it in different ways, their message is clear: Wall Street is making life worse for the 99 percent of Americans who aren’t part of the economic elite. Many unionists have been making that point since the 2008 financial crash and been largely ignored, but larger numbers, and the ongoing nature of the “occupation,” are making Occupy Wall Street impossible to ignore.
Occupy Wall Street started with a July 13 call by the magazine Adbusters for 20,000 people to “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.” A group of activists in New York City took up the call, and the protest began on Sept. 17 with 1,000 people marching to protest Wall Street dominance of politics and the economy. About 150 spent the night in Zucotti Park and Occupy Wall Street was born. Their slogan, “We are the 99 percent” is meant to draw attention to the great divide between the wealthiest and the rest.
At first, the camp got little attention, but on Sept. 24, police arrested 80 protesters. Video footage of police pepper-spraying a group of female demonstrators went viral online, sparking public outrage and media coverage.
On Sept. 28, 700 members of the Air Line Pilots Association, in their Continental and United Airlines uniforms, marched in support of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. That night, 38,000-member Transport Workers Union Local 100, representing New York City’s public transit workers, voted to support Occupy Wall Street, and called for an Oct. 5 rally and march to Foley Square.
At that point, union support grew daily. The National Nurses Union, Communications Workers of America, the United Auto Workers, United Food & Commercial Workers, and 1199 Hospital and Health Care Workers/SEIU joined the Oct. 5 mass march, which drew 15,000 people. United Auto Workers (UAW) president Bob King committed people and money for supplies. Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) president Larry Hanley urged 200 local presidents in a conference call to get their members out into the streets for Occupy demonstrations.
Within a week, there were Occupy events in dozens of cities. On Oct. 15, 951 actions took place in 82 countries.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced that the AFL-CIO — the 12.2 million-member labor federation with which most U.S. unions are affiliated — stands with Occupy Wall Street. “Participants in Occupy Wall Street are … declaring that ‘We are the 99 percent’ because our system is desperately, decisively out of whack,” Trumka said. “The top 1 percent is pocketing massive profits and dominating our politics while everyone else struggles to make ends meet.”
“The brave students, workers, and unemployed Americans occupying Wall Street have shaken the conscience of our nation,” said Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Mary Kay Henry Oct. 5, pledging that her 2.1 million member union would join protesters in the streets. “The crowds and demonstrations will only get larger and louder as more Americans find the courage inside themselves to stand up and demand Wall Street CEOs and millionaires pay their fair share to create good jobs now.”
So when on Oct. 13 New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved to oust Occupy Wall Street from the park, several hundred thousand people signed on-line petitions – including over 20,000 collected in just two hours by the AFL-CIO. Bloomberg backed down, and Occupy Wall Street continues.
In Portland, the Occupy Wall Street movement arrived Oct. 6. Protesters gathered at noon at Waterfront Park, and marched through downtown chanting, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” They rallied 10,000-strong in Pioneer Courthouse Square, filling the massive plaza elbow-to-elbow. They then marched to Lownsdale and Chapman parks, where an overnight encampment was set up.
Joining the Oct. 6 march were members of Laborers Local 483, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Roofers, Carpenters, Painters, IATSE, SEIU, Teamsters and other unions. An 11-member crew from Laborers Local 483 handed out snacks to the protesters, and a crew from Laborers Local 296 and 483 handed out breakfast foods the following morning.
As the encampment continued, SEIU donated port-a-potties, and brought food, canopies and supplies.
AFSCME Locals 189, 88, 328 (representing City, County, and OHSU employees respectively) passed resolutions encouraging members to participate, and pledged $1,000 donation. [AFSCME stands for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.]
ATU Local 757 (representing transit workers) endorsed Occupy Portland and sent the Oregon AFL-CIO $1,000 to help feed the protest site.
“Occupy folks all over the country are delivering the message that Wall Street and the corporate elite have caused this recession and are doing nothing to help us get out of it,” said Ken Allen, Oregon AFSCME executive director.
In Portland, several hundred are spending the night each night. Occupiers make decisions at a “general assembly” every night at 7 p.m. which is broadcast online. Plans are now for regular marches every Saturday at noon.
Oregon AFSCME and Oregon AFL-CIO are working on a labor march for Wednesday Oct. 26. Marchers will gather at 5 p.m. at Director Park and march to the protest camp at about 5:30.
Occupy has also spread to other locations in Oregon and Southwest Washington, and Facebook groups had formed even for Occupy Cottage Grove.
Ashland: 250 gathered Oct. 6 in Ashland’s Plaza and about 15 Occupy Ashland protesters set up an encampment.
Salem: Occupy Salem began Oct. 10 with a rally of hundreds in Wilson Park on the west side of the capitol building. Home care union leader SaunDra Thomaston spoke at the rally, which SEIU Local 503 helped publicize. Protesters set up an encampment and spent the night. Wednesday night, however, after police announced they would arrest anyone with a tent, the camp was moved across the street to the YWCA parking lot. Each morning it returns to Wilson Park at 6 a.m., decamping to the YWCA at 10 p.m. each evening.
Eugene: Occupy Eugene began Oct. 15 in Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza, with up to 2,000 taking part in a rally and march. Up to 150 protesters set up camp in the Park Blocks at 8th Avenue, and remained as of press time. Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy
Vancouver: About 700 people turned out for an Oct. 15 Occupy Vancouver Washington assembly at Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver, including members of SEIU and ILWU Local 4.
Bend: About 150 marched Oct. 15, and about 25 set up an Occupy Bend camp across from Pioneer Park at a parking lot at the corner of Wall and Olney. On Oct. 17, the city granted the group a permit to camp there
Roseburg: Organizers reported 200 took part at an Oct. 15 Occupy Roseburg rally at the Roseburg court house.
Corvallis: As of press time, over 100 people were committed to attend an Oct. 18 planning meeting for Occupy Corvallis.