Occupy Wall Street: Let’s not waste this moment

By Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO President

Thousands of Oregonians who believe in the message of the 99% flooded downtown Portland Saturday and Sunday in support of maintaining the Occupy Portland encampment.

For many, the camp itself was the movement. For others, the camp was an important symbol of a larger movement that has captured the imagination and the promise of hope for Americans who believe that their government has failed them, who lost confidence in elected officials when they close their eyes to the lack of jobs and the loss of homes, in favor of deep-pocketed supporters from Wall Street.

For others, the closure of the camp is positive, unshackling the movement from the camp that had become a magnet for the homeless, mentally ill, and those in the grip of alcohol and drugs — the people most failed by the system the 99% is protesting but, unfortunately, also those whose presence brought a growing need for services and growing public safety concerns.

Over several weeks I have met with various members of the encampment’s committees.  They all had the symptoms of weariness about their eyes, but all were fearless, and have a true belief in their message and mission of social and economic justice.

Pundits have tried to define the 99ers as a political movement.  They are not, and they may not evolve into one.  Remember — in large part, these are the folks who dove into the 2008 election of change and expected a new America, where we all shared in wealth and prosperity.  Instead, they have witnessed more wealth transferred to the über-rich.  They are disenfranchised from the political system and believe that change can only occur from social activism.

The strength of the 99% is not in their political ambitions, and it is not dependent on an encampment.

Physically occupying a park long-term isn’t sustainable.  But such a strategy was essential, bringing attention and focus to the movement and the problems inherent with an economic and social system that has forgotten about the vast majority of Americans.

For the 99% — at least in Portland — to survive will require it to evolve into a sustainable movement.  To do so they must maintain their unique identity.  They must continue to deny any group the power to co-opt them.

As union leaders we need to understand that while we are part of the movement, we are not the leaders of the movement.  Much like the relationship between the Civil Rights and union movements, our movements will often complement each other.

We have similar goals and objectives, and we can fight shoulder-to-shoulder to restore American social and economic justice.  But we must treat the 99% leadership, whether it is the general assembly or committees, a new governance structure or a continuing evolution of leadership, as equals.

Our best chance for change in America is ensuring that the 99% movement survives and evolves — beyond the park encampments — and into the future.  They will need funds, supplies and support.

We will need to develop a relationship with them where we all listen and respect each other’s ideas and perspectives.

The 99% is on our side.  It is a moment in history that will not be repeated for generations.  We must continue to be on their side.  Let’s not waste this moment.

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