Labor’s show of solidarity

October 6, 2011

The mood was jubilant as organized labor and thousands of workers crowded the streets of lower Manhattan to march in the largest and most diverse demonstration to date of the Occupy Wall Street movement, reports Danny Katch.

FOR MORE than a year, politicians and the press have pitted private-sector workers against those in the public sector, young people against their elders receiving Social Security, native-born against immigrants, and on and on. But yesterday, over 20,000 people from all walks of life--workers, students and the unemployed--marched through downtown Manhattan with the response that has struck a nerve across the country: "We are the 99 percent!"

The demonstration, originally called by a coalition of New York City unions and community organizations, was the largest and most diverse action to date for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"You can see such a great cross section of society," said investigative journalist and Blackwater author Jeremy Scahill. "From students to steelworkers to plumbers to transit workers to independent journalists--some elected officials, though not enough--all coming out together shows that momentum is starting to shift to the side of the people."

There was a palpable sense of excitement among many of the protesters, particularly those who have struggled through difficult years in the labor movement.

Members of District Council 37 march as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest
Members of District Council 37 march as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest (Morgan Shortell)

"I've been waiting for this movement for a long time," said Mike Hellstrom, principal officer of Laborers Local 1108. "This is the kind of movement needed in America today. The Occupy Wall Street movement has proven in the short term that it's sustainable, it's not a flash in the pan. The labor movement can bring these issues back to centerstage again."

From the front of the rally, Bob Master of the Communications Workers of America told the crowd: "Look around you. This is what democracy looks like. Occupy Wall Street captures the spirit of our time. This is Madison. This is Cairo. This is Tunisia. Occupy Wall Street has started a movement that we are all part of around the world."

This protest was very different from most labor demonstrations. For one thing, workers from different unions were intermingled throughout the crowd, indicating that most of them had come to the protest on their own rather than being mobilized by their unions. (The exception was the hundreds of members of National Nurses United who came from as far away as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.)

And though most labor protests end promptly with people rushing home, nobody wanted to leave when this march reached the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Hundreds of union members hung around the encampment, listening to filmmaker Michael Moore address the crowd near Broadway, checking out the books donated to the "people's library" near Liberty Street, or heading down towards Church Street for the drum circle.

BUT UNION members only made up a portion of the crowd. Several thousand students from New York University, Columbia and the New School formed a feeder march from Washington Square Park. And there were many unemployed folks and nonunion workers--people like Nelson, who came straight from his job at nonunion FedEx, still wearing his uniform.

"They're always trying to pile more work on us," he said. "You do 40 stops, and they want 50. You do 50, they want 60." When Nelson marched with Occupy Wall Street earlier this week, it was his first protest. "I had never seen one before that was for me."

"There have been so many attempts to marginalize and dismiss what's been going on in the plaza," said journalist and Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein. "This just completely explodes the claim that it's just a bunch of hippy kids--not that there's anything wrong with the kids in the park because there's amazing creativity in the way that they're organizing. What we're seeing today is that their courage has inspired and excited the whole city. People seem to have been waiting for someone to invite them."

The one source of frustration during the otherwise celebratory march came once again from the police, who only allowed the march to use one lane of traffic, which considerably slowed the pace and provided a constant reminder of the police repression of Occupy Wall Street protesters the previous two weekends.

At the end of the march at Liberty Park, about 300 protesters broke off for an unpermitted march down to Wall Street. Police encircled them with orange mesh and conducted mass arrests. As this article went to press, videos of police use of pepper spray and physical assaults were popping up on the Internet, and even Fox News reporters got maced and beaten.

Doug Singsen, an Occupy Wall Street activist and member of the International Socialist Organization, summed up the significance of the day:

Occupy Wall Street continues to pull in more people: workers, students, unemployed, everyone. If unions link up with occupations in other cities then this whole movement will deepen a great deal. [In New York] we have another labor rally a week from today that has the potential to be even bigger. And then there's an antiwar rally next weekend. So this shows no signs of stopping.

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