Occupy Wall Street, unions get their activism together
The Occupy Wall Street protests that began as a nebulous mix of social and economic grievances are becoming more politically organized — with help from some of the country’s largest labor unions.
Labor groups are mobilizing to provide office space, meeting rooms, photocopying services, legal help, food and other necessities to the protesters. The support is lending some institutional heft to a movement that has prided itself on its freewheeling, non-
And in return, Occupy activists are pitching in to help unions ratchet up action against several New York firms involved in labor disputes with workers.
In one case, Occupy activists have helped union workers disrupt the rarified environs of Sotheby’s art auction house, which is engaged in a contract dispute with about 40 of its art handlers.
A joint demonstration of Occupy activists and telephone workers is planned for Friday to target Verizon, and Occupy organizers say more unions are reaching out to a newly formed labor relations committee to ask for help in planning future actions.
The coordination represents a new chapter for the anti-Wall Street activists, who have expressed anger at establishment forces in both major political parties and eschewed the traditional grass-roots organizing tactics long deployed by labor unions.
It also suggests an evolution for organized labor, which retains close ties to President Obama and the Democratic Party but sees the Occupy protests as a galvanizing moment. Some union officials concede that their efforts to highlight income inequality and other economic concerns have fallen short, scoring few victories with a White House that many on the left see as too close with Wall Street.
“Our members have been trying to have this discussion about Wall Street and the economy for a long time,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an interview. “This movement is providing us the vehicle.”
Leaders in both camps acknowledge that joining forces does not necessarily make for an easy marriage. Some Occupy activists consider it a chance to push the increasingly weak union movement into a more aggressive posture.
“We’re hoping this will inspire them to take on more militant tactics,” said Jackie DiSalvo, an Occupy Wall Street organizer who has been coordinating with labor. “The fact that they’re willing to support more militant tactics might mean that they’re willing to start doing more.”
In the case of Sotheby’s, Occupy activists have attended auctions in recent days, masquerading as clients. They have stood up abruptly to disrupt proceedings with loud accusations that the company reaps millions in profits and rewards executives with handsome raises while refusing its unionized workers’ requests for better pay and benefits.
Occupy activists also showed up at a Manhattan restaurant owned by a prominent Sotheby’s board member, clinking on beer glasses to quiet the crowd and then denouncing the company as a “union buster.” A video of the scene was posted on YouTube.