Unions Assume A Support Role For Occupy Movement

Oct 29, 2011
Originally published on October 30, 2011 1:10 pm

Attend just about any of the Occupy Wall Street-inspired protests across the country and you're likely to see a group of people dressed in matching union T-shirts somewhere in the crowd. Typically, they're older than your average Occupy protester but no less enthusiastic in their chanting.

"I've been doing this [protesting] for five decades," said Mike Wisniewski at a recent Occupy Philadelphia protest at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Wisniewski says he's a university library employee and has been a union member since 1972.

Labor unions have become a growing force in the Occupy movement. That shouldn't be surprising since the movement is succeeding at advancing a message unions have been trying to convey for a long time: that the ultra-wealthy are taking more than their fair share.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered a speech on Wall Street shortly after he took office in 2009. "Our economy falters and people suffer," he said then. "But the richest 1 percent — they're living high on the hog."

Cautiously Joining Forces

That sounds similar to the "We are the 99 percent" message of Occupy protesters.

"As Occupy Wall Street gathered steam it was sort of like, well, they're doing the same thing we were doing; we better be part of this," says Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel at the AFL-CIO.

The unions and Occupy protesters didn't immediately warm up to each other though. Before getting too involved, the unions had to be sure the movement was here to stay and that protests would remain nonviolent, according to Cornell University Labor Studies Professor Richard Hurd.

"And the protesters certainly don't want the labor movement to come in and take over their movement," says Hurd. "They feel that they own it, they started it, they created some energy around it."

So far the unions seem satisfied playing a supporting role.

"I think we know that this is a movement led by students and we're not leading this movement as union people," says Paul Dannenfelser, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1723.

Dannenfelser and union leaders across the country are participating in labor outreach committees set up by Occupy protesters. He says he has regular, informal meetings with organizers of Occupy Philadelphia.

Welcoming Union Support, But Wanting More

Downtown, in front of City Hall, there are several dozen tents set up, along with two lending libraries, a place to receive medical care and an area for artists to hang out. Protesters here welcome union involvement.

"I feel like the 99 percent involves a lot of people, and that includes the unions," says Leila Wright, a protester from West Philadelphia. "I've marched with them and I support them."

"They [unions] are the spinal cord of the left; they're the backbone," says Stanley Joseph, who lives in northwest Philadelphia. "I think we're helping bring attention to their issues, just like we're bringing attention to many other issues."

Some of the protesters think unions should be playing an even larger role. Look around the Occupy Philadelphia site on a weekday afternoon and the only sign of unions are actual signs: There are posters everywhere that read "Workers rights are human rights," but no union tent or other permanent presence.

Marlene Bodner with the group Granny Peace Brigade says if unions really supported protesters, they'd be here.

"It would mean they'd have a table here and they'd be walking around and embedding themselves in this," she says, "and they're not."

AFSCME's Dannenfelser says unions don't have the resources to staff a tent day and night. But the AFL-CIO's Silvers says unions around the country are opening their halls to protestors who need a place to shower, and he says unions are providing legal help to protest organizers.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Income gap is the central theme of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and if you attend just about any of them around the country, you might see a group of people who are often dressed in matching t-shirts. They typically seem older than your average protester, but no less enthusiastic. NPR's Jeff Brady reports that labor unions are now finding a place in the Occupy movement.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Here's a familiar scene, noisy protesters angry at executive from big banks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

BRADY: The man behind the microphone blames the country's wealthiest 1 percent for keeping too much for themselves, but this is not an Occupy Wall Street protest. It's not even 2011. This is AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at a Chicago rally two years ago. You could be forgiven for thinking the message sounds similar.

DAMON SILVERS: Similar, yeah. I mean, they're identical essentially.

BRADY: Damon Silvers is policy director and special counsel at the AFL-CIO.

SILVERS: As Occupy Wall Street gathered steam it was sort of like, well, they're doing the same thing we were doing; we better be part of this.

BRADY: And while unions complain the media ignore them, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are leading newscasts and showing up on front pages. The two sides didn't immediately warm up to each other though. Cornell labor studies professor, Richard Hurd says unions had to be sure the Occupy movement was here to stay and that it would remain non-violent.

RICHARD HURD: And the protesters certainly don't want the labor movement to come in and take over their movement because they feel that they own it, they started it, they created some energy around it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

BRADY: So far the unions seem satisfied just supporting protests, like this one recently in Philadelphia. Paul Dannenfelser heads Local 1723 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

PAUL DANNENFELSER: I think we know that this is a movement led by students and we're not leading this movement as union people but we're a part of it and want to be a part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET SOUNDS)

BRADY: Downtown, in front of Philadelphia's City Hall, there are several dozen tents set up. Protester Leila Wright says unions fit in well with the Occupy movement.

LEILA WRIGHT: Like if you really understand capitalism, you understand why we're out here. You know what I mean? And I feel like the 99 percent involves a lot of people, and that includes the unions.

BRADY: Nearby, at the information tent, Stanley Joseph says unions and protesters are helping each other.

STANLEY JOSEPH: I think we're bringing attention to them and we're giving them a platform to make themselves heard. I think, my opinion, that this is what the greatest purpose; one of the greatest purposes of Occupy is to simply give people a platform to air their grievances.

BRADY: But look around the Occupy Philadelphia site on a weekday afternoon and the only sign of unions are actual signs. There are posters everywhere that read Workers rights are human rights, but no union tent or other permanent presence.

(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING HORN)

BRADY: Marlene Bodner with the group Grannies Peace Brigade says if unions really supported protesters, they'd be here.

MARLENE BODNER: It would mean they'd have a table here and they would be walking around and, you know, just embedding themselves in this, you know? And they're not.

BRADY: Union leaders say they don't have the resources to staff a tent day and night. But they are opening union halls to protesters who need a place to take a shower and they're providing legal help. Across the country Occupy protests also have set up labor outreach committees to coordinate with unions. And when the next big protest happens, you can bet union members will be there. In fact, there's a one planned at Temple University this afternoon. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.