Thousands of protesters gathered in Foley Square today as part of Occupy Wall Street’s largest event to date. Unions from the Transport Workers Union, SEIU 1199, and the United Federation of Teachers all joined the protest to voice their discontent at what they call a bailout of Wall Street, while working-class people are left to suffer under a system of austerity.
Ayman El-Sayed, a member of the nurses union, said he came to the protest to stand in solidarity with the Liberty Plaza activists. El-Sayed is having difficulty finding steady work in New York City, but he still tries to protest in between job-hunting.
“I come before work, I come after work when I can, but I find this Occupy Wall Street movement is important because it will help future workers: better benefits, get better jobs, get more stability, and not be neglected by their government, which bails out banks instead of bailing out workers.”
El-Sayed mentions the negative consequences of the city’s budget cuts, including the closing of the 400-bed St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers, which sealed its doors back in April.
“I wanted to be a nurse to contribute to my community, so I could pay my mortgage, pay my bills, raise my kids, but also help people and help my community,” he explains before addressing the media’s negative depiction of some of the protesters as pot-smoking hippies engaging in an endless drum circle.
“God bless these youth who are out here, because while I’m at work, they can hold it down till I can get off work and come down and stand with them. Everybody plays a role. Even if some of them are hippies, they’re Americans. They have a right to speak their opinion. I don’t care how they dress or what they do,” he says.
El-Sayed mentions he doesn’t believe either political party represents his interests, or “normal working people’s interests.” In fact, he’d like to see an independent movement grow from OWS. “I believe in third parties. I just hope we can build something out of this movement here—an alternative to the two-party system”
Witnessing OWS’s evolution over the course of only a few weeks is truly something to behold. In the first few days of the movement, it was extremely difficult to find accurate information about what the protesters stood for, or what was planned for the movement that day, let alone over the span of a longer arc. Now, Liberty Plaza is neatly divided into sections: the greeting desk where you can see the day’s schedule; the supply drop-off area where supporters can leave clean blankets, sleeping bags, and clothing; and then there’s the food and media centers. The group even has a press team that mingles during events to address any questions the media might have.
OWS also has its own newspaper now, the Occupy Wall Street Journal, available as a .pdf file here, though some observers have criticized the publication for its almost entirely male perspective.
While many unions attended the event in an official capacity, I ran into a couple young men who attended the protest sporting their union gear, even though their own local hadn’t voted to officially throw their weight behind OWS.
As members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, William and Carlos wanted to stand in solidarity with the young people of Liberty Plaza even as their union leaders drag their feet. William declared his intention to do so because to do anything but come down to the protest would be “complete cowardice.”
“We believe the union movement should be more involved in this protest,” William says. “We’re out here to show a lot of us are grassroots, democratically minded, and we do want to bring a union face to this movement.”
William blames a certain degree of anti-protest fervor among union members on an inflated sense of machismo. According to him, ever since Vietnam, when hard hats flooded the streets for the sole purpose of beating up young protesting college students, unions have sometimes adopted a sense of hostility toward activist youths.
“There’s always been this macho culture,” he says, “but I think there’s a more progressive slant moving into the union right now. At least, the people I’ve spoken with on my job support what I’m doing. Not all of them took the pay cut to come here.” (William had to leave work three hours early and had to sacrifice the remainder of his day’s wages to do so).
Carlos’s boss asked him if he was going to “join the hippies” when he announced his intent to join OWS. “I was like, no, we’re part of the 99 percent. If you have any kind of debt whatsoever, you’re part of the 99 percent.”
William nods in agreement. “I consider myself a patriotic person, and this is a patriotic protest…. [The protesters are] not anti-America. They’re trying to save America.”
“It’s like a generation is calling and you’re not gonna answer it?” Carlos asks a hypothetical naysayer, sitting on the couch at home. “That’s all I have to say.”
Mark Mannis, Marge Harrison and Helene Mannis, three retired schoolteachers, stand together at Foley Square, the end point of the OWS march. Mark used to teach in Queens, and says he came to the protest to support young people. “In our generation, things have been very good to us. We’re union members. Everything we are today is because we’re union members, and kids don’t have any possibility to progress at all,” he says.
His companion, Marge, is a retired schoolteacher from Nassau County, and she came to take part in the infectious spirit of the movement.
“I’m just so thrilled that the young people in the occupation have just sent an electric jolt of optimism through people who have been organizing for years around Afghanistan, Iraq, the budget, the deficit, all these issues that we’re confronting,” she says, adding that the right to collectively bargain is an essential right because without it, “you’re just flailing around.”
Helene chimes in that she agrees. “I’ve been waiting for the young people to finally rise up and really realize how the right wing is destroying this country, and all the dreams that people had for having a great America and caring about other people, and doing what’s right: taking care of the weaker. Not just taking care of the rich and powerful and the rest of us just get the crumbs on the floor.”
Various right-wing websites have depicted the unions’ decisions to join OWS as a sign that the traditional vehicle of the left, labor, plans to hijack the movement to implement their dastardly plan of ensuring pension plans and healthcare for all workers.
However, OWS organizers don’t see that nefarious plan as being possible, or even, you know, real.
Jeff Smith, an OWS organizer, seemed confused at the idea. “I don’t think there’s any chance of that, frankly,” he says.
A member of the press team for Occupy Wall Street, Mark Bray, agrees. “If you just look at it logistically, you look at where we’re set up, you look at the park, you look at what we actually do on a day-by-day basis with the General Assemblies, I don’t know how they would do that,” he says. “They’re using Occupy Wall Street as a means to get their message out and we welcome that.”