Unions Join Occupy Activists in Mass Protest Marches Across America

New York – The Occupy Wall Street movement — looking to show staying power after losing prime real estate in various cities — got a boost of support across the country Thursday from labor and progressive organizations in what union organizers said is the most visible sign that they’re working with the activists to press for change.

In New York, where the movement began and where protesters find themselves grappling with their next move after police removed them from Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, thousands took to the streets, protesting at the New York Stock Exchange, in the subways and along the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Whose streets? Our streets,” they chanted as they marched.

With police looking to disperse the Occupy encampments in several cities and polls suggest a dampening of enthusiasm among the American public, the movement sought to show its force Thursday with mass protests in cities across the country.

The protests in New York City — coming two days after police moved in to break up the encampment here — sparked at least 175 arrests and injuries to several police officers.

Unions that already have offered legal help, food and shower facilities in some cities coordinated events in more than a dozen cities Thursday with Occupy activists, calling on big banks to pay up to boost the slumping economy.

In Washington, protesters strolled from an encampment they’ve inhabited for weeks near the downtown business district to the Key Bridge in Georgetown, joined by union and MoveOn.org liberal activists.

The protests Thursday in many cities included bridges as a backdrop — mirroring President Barack Obama’s call for Congress to boost the economy by spending money on public projects. Indeed, the Washington protesters appeared at the same bridge where Obama appeared earlier this month to press Congress to pass his $447 billion jobs package, which calls for spending billions on road and bridge repair.

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“This is our way to join with the occupiers, the rest of the labor movement, community allies to declare a state of economic emergency in this country,” said Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which earlier this week endorsed Obama for re-election. “The confluence of building this jobs movement with what the Occupy movement is doing is a huge bonus to both efforts.”

Obama, however, has been a target of some of the protesters, who’ve said he’s too close to monied interests, and he and most Democrats have kept an arms’ length from the movement. Obama told ABC last month that the protests were “not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the tea party, I think people feel separated from their government, that the institutions aren't looking out for them,” he said.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” said there are risks as well as benefits to the unions _ and to Democrats.

“These rallies have captured the imagination, enthusiasm and youth, something labor needs to do more of,” Dine said. “The risk is that that labor risks being held responsible or tarred, fairly or unfairly, if these events spiral out of control.”

And Dine noted that the Occupy movement has shown itself to be uninterested in getting too close to the political system _ where unions play a role in campaigning for candidates.

“It’s a balancing act for labor to help with these movements without being seen by Occupy Wall Street as co-opting it, and it’s also a balancing act to get the benefit without the risk,” he said.

Protesters in New York said they were pleased with the company. Frances Mercanti-Anthony, 34, who was staffing a park bench in Foley Square with books and a cardboard sign reading “People's Library,” noted that the unions marched with the protesters in their third week of organizing. Their presence, she said, “lends an air of legitimacy to the movement.”

She said she believes the unions also help with the New York Police Department. And she noted, “A big reason why we're here is we're fighting for workers' rights.”

Marshall Ganz, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, suggested that Occupy has already made its mark on American political discourse by directing public attention to unemployment and income inequality.

He suggested a likeness to the environmental movement that began with Earth Day in 1970 and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency later that year.

“What Earth Day did was confront the country with the need to act,” Ganz said. “It’s more than raising awareness. It’s creating moral urgency. It’s like, ‘You know what folks, this needs to be dealt with, and it’s not going to go away.’“


In some areas, the movement hasn’t created much urgency.

In Kansas City, Mo., OccupyKC protesters were planning a demonstration on a bridge over busy Interstate 70 at evening rush hour. But otherwise, the out-of-the way encampment on parkland across from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City was as quiet as it’s been since the protest started.

“Damn, we can't get arrested for nothing around here,” said a 39-year-old artist who identified himself as Pablo G. Unlike in other cities, police have not demanded that OccupyKC campers clear out; some 30 tents were there Thursday.

After two months, the New York protests continued to draw fans: Angela Roberts, 44, a legal secretary who made it through the police barricades Thursday morning, called the protests a “show of force.

“You can see that it's making a difference,” she said. “With all the greed on Wall Street, it’s good to see people out and fighting against greed.”

(Clark reported from Washington; Palmer, a McClatchy special correspondent, from New York. Mike Hendricks of the Kansas City Star contributed.)

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