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Occupy Wall Street, Powered by Big Labor

Can major unions help grow the fledgling protest movement into a force to be reckoned with?

| Wed Oct. 5, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

In fact, big labor has already been supporting Occupy Wall Street behind the scenes. SEIU 1199, in New York, recently delivered water and clothes to Occupy Wall Street protesters, as well as enough pizza to feed 200 people, spokeswoman Leah Gonzalez wrote in an email. The Amalgamated Transit Union is putting together a group of lawyers to offer legal help to Occupy Wall Street protesters if they need it, according to ATU president Larry Hanley. And ATU members are also joining the small but growing Occupy DC protests demanding an end to the flow of corporate cash in American politics.

The DNA of labor unions and of the loose-knit protest movement couldn't be more different.

Joining forces with an amorphous, leaderless group like Occupy Wall Street isn't easy, Hanley says. When officials with his union recently paid a visit to the protesters in Zuccotti Park to ask how to help, their biggest struggle was finding someone to speak with. But Hanley also sees the fluid nature of the protests as an asset, even if it makes collaboration challenging. "I think what that says is that there are very deep beliefs that are the underpinning this effort," Hanley says. "It's a bunch of people following not an individual but a set of beliefs."

No one really knows how helpful big labor's growing involvement will be. Micah Sifry, cofounder and editor of Personal Democracy Forum, says it's too early to tell how any collaboration might play out. "A one-day solidarity march isn't anything like deciding to stay and hold a public space for an open-ended period," he wrote in an email. "To me, the march in NYC is kind of like a date, not a wedding. If anything, it should help OWS reach more people and convert some to working by its methods."

The DNA of labor unions and of the loose-knit protest movement that came to life on September 17 couldn't be more different. Unions are by definition tightly organized, hierarchical, and run by officers and boards with a clear chain of command. Occupy Wall Street is the opposite. The Nation's Nathan Schneider described the movement's General Assembly as "a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought." It's possible the merger of the two could splinter and derail the protests rather than sustain them.

On the other hand, big labor and the Occupy protesters, joined together, could work to create a progressive movement that effectively taps into the rising feeling among many Americans that economic opportunity has been squashed by corporate greed and the influence of the very rich in politics. Part of that trend has been the weakening of unions—and they can't carry such a movement on their own. Perhaps in Occupy Wall Street they've found unlikely partners with whom to take up the cause.

Between visiting the protests and witnessing plenty of enthusiasm among union members, TWU's Marvin Holland is optimistic about the future of Occupy Wall Street, for now. "There is definitely something building with so many different groups," he says. "Whatever it is, I know that it's just the beginning."

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