Occupy Wall Street: Unions join protests. Will message change?

Union support offers Occupy Wall Street protesters organization and supplies. But will union involvement change the Occupy Wall Street movement's message?

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Christian Blackfeather Ruiz from Bronx, New York, searches for a spot to camp among participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests in lower Manhattan on Oct. 5, 2011 in New York. The protests, which started on Sept. 17 with a few dozen demonstrators who tried to pitch tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange, is now gaining key support from labor unions in New York and beyond.

In New York City and beyond, the Occupy Wall Street movement is starting to get support from organized labor and, with it, access to important resources. But the support could change the focus of the loosely knit group, making it even harder for organizers to rally around a single message.

Several New York area unions endorsed the movement, making plans to join in on Occupy Wall Street rallies.

In Boston, the Greater Boston Labor Council endorsed the movement as did the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

And at least one international union, the Amalgamated Transit Union ATU in Washington, D.C., with union locals in the United States and Canada, pledged its support.

“The ATU applauds the Occupy Wall Street activists for their courage and strength to expose the greed and corruption on Wall Street as the rest of America struggles to survive,” said ATU President Larry Hanley in a press release.

Until now, the “Occupy” protests have operated as a loose coalition of activist groups, with varying messages across different rallies. Union involvement could be just what it needs to coalesce into a unified movement.

“Union support brings resources,” says David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies protest movements. “They have money, experienced organizers, membership lists, and coherent agendas.”

The ATU, for example, pledged to provide support to the Wall Street protests through donations of food and supplies.

The trick, however, is for the “Occupy” protesters not to be caught up in an agenda that caters specifically to the labor unions. “The challenge, now, for the Occupiers is to benefit from all the unions can offer, while still maintaining focus on what they are protesting for,” Dr, Meyer says.

In Boston on Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of nurses from all over the state were expected to rally in the city’s Dewey Square area in support of the ongoing Occupy Boston protests. The rallies appear to be spreading into the city’s sizable college-age population: Students at Northeastern University, Boston University, Tufts, and several other schools around the city planned a noon walkout Wednesday.

In New York, a local chapter of the Transport Workers’ Union, an organization that represents workers on buses, subway lines, and several airlines, endorsed the protests.

“The Transport Workers Union Local 100 applauds the courage of the young people on Wall Street who are dramatically demonstrating for what our position has been for some time: the shared sacrifice preached by government officials looks awfully like a one-way street,” a statement on the TWU Local 100 website read Wednesday. “We support the Wall Street protesters and their goal to reduce inequality and support every American’s right to a decent job, health care, and retirement security.”

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