Union leaders say they feel vindicated by the Occupy Wall Street protests and are doing all they can to keep the movement going.
Years before the rallies began, union leaders frequently blamed the banking giants for the country’s economic woes. Labor officials have criticized CEOs’ large compensation packages; pushed for a financial transactions tax; and called for Wall Street bailout funds to be used for small business loans.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told The Hill that she found the protesters to be an “incredible inspiration” that have highlighted issues like pay inequality and social injustice.
“We have been talking about the increasing inequality in this county for a long time. I think what’s wonderful about the Occupy movement is that they captured this with … ‘We are the 99 percent.’ I feel like what we are doing is echoing a very smart thing that the occupiers began with,” Henry said.
Unions have been quick to lend a hand to the protests that have been springing up across the country.
On Friday, SEIU members and other unions participated in a march in Minneapolis to call on banks to end foreclosures. AFL-CIO members have also showed up at Occupy protests in Boston and St. Louis.
On October 7, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was on Wall Street to talk with protesters. Lee Saunders, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), attended protests in Washington. And Henry has sent out an email to her members nationwide to encourage them to attend protests inspired by Occupy Wall Street.
Even one of AFSCME’s local unions in Wisconsin made a donation to New York City’s Liberatos Pizza to help feed the Wall Street protesters.
“The increasing disparity in income between the wealthiest and everyone else in the country, the lack of good-paying jobs — these are the kind of things we have been talking about for a long, long time,” said Chuck Loveless, AFSMCE’s legislative director.
Labor has pitched in on the political side. On Thursday, Trumka released a strong statement criticizing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for planning to clear Zuccotti Park, which is in the city’s financial sector and where many of the protesters have camped out.
“Mayor Bloomberg runs the risk of standing on the wrong side of history tomorrow. It is clear that what is being threatened in Zuccotti Park is nothing but silencing the voices and stomping out the rights of Americans,” Trumka said.
The AFL-CIO also sent out an email alert out to its members nationwide Thursday, asking them to sign onto a petition that called upon Bloomberg not to end the protests. The mayor later postponed the park clearing.
Labor has a long history of staging protests outside financial centers.
In June, members of National Nurses United marched on the New York Stock Exchange. In April 2010, the AFL-CIO, SEIU and others organized a march on Wall Street that attracted 10,000 people, according to union estimates. And in October 2009, unions protested outside the Chicago convention of the American Bankers Association.
Further, labor has called for tough action against Wall Street.
Several unions were vocal proponents of the Wall Street reform bill. The AFL-CIO called for Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren calls on big banks to follow Capital One in ditching overdraft fees Crypto firm top executives to testify before Congress Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker won't seek reelection MORE — a financial sector critic that has not won the banks’ favor — to be recess-appointed as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
While their messages may be in synergy, union officials said that they do not want to take over the movement.
“We clearly are not attempting to insert ourselves as leaders of this. This is organic,” Loveless said. “We want to do what we can to support this effort. It's clearly something that didn't begin with us. It began on the ground all over this country.”
Henry said her union was focused on the end goal of improving the economy for all Americans.
“I think the key thing for our success here is that we don’t need to be worried about taking credit. We just need to be worried about how do we get wages increased and good jobs for all working people in this country,” Henry said.
Union officials said they plan to help the protesters as much as they can.
“We will stay in motion with our community organizations and allies and we will do whatever we can to support the continuation of the Occupy movement,” Henry said. “I think they are so good at serving each other and making the case of what the problem is in this country.”